In part 1 of this series, we looked at some possible reasons why, in your witnessing, you may encounter a statement such as the following:
“I can’t stand you Christians, you’re always trying to convert people. Why can’t you just love and accept them where they are, instead of trying to impose your system on them?”
In this part, we will examine the nature of such declarations – that is, what they are saying (as we have already covered why they are said in part 1) – in order to better equip ourselves to respond. For that, I have determined that it will be easiest to first tackle each sentence by itself, then together as a unit.
Statement A: “I can’t stand you Christians, you’re always trying to convert people”
In this statement, the speaker makes it very clear that he/she does not care for “Christians”. I put the word “Christians” in quotes because it is important to always bear in mind the different connotations this term may have to different people. After all, the word itself has a long history of usage and certainly carries a decent amount of philological baggage these days. The meaning of “Christian”, then, is almost always dependent upon the primary source of identification for the term in the speaker’s mind. What do I mean? Let me give you some examples.
1) To someone who was raised in a household or region where the Bible was used to beat people over the head (think “Footloose”), a “Christian” is probably someone who thinks they are better than everyone else and uses religion like a whip to tear people to shreds.
2) To a Jewish person, a “Christian” is a religious descendant of the people who persecuted this ethnic group over the past almost 1900 years (such as in the Spanish Inquisition).
3) To a young man who was molested by a Roman Catholic priest, a “Christian” might be an elderly pervert who uses his church-given authority to prey on the innocent.
You get the idea.
Sometimes the meaning of the word “Christian” may be primarily shaped by a person’s experiences, especially if they have seen the worst “Christianity” has to offer (as in #1 and #3 above). Sometimes it may be that a person has never had a single negative experience with a Christian at all, but their approach to the term “Christian” may still be influenced for the better or worse by family or friends who have had such experiences (as in most cases of #2 above). The bottom line is that the term “Christian” is often a very loaded one.
That said, this does not mean we should shrink from identification with the label, for it describes in no uncertain way what we are: followers of Christ. All the same, we do need to be aware that it may not mean the same thing to those we are witnessing to as it does to us.
All right, so, in the first clause of the above sentence we have a person making a claim (“I can’t stand you Christians”); in the second clause this person provides us with a reason for this claim (“you’re always trying to convert people”). You might as well add the word “because” between the two clauses, since what the person has done is set forth a justification for their frustration with Christians (whoever they are defined to be – see above). This assertion certainly seems rational, but is it reasonable? Three things must be considered here.
- Are Christians really “always trying to convert people”?
- Is indignation with this a logically consistent position?
- Is trying to convert people really a bad thing anyway?
Let’s take these one at a time.
#1 – Are Christians really “always trying to convert people”?
There is much that I could say here about how the “Christians are always trying to convert people” line is a good example of a logical fallacy called “begging the question”; however, that would make this post more overly long and complicated than it probably already is. If you would like to follow that rabbit trail, click this link for more information.
To address this point simply: it really does depend on what your definition of “convert” is. If your definition follows the New Oxford American Dictionary’s primary definition “[to] persuade someone to [something]”, then is it true that in witnessing* Christ to others we are ultimately seeking to persuade people to Him? I actually tend to think it’s a fair definition myself.
Now, we could go round-and-round about how “oh, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to work faith in someone and persuade them – we only confess the truth and let Him do the rest”. True. Fair enough. However, don’t expect a non-Christian to be able to see the difference between you witnessing and the Holy Spirit persuading just because you say, “I’m only telling you about Jesus, not trying to convert anyone – that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.” Truth be told, I’m not so sure we should be trying to divide ourselves like that from the Holy Spirit and the work He sees fit to do through us anyway (but that’s a subject for wiser minds than mine).**
The bottom line is: from the perspective of those we are witnessing to, the conclusion is simply that the act of witnessing is fundamentally an attempt to “convert” the hearer(s).
With this point established, we must now consider…
#2 – Is indignation with this a logically consistent position?
It’s one thing to affirm that the act of sharing the Gospel implicitly assumes the hope of salvation for the hearers, that is, “conversion”***. It is another thing altogether to justify ill-feelings towards any group merely because they seek to be persuasive. Certainly if you are a person who never, ever seeks to persuade others to any ends whatsoever, then perhaps you may reasonably scoff when others do so. However, the fact is that all people without exception engage in persuasion on a daily basis – you can’t live life another way – and to fault someone (or someones) for this is sheer hypocrisy.
Consider the following examples:
I) In part 1 we mentioned that professors in the University setting like to make the “I can’t stand Christians because they always try to convert people” argument. But the basic fact is that it is these professors’ job to win converts. That is, they must persuade you that the subject matter you are studying is actually important (so they still have a job), that you must do well on tests to pass the class (because if they can’t persuade you of this they will have a failing class – bad if you are seeking tenure), and that they are worth giving good reviews to at the end of the semester (especially if they are seeking tenure). Add to this that many professors at secular universities consider it a blue ribbon to convert you away from Christianity and, well, hopefully you can see the double standard.
II) Every job candidate who knows what they are doing is seeking to make converts. Think about it, when you interview for a position, you are doing nothing less than trying to convert the interviewers to the belief that you would make an excellent employee. Which of you ever went into a job interview with the attitude that “I’m not looking to persuade anyone – I hope I don’t offend people by looking as if I’m trying to convince them about my fantastic work ethic”. No! And I can tell you that if you did go to an interview in that frame of mind, any potential employer is going to send you packing and hang out their tile again, waiting for someone who actually has what it takes to “win converts”, that is, them.
