“Evangelizing isn’t the same as proselytism. And that’s a phrase from [Pope] Benedict the XVI. Benedict XVI said in Brazil, in Aparecida, and then many times again, that the church grows through attraction, not through proselytizing politics too. One person is Catholic, one Protestant, one Muslim, another Jewish, but it grows through attraction, through friendship … bridges, bridges and more bridges …” – Pope Francis*
French sociologist Dominique Wolton wrote a book after having several conversations with Pope Francis, in which they talk about the future of the Church and society. The first section talks a lot about peace and war. Interestingly, the Pope talks a lot about his interactions with non-Catholics. He tells this powerful story about when he was a child, and used to hear that protestants were all going to hell. It reminds me of my first interaction with a Catholic, when I was child. I said, “No, I’m not Catholic. I’m Christian.”
Pope Francis reminisces of his uncle burning down protestant missionary tents in Argentina, being so fearful of their damning theology. And yet, at one point, one of his family’s matriarchs gave him another narrative, talking about people from The Salvation Army. She said to him, “They aren’t Catholic, but they are good people.” It was the first time that he had been given another way to think about non-Catholics.
In this discussion of war and peace, the Pope spends a lot of time talking about how religious groups relate to each other, because interreligious actions have often been the place for violence. War is one way, of many ways, that we communicate with each other. If we can learn other ways to communicate, and if we can think about each other as potentially “good people,” we can pave a way that breaks with the cycles of violence.
Historically, the Church – both Catholic and Protestant – has often grown by proselytizing. In essence, proselytizing is understood as the forceable or coercive conversion of a person or group from one religion to another. This is different from evangelism, which is not forceful. In the quote above, Pope Francis says that we should be attractional. I would add – not merely attractional in the sense that the Church campus feels like six flags or like a rock concert with a motivational speaker. Moreover, we ought to be attractional in a whole mode of being, that touches many areas of life, not just an hour of Sunday morning.
When we are able to build bridges, to build relationships, to show mercy and grace, we are able to be the Church. The congregations I serve have some fantastic avenues for relationship building – whether in Meals on Wheels, community gardens, school partnerships, bilingual ministries, housing or community programs. We have two sides of the equation – Church and secular society. They are so close.
We need bridges…