“Kelly, what does proselytize mean?”
“Evangelize, but with negative connotations.”
I had to ask my wife one Sunday night because the word came up in a discussion with a local Christian business leader.
I’ll paraphrase what he said: “In my company, we believe in the power of entrepreneurship to create flourishing communities. And I’m very open about my Christian faith with my employees when it comes up. But I would never engage in proselytization.”
When he said it, I mostly agreed. The word just sounds like a rude, arm-twisting – or possibly even an illegal activity. Encroaching on other people’s beliefs makes many of us feel uncomfortable at worst and often offended. It’s usually a good way to seriously tick off your co-workers.
But what does “proselytize” even mean? I looked it up in the dictionary and here’s what I got:
pros·e·lyt·ize ˈpräs(ə)ləˌtīz/verb: convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another
Well, that’s interesting. This word simply means trying to change somebody’s beliefs or opinions from one view to another.
When I read this, I had to ask myself: aren’t all of us constantly trying to convert someone from one set of beliefs to another? I mean, if we’re honest, isn’t this what is constantly happening in advertising, media, and even conversations with friends?
For example, Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary Before the Flood is clearly trying to influence people to care deeply about climate change. And he’s not apologizing for that. He believes in the catastrophic consequences of inaction for our planet. And he wants the apathetic or the climate change skeptic to be converted from one belief to another.
Or take actress and activist Emma Watson. She recently went to a train station in England and gave away over 100 copies of Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom. As a “book fairy” for the day, she also included a short note inside encouraging readers to pass it on. Her motivation was to get as many people as possible to read about inequality. Her campaigns for the United Nations have advocated for feminism, the protection of young girls against child marriage, and fighting a rape culture. A noble woman, to be sure. And she’s not apologizing that she’s attempting to convert you to her views either.
Beyond Hollywood stars, isn’t the act of proselytization simply a natural, human act? When you receive an email from Costco, aren’t they trying to convince you to buy their products? Weren’t hundreds of millions of dollars spent on political advertising trying to “convert us” to vote for a particular candidate? Doesn’t my daughter try to change my beliefs when she asks for a cookie before bed?
It seems to me that a primary use of all human communication is to influence people to adopt your beliefs. Some philosophers have even postulated that in all human relationships we attempt to exert power or influence on others. To Daniel Pink’s point, to sell is human.
But can we at least admit that we’re all trying to convert others to our beliefs? Even those who say it’s wrong to convert others to your beliefs, ironically, are trying to convert you to that belief!
Back to the specific topic at hand: sharing your Christian beliefs in the workplace. A few things to note for my fellow Christians:
- We should never try to coerce others. People in positions of leadership need to be careful about sharing their faith with employees simply because it can be construed as “to be accepted around here, you need to be a Christian.” That’s no good. Belief should never be a pre-condition to acceptance. The truth is, God doesn’t coerce us but is patient with us and allows for us to respond freely to him. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” If God gives us free will and time to respond, should we not do the same for others?
- Let’s not be angry when faith comes up. I’ve seen many Christians get ticked off at the topic of faith in the workplace. They cite their first amendment rights to freedom of religion – while on the verge of busting a vein in their necks. Again, no need for this to become a political fight. If it does, it shows that the real issue at stake is a political issue – not theological.
- Gentleness and respect should adorn our faith conversations with co-workers. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” says Peter. I’m afraid to say that this has not always been the case for people of Christian faith in the public arena. (I’m practicing the art of understatement). Instead humility, openness, and respect – along with a robust adherence to the truth we profess – ought to shape our interactions with those of other faiths.
To be honest, I’ve never liked the word proselytization. I won’t be using it anytime soon. But it is worth admitting that all people proselytize. Including Christians.
Evangelize is a much better word. The word comes from the Greek euaggellion, meaning simply “good news.” The word is equally noxious in our secular culture, but it shouldn’t be. Why not? Let me tell a brief story:
For the past two weeks as I have been driving to work, I’ve listened to the Christmas song, “Mary Did You Know?” After the tears welled up in my eyes for a week straight, I decided to commit the lyrics to memory so I could sing it to my daughters before they go to bed.
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered, will soon deliver you.
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.
The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the Lamb.
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s Perfect Lamb?
That sleeping child you’re holding is the Great I Am.
Last night, I finished singing it to Sierra, my oldest daughter, before we fell asleep. As we both looked at the Christmas tree night light, she said to me with a little grin as I finished the song, “I like that song, daddy.”
“I do too, my love.”
As we prayed together, I thanked God for that person who first “evangelized” me in high school. As Christmas approaches, I felt a deep gratitude – even to have become a proselyte.
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This post was published December 23, 2016
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.