Pagan Evangelism

Far from being an oxymoron, Pagan evangelism is a helpful and necessary step in our growth and maturity as a religion.
I know, some of you are picking yourself up off the floor – or off the ceiling – after reading that.  Hear me out and see if you don’t agree in part if not in whole… and if you don’t, the comments are open.
Let’s start by making one thing very clear:  evangelism is NOT proselytization.  Proselytization is the aggressive attempt to convert people to a new religion, frequently by the use of manipulative techniques:  telling them they’ll burn in hell if they don’t convert, offering disaster victims relief supplies if they convert, recruiting young children who don’t have the maturity to accurately evaluate the choices they’re offered.  Proselytization assumes my religion isn’t just right for me, it’s right for you and I’m doing you a big favor by pushing you to convert.
Proselytization is a feature of monotheism – does anyone proselytize besides Christians and Muslims?  Polytheists understand that different people have different gods and different gods call different people.  Just because Cernunnos called me doesn’t mean he’s going to call you.  Maybe Lugh wants you, or Morrigan, or Odin, or Isis.  Maybe you really should be a Buddhist or a Taoist or a Quaker. 
Evangelism, on the other hand, is simply spreading the good news.  Evangelism is talking about the beliefs and practices that are meaningful and sacred to you with no expectations of them being adopted by those who hear you.  If spiritual growth is modeled by the agricultural cycle so prevalent in most modern Pagan religions, evangelism isn’t planting the seed – it’s preparing the ground to receive the seed.
I have loved Nature all my life.  I grew up with the woods right outside my door – literally:  go out the back door, down the steps, walk maybe twenty feet, climb over the low fence and I was in the woods.  There was always something special, something magical, something sacred about being among the trees.  If the wet-weather stream was running it was even better. 
But I grew up in a very Christian environment.  It wasn’t just that my parents took me to a Baptist church, but that everyone I knew was at least nominally Christian.  “God” was Yahweh, the old man in the sky.  I knew of Zeus and Hera and Apollo and the other gods of the Greeks and Romans, but to me they were characters in stories, no more real than Paul Bunyan or Huck Finn. 
At the age of 31 I met a Wiccan for the first time.  When he explained how he worshipped a Goddess as well as a God, how he saw that Goddess and God in Nature, and how magic was more than illusion or fantasy, something in me changed.  All of a sudden I had a different context for my experiences in the woods.  Not only could I see the forest, I could see the God of the Forest.  Not the god who made the forest, as I was taught in Christianity, but the god who is the forest.  That set me on the path that led to where I am now, a path that has brought me spiritual growth and fulfillment I could not find anywhere else.
None of that would be possible if someone hadn’t shared his good news with me.  He didn’t try to convert me, he didn’t shove a book in my face and tell me to go read it, he didn’t promise me power and prosperity.  He just told me who he was, what he believed and how he practiced his religion.  He prepared the soil and the seeds began to sprout.
Any successful religion is successful because it fills a need, solves a problem, or answers a question that’s important to the people who follow it.  In an era of climate change, oil spills and species loss, we need the message that Nature is sacred.  In an era where patriarchy is desperately (and at times, violently) trying to reassert itself, we need to see that the Divine is female as well as male.  In an era of religious and cultural tensions, we need the tolerance and acceptance that naturally flow from polytheism.  In an era where people are in constant migration and have few roots, we need to learn to form connections to the land, to our ancestors, to our gods and goddesses and to each other.
The 21st century Western world needs what Paganism has to offer.
There are some Pagans who disagree.  Some desperately want to be unique and some think what we believe and do is beyond the capabilities of most people.  We don’t have time to indulge those who want to be different for the sake of being different.  But for those who are legitimately worried about diluting Paganism, consider this:  how many Buddhists are there?  How many of them are Zen Masters?  How many Jews are there?  How many of them are rabbis, much less Kabalistic scholars?  Not every Pagan has to be a high priestess or hedgewitch or archdruid.  
We need to reach out to the growing number of people who are looking for what we offer, let them know we’re here, and make room for them to be involved to the extent they’re interested and capable.
We need Pagan evangelism.
What can we do?  We can publicize our events.  We can participate in interfaith activities.  We can do charitable and community service work.  The biggest and simplest thing we can do is to be “out” – at least to the degree we’re safe.  There is no substitute for letting people know that Pagans aren’t some strange “other” – we’re their family, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow members of the wider community.
Evangelism isn’t defensive.  It’s not about responding to slander and misinformation.  As they say in politics, if you’re explaining you’re losing – and you’re never going to convince fundamentalists that what we’re doing is a good thing.  Evangelism is about telling and showing people who we are, what we believe, what we do, and what kind of a world we’re trying to create.
Should we use a different term?  Is “evangelism” so loaded with Christianity we need something fresh?  Maybe, but what?  “Advertising” is tainted with corporatism and consumerism.  “Publicity” ignores the person to person contact that was so important for me and for others.  “Outreach” is horribly bland, and it hasn’t worked for the ever-shrinking mainline Protestants.  I’m open to suggestions, but for now, “evangelism” it is.

