We've all experienced it. You might have been at a grocery store, at the local high school football game and maybe, most often, in your house on your day off enjoying a nice relaxing day. Someone invites you to their church or knocks on your door to explain why you need to find god. I think most of us view it, at best, as an annoyance, and at worst, an uncomfortable and unnecessary confrontation, but did it ever occur to you that there might be more to it than hardline Christians getting their rocks off by spreading the good word?
What if the goal of proselytizing ISN'T getting more people to come to their church? What if the goal is to affirm the parishioners' own, already firmly held, beliefs?
Have you ever heard a case of proselytizing working on an atheist? Or even on an agnostic who is firm in their worldview? I know I haven't. I also know that this type of intrusive recruiting would never work on me. It would be an exercise in futility for the person trying to convert me.
So why do so many Christians get sent out of their church with instructions to "spread the word?" I have a theory about this.
I think that the incentive for the church to send it's parishioners out to proselytize is more about solidifying them as ardent church goers than it is about getting new people into their fold. Obviously, if they can actually get someone to agree to come to their church, this is a win/win for the church and its leadership. That being said, I think this is more about making the parishioner feel uncomfortable.
If you examine the process of proselytizing, the reasons become obvious. These people are sent out into a "hostile" environment. They are going to receive very few, if any, warm welcomes when they knock on a door, and they will get a lot of averted eyes when it comes to confronting someone at the local store. This process will repeat for these proselytizers over and over again. So, when they leave the comfort of their welcoming church, surrounded by like-minded, "good Christians," and then they encounter (over and over) people responding coolly to their desire to spread god's word, it scares them. They now see a world or community that doesn't embrace the same ideals that they have. When these same weary, defeated folks walk back through their church doors the next Sunday, they'll be greeted by friends and church-goers who all have the same religious outlook that they do, but NOW the person who went door to door and saw how different "everyone else" was will find even more comfort in the walls of their church. They will withdraw a little from the community and culture that they were a part of. They'll do this because they feel like the only sanity left is within their own congregation.
This type of harsh reality followed by a loving embrace of your fellow church members is analogous to brainwashing. When you have a really bad experience and then can find comfort in another experience, it draws you closer to the thing which is offering you a good or pleasant experience. Many of the people at churches who engage in proselytizing will reinforce the idea that there is a lot of bad or "misguided" people in the world and it's ONLY you and your church that will be able to save them. What's really happening, though, is the person doing the proselytizing is being drawn closer and closer to their church, because it's the only safe place they know and it's where people confirm the ideas that they have been taught to be true.
Churches teach good versus evil and morality versus immorality. If you've been indoctrinated into these beliefs, it's that much harder to break the cycle. I spend a lot of time on Twitter and, in this article, I have been talking about people who proselytize in person, but it's hard not to equate this to the people I talk to online. In EVERY single interaction with a Christian (or a Muslim) that I encounter on Twitter, I have no hope of changing their mind. I know that they are set in their ways and it will take something more than a tweet to get them to learn something new or take in new information. Many of these folks don't even go to church anymore; they go to online outlets that are much more pointed in their attacks on the non-religious or even political viewpoints. They are utilizing this same pain/reward cycle that the churches use to keep their online parishioners tuned in -- only they're doing this even more pointedly because they have no in-person interaction to rely on in order to keep these (often time paying) viewers coming back.
So they utilize the same tactics. They pen articles, post Tweets, and write Facebook posts that talk about things like how to convert an atheist or how to counter an argument with an atheist. They produce templates for their viewers to use so that they, in turn, can go into the social media battleground and proselytize to atheists or agnostics or even (in the case of Christians) Muslims. These key-pounding, Tweet-sending, article-writing warriors for god get sent out to fail, again and again. They eventually find the only sanity lies in the person who sent them out for this fight in the first place, which, in an endlessly repeating cycle, garners even more loyalty and trust than they had to begin with.
It's brainwashing. Pure and simple. These folks have been conditioned to withdraw from society and only accept the teachings and beliefs of their congregations. This process has been exacerbated in the last decade by social media and the ability to let oneself withdraw into a community of like-minded people who only briefly pop their heads out of the bubble to "teach" everyone else how wrong they are. I think we're all guilty of this to some degree, but I also think that online preachers are making this a business plan. Why wouldn't they want people blindly devoted to them?
Part of being a socially responsible human being in this age of social media and impersonal interactions is ensuring that you take the time to look around yourself occasionally and ensure that you're not withdrawing into that aforementioned bubble.
It's great to have people who reinforce my ideas, but it's just as great to have people around me who might have different points of view. I'm not going to go out and start listening to Joel Olsteen, but I will, often, seek out individuals who are religious but who are simultaneously not pushy or stringent right-wing cultists, and who are willing to discuss why they disagree. These people still exist. It's still possible to have intelligent discussions. You just have to be willing to seek them out.
Some of the most important people to have around you are the ones who will make you pause before you answer. Every time you have to actually think about your point of view, it makes you stronger; it makes you more (or sometimes less) sure of why you feel the way you do. Regardless, it makes you think, and I don't ever want to find myself at a place in my life where I've given up on thinking and have to go running back to safety because I'm unsure of how my ideas will hold up on their own.
Proselytizing parishioners may already be lost, don't let yourself fall into the same trap.