Proximity over Proselytizing

I have never been a very good proselytizer. For one, I am not sure I think it is a very good idea to force people to change religions because I think that I have found the Truth. On the other hand I also believe that the world is in need of a savior and that Jesus Christ has saved and transformed my life. It is Good News that I desire to share and find it unethical not to share with someone this Good News that found me.

So many of us do not know what to do with the action of proselytizing too because it has been used in very harmful ways. Converting people has been justification to promote all sorts of harmful things from colonialism to white supremacy, from slavery to angry Christians yelling “turn or burn”. Christian conversion has a bit of a baggage.

So what is one to do with the commandment to make disciples? Are we to ignore this Great Commission of Christ?

Rather than proselytizing, perhaps Christianity should focus on proximity.

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As I read the Gospel stories of Jesus, he is most able to convert hearts to the kingdom of God not by proselytizing them, but by being in close proximity to them. He befriends the tax collector and the sinner. He shakes hands with the scandalous and allows the unclean to touch him. He elevates children and honors women. Just being in his presence, being in proximity to him, Jesus converts many.

It is not that we are to avoid the Great Commission to make disciples. It is that we are to be aware of how we do this. We follow Jesus who did not proselytize the non-converted but was in proximity with all.

God Winks and Blinks

Recently I received a letter and the author shared a story. The person described a series of events and then concluded that the sequence of events was what they might call a “God wink”. Some people might encounter the same sequence of events and see no connection, only random and serendipity at play. And maybe that is all that it is, random.

This is where cultural anthropology might be helpful.

Clifford Geertz is a Anthropologist who argues that anyone studying a culture needs to have a “thick description” of that culture. The thick description gives robust descriptions of behaviors with the hopes that the anthropologist might understand the significance of these behaviors. It was described to me that a thick description is being able to tell the difference between a wink and a blink. The movements are the same, but the meaning is different.

While one person might see someone randomly blinking their eyes, the one who has sat with this culture does not see random blinks, but winks of communication.

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If I can stretch the metaphor just bit more: It takes a long time to develop a thick description of a culture. You have to sit, listen, observe and watch. It takes years of intentional work to learn a new human culture and even then there is still more to discover.

Maybe the actions of the world or in the relayed story are random blinks, I don’t know. What I do know is that I am only now beginning to discern that God winks.

The Church as a World Changing Agent

There are many who see the Church as an agent for social change. It is an organization that is called to impact the world and some believe that by changing policy or the law of the land is a very appropriate role of the Church.

The intermingling of Church and State is an interesting line. Some say that it is not okay to have the symbols of the State (such as the flag) in the sanctuary. While others are okay with it. Some argue that symbols of the state are okay in the worship setting, but find it inappropriate for the Church to “talk politics” in worship. There is not one side that has a monopoly on being inconsistent in the separation of Church and State. It is a human thing. If you believe something then you will justify all the means to achieve the desired end. Even do something that you would not allow those who disagree with you to do.

Christians do not have a monopoly on hypocrisy, but humans do.

In all our efforts to change the world “out there” it has become clear to me that a dwindling number of people join in the Spirit’s work to change the world “in here”. That is, we see the problems in the world beyond us and are blind to the problems within us.

The Church is an agent for change, but the change the Church is most equipped to address is the change within. As it is said by Thomas Merton in the book The Wisdom of the Desert:

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

The Church is an agent for great change. Perhaps the greatest change is the change of heart that Christ works in us. The change of action that repentance calls us to. The change of reaction that forgiveness gives us.

Few disagree that we should “be the change we wish to see in the world.” The question is what world are we talking about? Too often we only think of the world out there and ignore the world within.

Comic-Con Teaches Us About Bible Reading

Recently I came across a 2009 post which highlights for me a larger conversation in the world of fans. The post speaks of two different types of fans - affirmational fandom and transformational fandom.

(Hang with me this is really about how we read the Bible.)

As I understand it, these two types of fandom relate the the source material differently. Affirmational fans will memorize the source material and correct you if you are wrong. Affirmational fans might tell you that Dumbledore is an Old English word for “bumblebee and would be able to tell you what Voldemort would see if he looked at a boggart. The affirmational fan is about details and more details. They get these details from source material. The Harry Potter books, J.K. Rolling interviews, reading and making connections that are justified by the original source. The affirmational fan is what we think of when we think of a fan.

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If affirmational fans see the source material as the end of the conversation on a topic, the transformational fans sees the same material as a jumping off point. If is the transformational fan that might write fan-fiction, stories inspired by but not rigidly bound to the source. It is the transformational fan that might point out some of the shortcomings and oversights in the original and make a case to correct it. For instance, the transformational fan might point out the lack of racial diversity in the Harry Potter series and make a story of the founding wizards being people from non-anglo DNA.

You can see where the affirmational fan might take offense. What sort of person would take it upon themselves to make up a story about Ravenclaw being from China when clearly she was from England.

Here is the kicker - Affirmation and transformative fans are both fans. They are both expressing their devotion to a story in very beautiful ways. It might be said that one might not be able to be a transformative fan without appreciating the affirmational fan. And even the most ardent affirmational fan likes to imagine themselves in the story (even though they clearly are not a character in the book).

Likewise, Affirmational Bible readers and Transformational Bible readers are still big Bible readers. You may think that being a Christian is to know the details and the specific rules as a way to mark you as a true disciple. You might think that being a Christian means to know the stories of Jesus and then to have the imagination to dream what new thing God might be doing - even if it is seen as a deviation from the affirmational Bible readers idea of what it means to be a Christian.

Too often I find people who want to be a transformational bible reader but are squashed by the affirmational bible reader. Too often I find transformational bible readers rolling their eyes at the affirmational bible reader. The truth is that we need both the affirmational and the transformational bible readers. We need people to lift up the details and the source canon and we need others who will point out the flaws within the canon and imagine stories that can address the flaws.