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Converting the unfaithful: a primer

17 May 2007

Once upon a time when I was an undergraduate, I wrote a series of articles for the school paper (I, II, III, IV) about the Boston Church of Christ (BCC), a religious cult that had spread like dandelions across local campuses. Two key points of their doctrine were that the only real Christians were the ones baptized into their network of churches, and that the quality of a Christian’s relationship with God is directly proportional to his or her success at making converts. Motivated by those beliefs, organized in an Amway-style pyramid system, and using some high-pressure sales tactics, the church racked up exponential growth for about ten years, until attrition caught up with them.

One of the folks I interviewed for the series was a dean and a Christian pastor, who said that the BCC’s approach to making converts was all wrong. The early Christians, he said, attracted people by example. Flavius would see that Marcellus was good to his family, honest in business, etc., etc., and also hear that Marcellus worshipped some strange new god called “Jesus”; thus, Flavius became interested in Christianity. Imagine that—converting other people to your religion by your own exemplary behavior. What a tedious chore! You can’t just spend a few hours a week lecturing the heathen about how you are right and they are wrong, rattling off the talking points that you have carefully memorized in response to their well-meaning but ignorant questions. You have to earn respect from the people around you, and hope that respect for you as a person will lead to respect for your faith.

But, friends and neighbors, I am here to testify that the dean’s strategy actually works. I am an Orthodox Jew today, in part, because of some of the Orthodox and frum-Conservative folks I met: people I liked, people I respected, people whom I identified with. And none of those folks were stumping for Chabad, Aish ha-Torah, or any other “bring non-Orthodox Jews to frumkeit” organization.

By contrast, let me present a case study in how not to proselytize:

U.S. Navy veteran David Miller said that when he checked into the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City, he didn’t realize he would get a hard sell for Christian fundamentalism along with treatment for his kidney stones.

Miller, 46, an Orthodox Jew, said he was repeatedly proselytized by hospital chaplains and staff in attempts to convert him to Christianity during three hospitalizations over the past two years.

He said he went hungry each time because the hospital wouldn’t serve him kosher food, and the staff refused to contact his rabbi, who could have brought him something to eat.


Over the past two years, Miller said, he has been asked over and over by the Iowa City VA medical center’s staff within its offices, clinics and wards, “You mean you don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah?” and “Is it just Orthodox Jews who deny Jesus?” He said one staffer told him, “I don’t understand; how can you not believe in Jesus; he’s the Messiah of the Jews, too, you know.”

If any of the Christians who made these comments think they were bringing Miller closer to their religion, they are deluding themselves. At best, they were annoying busybodies, like folks who lecture overweight strangers about what to eat. At worst, they were showing one another their loyalty to the “Christian” tribe by harrassing someone who was not a member. (And if Miller’s case ever turns into a lawsuit, we are sure to hear other members of this tribe wail and gnash their teeth about how they are being “persecuted”.)

It is not my place, of course, to tell those Christians how to interpret the tenets of their own religion. I’d just like to encourage my fellow frummies to hold themselves to a higher standard. If it’s too much work to act in a way that conspicuously brings credit to your religion, at least try not to make it look bad, OK?

via .common sense