Predatory Proselytism: The Hard Sell

By Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead

Have you ever had a salesperson try and get you to buy something you did not want, and the person could not take “No” for an answer? The salesperson came across as a consumer predator.

Many salespeople are aware of the negative associations people have concerning their trade. So, they engage in soft sale tactics to avoid the perception that they are engaged in predatory proselytism. You may be as amused as we are when we get Christmas and birthday cards from former realtors. How much they care for us!

Like the realtors noted above, Evangelicals today are often aware of the negative associations people have of proselytism (including that the term “proselytism” is now often associated with unethical forms of evangelism). But are we sensitive enough?

In April, a lecture was given at Grand Valley State University in Michigan that featured Padma Kuppa, a Hindu interfaith activist with the Hindu American Foundation. She was sharing the results of her research into “predatory proselytization,” which she defines as unethical conversion strategies. Kuppa offered examples of how this phenomenon takes place in her home country in India. One example was that Christians used public obituary information in order to send sympathy cards to the relatives of deceased Hindus, only to include evangelistic elements, involving not only the citation of biblical verses, but also mention of eternal punishment. The response of these Hindu families should give Christians pause for reflection: “While unhappy, they seemed resigned, treating it as one of those unwelcome features of life in a religiously diverse society that one learns to accept and tolerate. ‘This is what Christians do.’”

Such lack of relational sensitivity is not simply a problem in India between Christians and Hindus. Similar relational insensitivities occur in the U.S. as we engage a number of different groups. At the annual Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Michigan, thousands of Muslims come together to celebrate their religious and ethnic heritage. The festival has become the focus of many aggressive forms of evangelism by several ministries that have included shouting at people to “study and obey the Bible” and holding up signs that call the Prophet Muhammed a pervert. The efforts of Christians at the festival have resulted in violent clashes, a constant police presence, and several lawsuits.

Moreover, friendship is sometimes abused, when it is reduced to the end of evangelism. In one instance where an Evangelical has been involved in a high-profile relationship and dialogue with a Mormon scholar, many Evangelicals have called for an end to the relationship after a period of time because the Mormon has not converted. Aren’t relationships valuable in and of themselves without being used merely as a tool to convert others? For all our emphasis on personal relationships, one might be left to wonder how relational the Evangelical movement as a whole is.

To return to Kuppa’s talk, she raised issues that call for careful soul-searching and thought. Cases like the one she noted, as well as those we highlighted, illustrate the need for Christians to engage in careful reflection on the ethics of evangelism. Christians see the gospel as a great gift: the self-giving love of God through Christ on behalf of all people everywhere. But how are such evangelistic strategies to be viewed as loving and fulfilling Christ’s call to love our neighbors? For many people outside our faith, this evangelistic work is not viewed positively. For them it is unwelcome and even predatory at times. Their concerns need to be heard, especially by Evangelicals, as we wrestle with thinking through appropriate evangelistic expressions and ethical approaches to evangelism. The lack of soul-searching and critical thought will impact negatively our witness, including “soul-winning.”

In response to the troubling example above involving sympathy cards, would it not seem more appropriate simply to express our grief and mourn with those who mourn in such situations, nothing more? At least, our former realtors would understand that much! Of course, realtors are not trying to warn people to exit burning buildings, but rather sell houses. Evangelicals, on the other hand, sometimes reason that just as one would warn others to flee burning buildings, it is important to warn them to flee the fires of hell. Sure thing. We get that as Evangelicals who believe in the reality of hell. But expressing this in sympathy cards to those experiencing the loss of loved ones? Talk about making a hard sell all the harder! To us this seems manipulative and even predatory. Would we like it as Evangelicals if Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses sent us sympathy cards with their evangelistic messages at the deaths of our loved ones? In view of our conviction that God is sovereign and can provide meaningful occasions to share the good news of Jesus with people and produce appropriate fruit, we should guard against forcing the issue. There are appropriate times and contexts for engaging in proclamation evangelism. We need to ask God for wisdom and walk in step with the Spirit, not wrongly grieving him and others.

Zeal for evangelism is a very good thing, as long as it does not involve predatory dynamics. No one likes to be someone else’s prey. As we love our neighbors we need to learn to do to others what we would want them to do to us. This is the golden rule of Evangelical witness.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

Find me on: Facebook | Twitter | Google+

  • David Springer

    Thank you Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead for reminding us to keep our eye on the big picture (ie. demonstrating and encouraging a true relationship with God through the love and person of Jesus and NOT just “hit ‘n’ git” notches on our conversion belts). A verse that I have been wrestling with and living in of late is 1 Peter 2 “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.” I just don’t see Peter equating this predatory proselytism with living a good life.

