Some Confessions of a Past Proselytizer
I remember how stressful it was for me, as a child and young adult, to believe I “had to” attempt to convert others to Christianity–specifically the evangelical variety I grew up in, which those in my community took to be most authentic expression of the faith. As a result of my introversion and moral and intellectual qualms, my proselytizing efforts were as a rule halfhearted at best. Something about this way of interacting with other people always rubbed me the wrong way, even though I would only later learn to articulate my concerns in terms of objectification.
To be sure, I felt guilt and shame over my discomfort with trying to convert others. Evangelicals can and often do pull out Bible verses like Romans 1:16 and Luke 9:26 to manipulatively warn us against being “ashamed of the gospel.” And yet making people into projects always felt wrong, and some evangelical approaches to conversion–see, for example, the notion of “friendship evangelism“–make this objectification absolutely overt.
In any case, I never learned to feign the confidence of the rabid street preacher, the aggressive online apologist, or the slick foreign missionary, although in 1999 and 2000 I participated in two short-term youth mission trips to Russia with the Greenwood, Indiana based organization OMS International (now rebranded as One Mission Society). If you want to know more about that, I’m finally spilling the beans in my contribution to Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, an anthology of personal essays by former conservative Christians I co-edited with my friend Lauren O’Neal.
Responding to Proselytizing When You’re the Target
Anyway, these days, I sometimes find myself on the other side of the evangelizing equation, and encounters with those seeking to missionize me can be stressful. I know I’m not alone in that. Looking back at my younger evangelical self, I can only hope that due to my considerable incompetence at evangelism I inflicted minimal trauma on others. Whether they come in the form of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons knocking at the door, fear-mongering tracts being left on your windshield, or evangelical aggression in “real life” or on social media, being targeted for evangelism is awkward. And sometimes, for those of us who have left high-demand religions like evangelicalism, it can be downright triggering.
Who among us, after all, hasn’t gotten that DM or text from an old evangelical friend who “just wants to go out for coffee,” fully knowing that’s not all they really want but not being sure how to respond? Evangelicals are not just notorious for not respecting people’s boundaries and autonomy in this regard, but often also launch into outright gaslighting, telling us we were “never really saved,” that we “took the easy way out” by opting for a life of pleasure, or that we “just don’t understand” Christianity.
Everything about these behaviors is objectifying, manipulative, and abusive. But when you find yourself in one of these situations, you may find your mind reverting to the old scripts and adding to your mental and emotional distress. Deconstructing toxic beliefs is a long-term process, and healing from the trauma of a toxic religious upbringing can be a life-long endeavor. It helps to have strategies in place to counter the lingering evangelical self-talk and to respond to triggering situations. One such strategy consists of coming up with new scripts and mantras to replace the old ones.
Anti-Proselytizing Principles: A Script in Support of Autonomy
When it comes to the toxic dynamics of evangelism in particular, I’ve been able to reframe my understanding in a way that empowers me to assert my moral autonomy in the face of objectification from a believer who wishes to convert me. At the urging of an anonymous friend and colleague who gave me access to software for producing infographics, I’ve distilled my narrative about proselytizing into a few brief points you may also find helpful. If you do, feel free to download and distribute the infographic below far and wide.
The six points listed above are the result of a lot of thinking and engagement with aggressive evangelicals, particularly online, that I’ve undertaken in recent years. Evangelicalism teaches us to reject moral autonomy, which leads to the ends justifying the means. Evangelicalism lacks a concept of consent, and as a result, evangelicals tend to lack the ability to respect others’ boundaries.
Using these six anti-proselytizing principles as conversation starters may or may not help you to convince the evangelicals (or other fundamentalists) in your life to respect your autonomy and your boundaries, but they should at least serve to remind you that you are your own person, your own story belongs to you, and you have every right to assert boundaries and to cut people out of your life if they refuse to respect them.
I am not your mission field. This first point is so important to me that I named this blog Not Your Mission Field as a means of asserting my autonomy and defiantly refusing to be objectified by those who would seek to convert me back to evangelicalism, or, for that matter, to anything else. For readers who may not be aware, the term “mission field” refers to an area targeted by missionaries for conversion efforts. If someone is targeting you for evangelism, you don’t have to follow their script. You can refuse to be their mission field.