III) Any of you who have children are experts at the art of persuasion and “winning converts”. Little Johnny took a cookie before dinner without permission? He didn’t see anything wrong with it – but I bet you the parent are going to make sure he gets converted to the position of believing that he isn’t going to do that again, aren’t you? Little Susie drew on the walls? I bet you don’t waste any time in converting her to the opinion that she shouldn’t be doing that. Little Billy said a bad word he heard at school? I can just picture you parents taking on the passion of the very most eager religious zealot as you seek to convert him out of his new pagan vocabulary and into a better way (maybe this is because I can still see the look in my mother’s eyes when she washed my mouth out with
soup soap). Sometimes your tools of persuasion are as simple as a wagging finger, and sometimes they are as complex as a belt-no-longer-on-dad’s-waist – but one way or another, as a parent, making converts of your children (away from their selfish, sinner ways and towards a pattern of decency and respect) is numero-uno on your parental responsibilities list.
I could go on forever, listing all the areas where people try to win converts every single day (converting your wife to the belief that she should stop hogging the covers at night; converting your husband to the belief that you really do need those new shoes; converting your co-worker to the belief that he needs to get his own stapler and stop taking yours, etc.), but we must press on.
It seems to me that the unspoken offense that people who insist Christians are “always trying to convert people” are actually up in arms over is not that they believe any attempt at persuasion/conversion is wrong (if it is they are simply great big hypocrites, as just discussed), but that they feel that Christians overstate our case and end up becoming (or at least seeming) too pushy. I can sympathize with this – I hate feeling pushed around. And I certainly have seen some very passionate “campus crusaders” who overstepped the boundaries in their eagerness to “win souls for Christ”. I have seen preachers so eager to play a numbers game in their church that they pressure people into making a “commitment to Christ” and rush them up to the altar for an impromptu baptism, never to notice that for every person dragged up for an altar call ten more are escaping out the back doors and running as fast as they can from what they have seen of “Christianity”, never to look back and grateful to have escaped with their lives and dignity intact. It is practices like this that our Lord condemned in Matthew 23:15 (and no, I’m not going to quote it for you – I wouldn’t be a very good Christian blogger if I didn’t get you to open your Bible once in a while, would I?).
In sum, to be antagonistic towards Christians because we seek to be persuasive is to adopt a double standard and fall into hypocrisy. On the other hand, Christians need to be aware that we can – like all humans – get carried away in our excitement, which in our case is excitement about the good news of Jesus Christ, and end up driving people away in droves, the very opposite of our goal. More on this in part 3.
#3 – Is trying to convert people a bad thing?
Finally, we must address the issue of whether trying to convert people is a bad thing. Given that we just spent a significant amount of time showing that everyone tries to convert others to one belief set or another on a daily basis, I think one example here should say it all.
Suppose a war broke out in your country. Now suppose that you have received word from a very reliable source that the area where you live was going to be the target of the next atomic bomb detonation. Suppose you were the only one in your town who knew about the impending nuclear explosion. A train has entered town, bound for an underground bunker hundreds of miles away that will shelter you from the blast and the fallout. In it there is food, water, and safety. Suppose you had 24 hours to board the train before it left for the bunker, never to return.
What would you do?
Would you board the train, never saying a word to anyone? Would you leave behind all the poor souls who never heard that the end is near? Would you, when you have the power to witness to them about the coming destruction and the hope of safe harbor, allow them to die?
Or would you not run through town, shouting at the top of your lungs, proclaiming it all in its horror and its hope to the townsfolk around you? Would you not tell friends, acquaintances, strangers, and even your enemies, so that by chance some may believe and be saved?
This scenario has a bit of a precedent, you know. Genesis records the story of Noah and the flood that wiped out the entire human population, save eight. I don’t know if Noah witnessed to those men around him about the coming cataclysm, but my guess is he did.
What we Christians have in this life is the same opportunity as in my hypothetical example. We have sure news that judgement is coming soon. We know that no one who is not on that train, that is, Christ, will survive. And we have a hope of life – one that is far greater than some subterranean tomb – and of eternal joy in the presence of God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, in the final analysis, is trying to convert people a bad thing?
Not on your life.
*There are many kinds of witnessing, but what I primarily mean here is the classic “telling people verbally about Christ” type of witnessing (as opposed to the silent type of witnessing where we simply exhibit Christ-like love in our everyday vocations) because you are more likely to run into the type of statement we are examining in situations where there is actual verbal conversation taking place, i.e. verbal witnessing.
**For a study on how the Apostles themselves sought to persuade their hearers, see Acts 2:14-41; 3:12-4:4; 9:20-22; 17:22-34; ch 22; 26:28-29 (and preceding vv); 28:17-24 (or just read the whole thing – it’s full of this stuff) —> also, the book of Hebrews itself is one giant attempt at such persuasiveness.
***The more I write, the more the word “conversion” seems disingenuous – though I’m not completely sure why. Could it be that this word, like “Christian”, has accumulated its fair share of baggage as well? All the same, it is a Biblical word (Acts 15:3) and I will continue to use it.