  • George Dolansky

    This is sort of a confession from a former comical shark like the one at the top. Probably the biggest change I saw in how I evangelize came when Tony Kriz subbed in one of your classes that I took. He talked about how we sometimes share the gospel like it is a “cupcake” (his word, not mine). It is something we have and they don’t. This naturally puts us in a position where, whether we see it or not, we view ourselves as being superior in some way to the person with whom we are sharing. He contrasted this with the experience of sharing a sunset. Nobody posesses the sunset, just like the Gospel. It is bigger than both the one who has seen it many times and the one who is gazing upon it for the first time. Seminary changed me in a lot of ways, but I think this was probably the most profound change that came of my time there.

  • James O’Brien

    I sometimes refer to this as “Amway evangelism”. Great company and great products, but some of my friends that joined only wanted to hang out with me so long as they thought I might sign up. When I didn’t, they no longer hung out with me.

    I regularly tell the students I work with that they need to show love to their peers simply for the sake of showing love to their peers. And at points, yes they should verbally share the Gospel message, and from a first person point of view. Their love for God and relationship with him, should simply saturate their lives and conversations, not just to convert but because when you truly love someone, they are your focus and priority and everyone around you knows that. When you fall in love with that special someone, you talk about them. Not to convince others of their need to love them, but simply because you do.

    And I also tell them, that even if people reject God, etc, that they need to still continue to love them and be friends with them

    • http://twitter.com/persecutionind christianpersecution

      Do you really believe that people can convert people? It is God’s work. I am all for good words and works, but sharing the gospel is always to be out of love for the lost. Jesus used the word lost, not sinners. Lost means that we have inherent value.

  • John Evans

    This seems to be a behaviour that crops up in all sorts of groups. Even fandoms – people who treat you like a tasteless idiot or a culturally bereft sad sack because you don’t like their particular favourite sword-and-sorcery TV show, or something. It seems to be a human tendency for people to try and validate their own choices by convincing others to agree – often being quite forceful in the process. The shouting matches I’ve seen between vegetarians and omnivores could have peeled paint, for instance.

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  • HandmaidenOfEris

    Evangelism assumes that you know more about God than someone else. You don’t. Nobody does. All evangelism is predatory, just some forms are more blatant than others.

    • http://twitter.com/persecutionind christianpersecution

      Really? Then Jesus must have gotten it all wrong in Matthew 28:18 and 19.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ronald.henzel Ron Henzel

    “Predatory” evangelism? What—do these evangelists devour their “prey” whole and spit out the bones? Or perhaps they carry converts in their jaws back to their nests to feed their young?

    Evangelistic strategies that are at the very least in poor taste but at the very most offensive are “unethical” and therefore “predatory?” You even lose me on the word “manipulative.” What kind of manipulation is more guaranteed to backfire than a sympathy card that suggests the departed loved one may be burning in hell?

    Rhetorical overkill can be a form of slander and/or libel. In places like India it can result in a prison sentence! In parts of the world where seeking to bring someone to Christ means breaking local laws and often risking one’s own life, scare-labeling misguided examples of those activities as “predatory” is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Why don’t you just file a friend of the court brief in one of the Indian states where even rescuing prostitutes with the Gospel can be considered a punishable offense under anti-conversion laws to make it harder on our brothers and sisters over there?

    Before allowing yourselves to be potentially manipulated by “a Hindu interfaith activist” into providing ammunition against fellow Christians who live in a country that does not provide for religious and other freedoms the way ours does, why don’t you find out what the realities of witnessing for Christ in a country where the minority of Christians are frequently slandered as using “forcible conversion” techniques even as gangs of “Hindu nationalist” thugs burn down churches, use threats of physical violence to coerce Christians back to Hinduism, and routinely distribute the kind of threatening literature that makes the evangelistic sympathy cards you find so “predatory” look like paragons of etiquette! Maybe you wouldn’t be so harsh and condescending.

    • John W. Morehead

      Mr. Henzel, I’m afraid you missed the entire thrust of our essay. As part of the background research for it, I had the opportunity to have some exchanges with Elmer Thiessen, author of The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Proselytizing
      and Persuasion (Paternoster, UK; IVP Academic, USA, 2011). He described his many years of frustration with trying to get the book published, and came to the conclusion that while Evangelicals spend a lot of time in evangelism they want little to do with thinking through the ethical and theological ramifications of how this may be done in unethical ways. Our essay tries to be responsible in addressing this deficit. In our view, the examples we shared in the essay cross the line into the unethical no matter how sincere or caring we are in the process. Finally, we have not been manipulated by anyone, but have found value in the concerns of Ms. Kuppa and others, and in response, we are trying to navigate ways that we might be more faithful to the call to love our neighbors as ourselves in ethical fashion as we share the good news of Christ. We invite you to reconsider our essay more fairly, and to consider Thiessen’s book on this important subject.

