What Have I Learned About Evangelical Christians?

MInistry in Contemporary Culture - Does Evange...
MInistry in Contemporary Culture - Does Evangelicalism have a Future? (Photo credit: George Fox Evangelical Seminary)

A while back, I posed a series of questions to current or former evangelical Christians. Thanks to all those who responded. Now we'll continue and see if we can't all learn something about evangelical Christians.

I'm organizing this post in a question and answer format, starting with each of my questions followed by a summary of the coherent responses received. For the sake of brevity, the summary of responses will be just that - a summary.

What are evangelical Christians taught about the value of proselytizing?

Many of those who responded made reference to the Christian bible and how it is regularly interpreted as commanding believers to preach to others. They evangelize because their god commands them to do so or as a way of honoring their god. Others indicated that they are driven by the strength of their belief (i.e., they attempt to communicate their beliefs to others because their beliefs are so strong that they must come out). It almost sounds as if sharing one's religious beliefs with others is viewed as an indication of the strength of one's faith.

Proselytizing appears to be more of an important social norm rather than a rule. That is, believers learned that it was beneficial, that heavenly rewards were associated with it, and that they would be devalued or even viewed with suspicion for failing to proselytize. Some also learned that others would burn in hell if they were not saved, so conversion attempts can easily be framed as a form of compassion.

Is it fair to say that converting others to one's religion is an important goal for evangelical Christians?

There was unanimous agreement that conversion is an important goal for evangelical Christians, although some were not crazy about the word "conversion" in this context. It was pointed out that evangelism is about attempting to lead nonbelievers to their preferred god. The idea seems to be that the Christian god does the conversion supernaturally, and the evangelical's task is to facilitate that.

There is no question that helping others find their god is an important (if not central) activity for evangelical Christians. As many believers are absolutely convinced that they have the truth, it makes sense that they would want to share it with others, especially if they also believe that this sort of sharing with be beneficial to their god, themselves, and the listener.

If so, what is the motivation for converting others to your religion? Are certain rewards promised, does it simply relate to believing that others would be better off as Christians, or is there some other motive?

Many motives were described, including spiritual benefits, love of one's fellow humans and/or of one's god, the sense that one was following god's commands or performing a valuable duty, increased attendance at one's church, validation of one's own beliefs, strengthening one's own faith, social comparison with one's peers, and the conviction that leading others to one's god really was in their best interest (i.e., salvation). An important intrinsic motive appears to be simply wanting others to share in a highly valued experience. Just like other forms of sharing meaningful experiences, the idea seems to be that this can be a way to connect with others.

Do/did you ever feel any external pressure to convert others, or was this purely an intrinsic desire?

Many believers acknowledged external pressure, and some even recounted being given assignments to share their faith with others. Some perceived the pressure as supernatural, referring to their god. Some indicated that there was also pressure to behave as if they were having spiritual experiences (e.g., speaking in tongues, etc.).

Others disagreed with the idea of external pressure and referred instead to pressure in the form of spiritually-derived compassion for others. One particularly interesting theme that came up was the feelings of righteous and "warrior mentality" that sometimes accompanied one's efforts to share one's faith.

Were you ever provided with any instruction or guidance about how to convert others?

Evidently, this is so common as to be close to universal. Evangelicals described being given all sorts of tools to assist their proselytizing (e.g., training manuals, bible passages to quote, tracts to distribute, DVDs on how to evangelize, pat answers to common questions, classes on how to reach specific groups, etc.). Clearly, their churches are sending them out prepared for the task.

Concluding Thoughts

In the original post in which I posed these questions, I promised Christians who took the time to respond that this was not an effort to trap or bait them. I remain true to my word here. This was an informative exercise, and I think that I understand the mind of the evangelical Christian better now as a result, even though I acknowledge that there is much which I will probably never truly grasp.

I think that what surprised me most about the comments I received in response to my initial query was their degree of agreement. Don't get me wrong - there was diversity of opinion and of experience - but I don't think I realized that the similarities would outweigh the differences to the degree that they did. What this tells me is that the term "evangelical Christian" is meaningful and can convey important information. I realize that this summary post captures only a tiny portion of what could be described as the evangelical Christian worldview, but it is a starting point and one which certainly represents an expansion of my knowledge in this area.

Update: Now What?

After receiving many thought-provoking comments, I thought I'd update the post to address a particular concern raised in these comments: the idea that learning more about evangelical Christians and what they believe may be of little real-world value in figuring out how to relate to them.

I should say out the outset that I agree with this criticism up to a point. Understanding what evangelicals believe, why they think they believe it, or even how they acquired or maintain such beliefs, might offer little of value in helping me figure out how to live alongside them. Does this mean that such efforts are wasted? I don't think so.

I find learning about the evangelical mind to be quite fascinating even if it does not translate directly into action. Maybe this is just one of my particular quirks and I should not expect others to share it. We all make mistakes and commit various cognitive errors that can lead to emotional problems or derail our reasoning ability. In the case of evangelical Christians, one can find many such errors.

But is this merely a hobby, or might it have some utility? After taking the time to summarize the many comments contributed by evangelical Christians, I had two unexpected reactions. First, I found that I could empathize with them to a degree. By realizing that many of them are motivated by compassion and that some genuinely believe their proselytizing benefits the recipients, I felt less angry. Don't get me wrong - I despise Christian proselytizing. It is just that it bothers me less if I associate it with benevolent intent than simply extrinsic motives (e.g., earning magic Jesus points). Second, I felt far more sad than I did angry. I found myself feeling sorry for the evangelicals. They really do seem to believe at least some of the nonsense they spout, and this is terribly unfortunate.

Will this experience teach me how better to live alongside evangelical Christians? Maybe not, but I think that it does help me realize that some of the ways in which I am naturally inclined to behave around them may be counterproductive. Understanding may not take us all the way to where we'd like to be, but it may be a necessary first step.