Few of us were born Pagan – most of us converted from another religion.  We were only able to do so because someone plowed the ground and let us know there was another alternative.  That alternative fit us better than anything we’d found so far and it’s become a source of wisdom and inspiration, of strength and comfort.  We who have benefitted from the Pagan evangelism of others have an obligation to spread the good news to all who will hear it.

preparing the ground – via Wikimedia Commons
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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10388428489163998550 TommyElf

    Well, like I noted on FaceBook – I doubted that there would be anything I would totally disagree with. The biggest difference is in how you and I define various terms.

  • http://www.confessionsofapagansoccermom.com/ Mrs.B.

    While I agree with the idea behind what you are saying, I can't help but bristle a bit at the word "evangelism". The word itself is connected with "fundamentalism" in my head.

  • http://nuannaarpoq.wordpress.com/ thalassa

    Love it!

    I do agree though that the biggest issue is going to be the terminology for a lot of folks.

    I think we should try to work past that though…after all, if we want (to a certain degree) to reclaim and clean up the pejorative definition of "Pagan", perhaps we ought to start with extending the same courtesy to "evangelism".

  • sjthornton

    Does it truly matter what we call it? I'd vote for "outreach," myself.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11388944960784148390 Drea

    I agree that not all Pagans need to be [insert speciality here], but I tend to view things in terms from my position as a Witch. Witchcraft doesn't seek converts because our path is not for everyone (not even for everyone who wants to be a Witch).

    I think that more dissatisfied the general populous becomes with the major religions available, the more they will seek alternatives. It takes courage to change your faith (well, it takes courage to examine your faith and admit that it doesn't fit). If a person has that courage, they will look for something else.

    There is no shortage of information available to the seeker. Search 'religion' on google, and religioustolerance.org is the 3rd result. You've also got UU churches all over the continent.

    I don't believe that I need to advertise my faith. For me, it would be like wearing a tshirt that says 'come to dinner at my house'. I don't want random strangers to show up at my door expecting to be fed.

    YMMV

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10247722361880680989 Ila East

    I think we also have to remember that times change and religions need to change with them. In the past, Pagans were secretive because they had to be.

    We still aren't main stream, but I think we are more open. Of course, I'm one to talk. I only "converted" in October 2011 and haven't even told my hubby yet. I think mainly it's because I don't know enough about what I believe and don't believe yet. I have only gone along my path "a few feet" and have a ways to travel yet before I will be comfortable in letting others know my religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 John Beckett

    Tommy – your Facebook comment was right – I didn't try to tell you what to believe or how to worship.

    Mrs. B and SJ – I hear you. I really do wish there was a less "loaded" term, but I still think "evangelism" is the best choice we have.

    Thalassa – there is something to be said for reclaiming words from the dominant culture.

    Drea – we each do what we can. If you're not comfortable promoting your religion, don't. But as a group we've got to let people know who and what we are.

    Ila – you're right – things in general are getting better. There is no Inquisition waiting to grab us… at least not in the West. I wouldn't go calling myself a witch in Saudi Arabia…


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