  • http://twitter.com/persecutionind christianpersecution

    I am sure that the writer has either never been to India or even if has been to India has been inadequately exposed to the reality of the situation here. I am an Indian and a Christian.

    Does the writer know that Hinduism as promoted by ‘Hindu American Foundation’ is an evangelical religion too. In fact they are zealous evangelists. Has he never seen Hindu missionaries in the west? Back home in India the partners of the HAF like the VHP and the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad are leaving no stone unturned to convert the tribals of India into Hindus.

    Has the writer heard or read about the forcible re-conversions of Christians into Hinduism in the country of India? Has he read about the atrocities on the minority communities especially Christians at the hands of the partners of the HAF?

    It is time to wake up and know the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva (the fascist ideology that HAF and its partners propagate). Hindutva believes in one nation, one culture, one people and will leave no stone unturned till it reaches its ultimate goal of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation).

    The writer perhaps prides himself of NOT being like those evangelicals and for he seems to have equated evangelicals with religious bigots. But this is not the case. Try to dig deeper. If you are what you say you are and a professor, a little better intellectual exercise is expected out of you.

    BTW, did Padma Cuppa ever give an example of the so called cards?

    Regards

  • http://twitter.com/persecutionind christianpersecution

    May be your father did not put it in the right words but do you not even feel his concern for you? He believes that he is going to be in heaven because of his faith and wants you to be there as well. May be if you can see that perspective, you may actually appreciate him. It is however completely your decision to chose or reject Christ.

    • garlicclove

      I did understand that, and that was why I worked to mend the relationship and forgive him. But in the end, that made it hurt no less. I was told over and over again that the only reason I had left the church was that I was too lazy and selfish to give up a life of sin. It did not mater that the Gods were working in my life to change my heart, give me the strength to do good, and a sense of fulfillment that I had not felt in years even as I faithfully attended church and studied the Bible. My father even admitted that he had seen positive changes in my life since my spiritual path had changed–the crippling social anxiety that had ruled me since childhood was manageable for the first time. I was happy, and my life had direction.

      My father was very free with sharing his testimony but each time I tried to share mine I was ridiculed and talked down to. He assumed that I was just “mad at God,” and would eventually get over it.

      I still have very close Christian friends one of whom chose to walk her talk by loving and supporting me through my struggle with my family. She listened to me sympathetically and compassionately, giving me a couch to crash on when things became unbarable at home. Was she praying for me the whole time? I’m sure she was. But she could still respect me and my path. She even came to events at the temple I attended, so that she could learn about her friend’s beliefs. What she did not do was treat my religion like a plauge that she needed to avoid and I needed treatment for. If this friend invited me to go to church with her next time I visited her, I’d say absolutly. How could I do anything less than show her the respect that she showed me? But when my father invited me, I could not go because the trip was tainted with the bitterness of how he had treated me in the name of Christianity.

  • Padma Kuppa

    HAF is a non-partisan human rights and advocacy org that does not partner with poitical organizations in India. This essay in Harvard’s Swadharma might better explain who we are: http://www.hafsite.org/sites/default/files/SvadharmaArticle.pdf as does this from our website: http://www.hafsite.org/about/who_we_are
    The accusations leveled against HAF are false. The commenter should not confuse the right to disagree with a right to fabricate. And moreover, the concern I and others are raising here are not about conversion, but about cases where it is coercive and predatory in nature.

    • http://twitter.com/persecutionind christianpersecution

      Please go through the link to know about the ‘non partisan’ nature of HAF and its allies. http://sanghsamachar.wordpress.com/2007/07/27/intro-to-the-hindutva-american-foundation/

      And this is just one link.

      As far as being predatory is concerned I think the Orissa anti Christian violence (Not Riots for there is no record that Christians retaliated) in 2008 demonstrated enough who was the predator. The firm insistence that said either become Hindus or do not enter your village, if that is not predatory, I do not know what is.

      Also if you claim to have “focuses on human and civil rights”, why have you never spoken against the violence that minorities in India face at the hands of right wing Hindu groups?

      The HAF’s positioning is very convenient but not very convincing.

  • Maria P

    I have owned an IT business in Southwest Florida in the past. One time a customer whose computer I was working on also had a client from his church there spouting misinformation about Paganism in a presentation he was working on to educate others about the “evils thereof”. I remained sllent and thought about whether I wanted to continue to service this business. This same client solicited us to join his church’s business club so we could get special discounts without any regard for what our personal beliefs might be. My husband and I decided to inform him that he would have to find another IT more in line with his beilefs.


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