Non-Proselytizing Evangelism: The Heart of the Church

by The Rev. Ken Howard

This is a busy week for FaithX (a major webinar and two videocast presentations at a major conference). So we are publishing one of Ken Howard’s earlier blog posts on the difference between evangelism and proselytizing.

When I broach the subject of evangelism to members of my own Anglican-Episcopal tradition, I get two distinct kinds of responses, depending on whether the hearers are conservative or liberal in their theology. Conservatives Anglicans, while a distinct minority in the denomination, are pretty gung-ho on the evangelism thing. The notion of non-proselytizing is almost completely foreign to them. They make jokes like, “to most Episcopalians evangelism is a ‘four-letter word,'” and try to encourage the rest of us to get out there and start making converts for Christ. Liberal (and even moderate) Anglicans, on the other hand, tend to be rather uncomfortable with the whole idea of evangelism. Oddly enough, they tell the same evangelism jokes as conservatives but they sound a bit more nervous when they do, because to them it really does feel like a four-letter word.

Several years ago, when I began to suggest the possibility of a non-proselytizing evangelism, my clergy colleagues looked at me I had just started to speak in tongues. My liberal friends were like, “Is it even possible to engage in evangelism without proselytizing? And do we even want to do it if it isn’t?” Meanwhile, my conservative friends were like, “Why would anyone even want to do that? Isn’t proselytizing the point?” And both of them were like, “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”

Indeed, the two terms do sound a little discordant when we first try to say them together. I’m guessing that’s because evangelism equals proselytizing is pretty much the only kind of evangelism paradigm that the Church and most of its members has in its institutional memory. Most of us have no other concept of evangelism other than as a way to convert people: to get them to change their religious affiliation from another faith tradition to Christianity or even (sadly) from one Christian denomination to another. But I prefer to think of it as more of a paradox than an oxymoron. Because it wasn’t always this way…

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