I don’t owe you a debate. Christian apologists, like other tiresome sea lions, trolls, and bad faith actors, often petulantly declare victory when you refuse to engage with their talking points, which of course you’ve probably heard 52,974 times already and which you’re tired of responding to. They will never really listen to you or accept any countervailing evidence to their claims, so the best way to deal with them, in my view, is to refuse to play their game, putting a damper on their victory dance by reminding them of the simple truth that you don’t owe them debate. Their demand for it is grounded in nothing but an overgrown sense of entitlement.
There are no shortcuts to being a good person, least of all “right belief.” Evangelicalism and other high-demand religions can be so attractive to people because they offer easy answers to all of life’s problems. Of course, if conversion to Christianity is supposed to result in radical self-transformation, believers become so emotionally invested in the idea that if they are Christianing right they are already good that they lose the ability to engage in critical self-reflection of the kind that is necessary for personal growth. Remind yourself that shared values, rather than shared beliefs, are what matter when it comes to interacting with others, and that there is no replacement for doing the hard work of making yourself better. Being a good person is a process, not a status. And no, the simple act of renouncing belief in god doesn’t magically transform you into a good person either. Keep growing.
Leavers are not a “crisis in the Church.” Treat us as humans with moral autonomy. Even major media outlets such as The Atlantic have a tendency to adopt evangelicals’ own narratives about those of us who have left evangelicalism, rather than listening to leavers as we relate our own stories. This is shitty of them, and they should learn to stop it. We’re unlikely to see an end to the trumpeting of this sort of self-important rhetoric in religious and secular media any time soon, but we can remind ourselves and others that these narratives are objectifying of real human beings with moral autonomy, and that they are therefore wrong.
Proselytizing is always objectification. Let people follow their own consciences. I don’t have much to add on this point to what I’ve already written above, but when you seek someone out for conversion, you are making that person into an object. You are placing yourself above them, even colonizing them. You have ceased to respect the very moral autonomy that makes your target a human being with dignity equal to your own. To my mind, this is extremely damning, and in the face of aggressive evangelicals I often come back to this point. Their narrative dehumanizes me. I reject it and assert my humanity.
Our stories are ours. Leavers are not believers’ object lessons. Fundamentalist believers of all kinds reject pluralism. They fear difference. Those of us who leave their communities and reject their ideologies are a serious threat, because if they can’t control our stories, their own credibility is undermined. They thus assert various explanations that “justify” their fundamentalism, and, insidiously, seek to create self-fulfilling prophecies that “prove” that leaving the faith results in destruction. For example, by defunding AIDS research, producing junk “science,” and, in many cases, kicking their own LGBTQ children out of their homes, fundamentalists, including evangelicals, can conveniently claim that being queer leads to negative social outcomes, even though all the scientific literature that controls for other factors completely debunks this claim.
In light of such horrific gaslighting that, unfortunately, all too often has some degree of social and political power behind it, it is important for those of us who have left hardline religion to build inclusive and affirming spaces and fora for the reclamation of our own stories. This is the impetus behind this blog’s Ex-Evangelical Conversations series, and Twitter has been another space where ex-evangelicals have been able to create the kind of collective visibility that allows us to find each other, validate each other’s experiences, and feel less alone. Collective visibility also allows us to push back against the still dominant narratives in the American public sphere, and we have made some headway with getting our stories out to the broader public, often through hashtag campaigns like #EmptyThePews, #ChurchToo, and #ExposeChristianSchools.
These six points are probably the most concise distillation of the way I’ve reframed conversion efforts in my mind in recent years, seeking to counter the objectification of evangelism with a principled assertion of moral autonomy. They’ve helped me rewrite the scripts in my head and refine my own story, and I hope that they might help you as well. Next time the proselytizers come for you, remember, you don’t have to be their mission field. You are valid, you have every right to assert boundaries, and your story belongs to you.