This post is likely to make people very uncomfortable. Please bear with me. Let’s think about what happens when we don’t proselytize and why we don’t proselytize.
It is extremely common to say “Quakers don’t proselytize.” I don’t know when this idea originated, since the early Friends were extremely evangelistic. (What do you think Fox was doing, interrupting sermons, if not evangelizing? Or Solomon Eccles when he went naked through Smithfield Market? Or Mary Fisher & Elizabeth Williams in Cambridge?) There was a great people to be gathered, after all.
A year ago, I encountered a comment on one of Callid Keefe-Perry’s YouTube videos. It said:
If Quakers are so “progressive”, why is the Society of Friends still so overwhelmingly White and Middle/upper Middle class? Either your “outreach” programs are unbelievably nonproductive or you just don’t want anyone but middle/upper middle class White (and North European White preferably) people to join you.
Ouch. I reacted defensively and dismissively. “We don’t proselytize!” I speculated that it’s because proselytizing’s presumptuous or something. But it stuck with me. We often don’t have outreach programs. We wait for people to come to us, then meet them on our side of the threshold. Does not proselytizing mean the second half of his “or” is correct? “You just don’t want anyone but middle/upper middle class White (and North European White preferably) people to join you.”
(Side note: someone always interjects at this point about Friends in Africa. “There are Black Quakers there and white ones here” is describing segregation. Let’s not endorse that, ok?)
A few months later, I picked up the book Autopsy of a Deceased Church at my local LivingWell store (it’s a Seventh Day Adventist store with lots of vegetarian goodies). It was on sale for $5. Maybe there’d be something interesting. There it was, in black and white:
But here’s the bigger issue. Even if the church began to grow on its own, the members of the dying church would only accept the growth if the new members were like them and if the church would continue to “do church” the way they wanted it.
That reality, when it is all said and done, is likely at the heart of the issue. Members of the dying churches really didn’t want growth unless that growth met their preferences and allowed them to remain comfortable.
Ouch, again. That really jived with the accusation leveled in the YouTube comments. In fact, earlier this year I heard someone describe a particular Quaker meeting that way! I can’t remember which one now, and please refrain from speculating. Having friends in many yearly meetings and being on my yearly meeting’s Advancement & Outreach Committee, I hear a lot about outreach & welcoming new people from all across North America and Britain.
So, maybe that’s something we need to ask ourselves. We’re big on queries, right? Do we “not proselytize” because we’re afraid of who might join us?
That YouTube comment set me on this outreach ministry.
Proselytizing vs Evangelizing
I said before that early Friends did a lot of evangelizing. Proselytizing gets a bad rap. A lot of tactics are frankly obnoxious. And depending on the dictionary you use and how many definitions it lists, it may or may not imply trying to change someone’s beliefs, versus simply promoting a cause.
But evangelize? Evangelize means “share good news.” The “angel” in there means messenger, just like “angel” means in the Bible. I like giving people good news. I don’t especially like being the bearer of bad news. Good news sounds, um, good.
What’s the “good news” Jesus preached according to the Bible and George Fox preached in the 17th century? The Kingdom of God is within you. We have direct access to the Divine. It’s here. It’s not “pie in the sky by-and-by when you die.”
To anyone who’s had oppressive religious structures forced upon them growing up, the news that “it’s here! You can access it! You don’t need a priest or a pastor or a bishop to give the go-ahead!”? That’s pretty liberating. That’s good news. We’ve got a good thing, but we’re often afraid to share it.
So, maybe we don’t proselytize, don’t attempt to convert, but we can share something that’s good in our lives.
A recently convinced Friend in the Pacific Northwest said to me a few weeks back:
I don’t understand how Quakers wouldn’t share how they gather and worship or whatever word they give to worship. It seems just a natural part of life. Are they just selfish and don’t want strangers in their cool kids club?
—Kendra Mason Purcell
Aw, man! There’s another “ouch.” We’re so keen on not imposing that we’re felt as selfish? Eek! I guess if I had a really great apple pie (and my apple pie is pretty great) and never shared it, that would be called selfish. Why is sharing the thing that makes my heart sing any different?