July 27, 1996 in Features

Matter Of Respect Evangelizers Telling Their Message Of Faith Should Back Off When Others Express Disinterest

Loraine O'Connell Orlando Sentinel
 

‘Are you happy with yourself?”

That was the question posed by a co-worker to my friend David recently.

David knew what was coming. As a Jew, he had heard this pitch before.

Sure enough, his co-worker launched into a speech about how he had never been truly happy until he “found the Lord Jesus Christ.”

David said what he has said many times before: “Good for you. I think everybody should have his faith.”

But, true to form, the colleague persisted in his zealotry, insisting that David consider this point or that point about Christianity.

“He wouldn’t stop,” David recalls. “Finally he said, ‘On Judgment Day, in your case it’ll be like going to a movie theater without a ticket. If you don’t choose Jesus as your savior, you’re going to hell.”’ That was it. David had had enough.

“There are millions of other things for us to talk about,” he told his proselyter. “We shouldn’t talk about this anymore.”

David also pointed out that being told he’s destined for hell offended him and that the co-worker should be careful about what he says to people.

The co-worker said he hadn’t meant to offend; he just had a “gift to share.”

This is a scenario likely to play out more and more often, thanks to the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution last month encouraging the conversion of Jews. And it’s a scenario likely to wound friendships and workplace relationships unless evangelizers and the rest of us work hard at respecting each other.

Jews aren’t the only ones subjected to proselytizing, of course; most of us have been visited by the door-to-door sales force known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And we all have our individual ways of dealing with evangelism.

Some people react rudely. Others politely explain that they’re not interested.

I prefer politeness, and I expect it from my evangelizing brethren. Alas, too many of them are so consumed by their religious fervor that, like David’s colleague, they forget they live in America, where diversity is a cornerstone, rather than in Iran or some other theocracy, where religion comes in one brand only.

Telling people they’re going to hell because they don’t believe the way you do isn’t going to win you any converts. It’s more likely to alienate them.

You may be heavenbound in the next life, but in this one you could be dealing every day with people you’ve thoroughly insulted.

Joel Thornton is an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal group founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. Thornton says evangelizers are bound to offend people.

“The basic nature of Christianity, more so than any other religion in the world, is that it’s exclusive,” says Thornton, who is based in Georgia.

“You either believe it or you’re wrong. That’s the bottom message of the gospel Jesus preached.

“But there’s a way to present that message that’s not as offensive as saying, ‘You’re going to hell.”’ In fact, Thornton would like to see more churches give classes in appropriate evangelizing.

“I don’t think most churches teach people how to share their faith,” he says.

Wayne Johnson, a spokesman for First Baptist Church of Orlando, sees the Baptist Convention resolution “as a statement of loving concern for Jewish people, not a command to go out and pounce.”

I say when you’re confronted by a pouncing evangelizer who is inconsiderate enough to say, “You’re going to hell,” follow David’s example: Speak up.

“People must be respectful of one another’s faiths,” says Susan Glickman, Florida director of People for the American Way, a civil liberties group. “But we all should feel very comfortable in standing firm and not being subjected to proselytizing that makes us uncomfortable.”

If a colleague is a Christian who won’t take “not interested” for an answer, Glickman says, “go to the head of the company or a supervisor and discuss the situation and ask for some resolution.”

Evangelistic Christians are entitled to their beliefs, and they’re entitled to share their beliefs. But non-Christians are equally entitled to say, “No, thanks,” and have that response respected.

As Glickman notes: “There’s a fine line between witnessing for your faith and attempting to push it on others who have a tradition of their own.”

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