Evangelism and Proselytizism: As Different as Night and Day

There has been an effort to blur the distinction between these two words for a while now; certain groups have gain cultural control over religious language, fueled in part by the general disinterest in being associated with such groups. The self-proclaimed Evangelicals have polluted that word, but those of you who have visited our site before probable know by now that we aren’t inclined to give it up.

Night is a period of time when there is less light; fewer things are open; there are fewer options and many people consider it normal to close themselves in and fall asleep.

Day is a period when the sun is up and it is (usually) much brighter; things are open and it is more pleasant to be out; it is normal for people to be around others and to experience the world.

In another sense, though, “Day” is a period of 24 hours, which includes both the day and night as described above. In this sense, “Day” takes on a very different, broader meaning.

So it is with Proselytism and Evangelism: one is about closing things and one is about opening, but from a certain perspective, the one still encompassed the other.

Evangelism, despite its cultural ties to Christianity, is a Greek word much older than Joshua of Nazareth. “Euangelion” was a word that denoted a message of good news, which is how the teaching of Jesus was often described to the early Greek churches. The fact that this was a known word at the time of the writing of the Bible’s Gospels proves that they did not own the word in their time, and we should not allow them to do so today. We cannot deny the effect Christianity has had on our culture and thus the language we speak, but we can refuse to let that effect restrict us.

The English word for telling someone about an idea which we believe will make their life better, especially in a spiritual context, is Evangelism. I would hope that every person who adheres to a religion believes that it can be a force for good in their life, and maybe also in the lives of others. Evangelism is trying to inform someone of an option with the goal of improving their life in some way.

The word Proselytize also comes from the Greek “proserkhesthai” which literally  translates into, “to associate with or surrender to”, and into Latin where it meant to convert. In English, it is understood to mean a religious conversion, but is also acceptable when speaking of a political one.

In a strictly religious sense, to proselytize is to convert by coercion; to tell someone they are wrong and that they need to convert to your system of thinking and/or living to be right. This is about giving information, but it isn’t about giving options in a genuine way, but instead about leading someone to a conclusion you have already drawn for them. It is as much about the labels as it is about the heart and mind. Proselytization is about membership in a group, which is an essential tenant of some religions so that one receives the proper sacraments. That is not my religion, and that is not what I advocate.

Now, to tell someone that they are wrong by default opens the door to sharing your “good news” of how to fix it. In that regard, I cannot deny that most forms of Proselytizing include Evangelism, but that is much the same as saying that chocolate chip cookies often contain some vanilla; it wouldn’t be the same with out it, but it isn’t fair to put it in the name, either.

Liberal evangelism is about opening hearts and minds. It is about saying, “This is a good way, because…” without condemnation. It is about inviting people to a relationship and an exploration rather than an indoctrination. It is about encouraging change without dictating exactly what that change will look like. We share our good news, and let the message do the work.

I don’t care if you join my church. I am not telling you that you should be a Unitarian Universalist, though I hope you’ll consider it. I’m doing what I am called to do as long as I get through to you that you are a person with inherent worth and dignity, like every other person, and that we have both the collective power and responsibility to create a world that offers everyone justice, equity, and compassion. That’s my good news, and you don’t need to be any particular religion, or any at all, to be part of making it happen.

To me, that difference means an awful lot.
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