Evangelism as Hospitality

"Practice hospitality." Romans 12:13

Fuller seminary's J. Dudley Woodberry makes a distinction between "proselytizing" and what he calls "gracious evangelism."

This distinction seems etymologically valid. To "proselytize" is to create converts. To evangelize is to share the evangel — the "good news."

Proselytizing has acquired new legal baggage in recent years, which is one reason for Woodberry to distance himself from the term. Now that the folks at Fuller are receiving federal funding for their interfaith conflict resolution efforts, they must be careful to abide by the regulations for such "faith-based" initiatives, and those regulations forbid "proselytizing."

But I think Woodberry is more concerned with a theological distinction than a legal one.

Christians are commanded to evangelize. This command is presented as an obligation of gratitude — "freely you have received, freely give." We are not, however, told we must make converts. That seems to be God's job, not ours.

Evangelism, properly understood, is a form of hospitality. Like all hospitality, it is an obligation, a moral imperative. But it cannot be imposed. Hospitality is an invitation — "welcome," "make yourself at home," "take a load off," "taste and see" — not an imposition.

The Southern Baptists who are angry at Fuller's willingness to forgo proselytizing Muslims betray a lack of empathy — an essential virtue for hospitable evangelism.

Imagine a delegation of devout Muslims arriving in Louisville, Ky., and knocking on the door of Al Mohler's office at Southern Baptist seminary. "God is great," the visitors say. "We are here to convince you to accept the one true faith."

Now I like to think that the bellicose Mohler would behave with more grace than he displays before the television cameras and would politely and respectfully welcome these visitors. But I would not imagine or expect their mission to succeed. Mohler, like his visitors, already believes he has found the one true faith, and he won't be readily inclined to abandon it.

Such a visit, if it were to actually occur, might go a long way to helping Mohler and others like him to appreciate the shoe-on-the-other-foot considerations that empathy demands.

Such empathy does not preclude the hospitable, "gracious evangelism" Woodberry describes, and "would not prevent either side from sharing their respective faiths."

But such empathy and hospitality does rule out the graceless — and ineffectual — proselytizing that Mohler seems to consider a pillar of his faith.

With regard to hospitality as practiced at Fuller, I was encouraged to read this announcement from the seminary's Web site:

As part of Fuller Seminary’s focus on the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, Aslam Abdullah, the editor of The Minaret and Sireen Sawaaf, Hate Crimes Prevention Coordinator at Muslim Public Affairs, will be speaking on Fuller’s Pasadena campus at 10 a.m. in the Garth.

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  • none

    That does sound different from the approach posed by James Dobson’s son Ryan’s book, Be Intolerant: Because Some Things Are Just Stupid

  • Chris

    Mohler would never appreciate the shoe being on the other foot. He and his type view other viewpoints being expressed as tantamount to persecution.

  • Chris

    I like this approach – however, I wonder about your assertion that ‘we are not told to make converts’. We are, after all, told to ‘make disciples of all nations’.
    I think the distinction can still be made, though – that making disciples is something that happens only afterwards, in/to/for those who choose to move into the faith…

  • disgusted

    CNN footage: US Soldiers execute Iraqi man, cheer.
    young soldier describes how ‘awesome’ it was.

  • Chris

    Other Chris,
    I think the point is that we are required to be hospitable and welcoming of all people.
    Only God makes disciples through grace.

  • gazould

    Here’s the thing–even Jesus, the perfect son of God, did not convert everyone he talked to. I always find it instructive to look at what He could have done (changed everyone’s mind) but didn’t. Obviously, Christianity is still meant to be a choice, and our job is not to make everyone believe, but to present the choice and let everyone make up their own mind. I think that’s exactly what the people at Fuller are doing, and I support them.

  • Jeff

    I can’t get to the article but I would agree with the distinction as you have presented it and I expect that Mr. Mohler would respond quite hospitably to the hypothetical that you have presented.
    However, I would also expect that were he to develop a relationship with one or more of the Muslim visitors, that he would present them with the gospel and clearly state that there are not “many paths” to reconciliation with God.
    Here is something you might also find of interest.

  • jlstrat

    >>>>>the bellicose Mohler
    I’ve heard Mohler on Fresh Air talking about evangelizing in Iraq and he sounded reasonable and I think he presented his arguments well. He was obviously aware of the cultural difficulties of the task and tried to be sensitive to those issues. I didn’t agree with him fully, but he pretty much avoided platitudes and stated his case clearly and, I thought, gently. Frankly, Terry Gross was the confrontational party in the interview.
    At any rate, he was not bellicose and calling him that seems to reinforce my impression of an undercurrent of meanness that runs through this blog.

  • Fred

    I didn’t hear Al Mohler on Fresh Air, but I think if you’ll read through his many published articles you’ll find that the guy picks fights. I may be biased, however, since three friends of mine were among the professors he fired while leading the conservative takeover of Southern Seminary.
    I think it’s safe to describe that purging also as bellicose.

  • jlstrat

    I frankly don’t care what Mohler did as an administrator at Southern Seminary. Has nothing to do with his position on Fuller’s attempts at reconciliation with Muslims.
    Let’s read his quote: “The more we know about Christianity and Islam, the more we see there is a basic incompatibility…The essential ground of conflict and controversy cannot be removed.” It’s possible we can peacefully coexist with Muslims, but in the end Mohler is probably right. That disagreement will always remain.
    I don’t agree with the fundamentist Christian insistence that Christians, Muslims, and Jews don’t worship the same God. That is the one issue, however, on which orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims would probably find agreement with Mr. Mohler.
    Most of my friends think the doctrine of salvation through Christ is offensive, that we all have a shot at Heaven because of God’s grace. Fine with me — sure would make my life easier. That appears to be Fuller’s approach. Nothing wrong with it, I guess, but it doesn’t sound like evangelical Christianity to me.
    By the way, Fuller’s outreach to Muslims is “…funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.” That would be the same Dept of Justice headed by the dreaded John Ashcroft. I dread him too and I’ve written to my Senators and rep to complain about the Patriot Act. Still, fairness would seem to demand that this fact be pointed out, since you take pains to point out the Administration’s errors (in many cases, justifiably).

  • Johnny Glenn

    I want to share the Good News of salvation with everyone. I cannot make someone believe therefore it is God that must work in a persons heart to bring them to Him. All I do is by God working in me therefore it is really ALL done by God and He will get ALL of the glory. No one will have anything to boast of in Heaven except God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…the Elohim). Three yet One