A friend asked me how I would respond to a situation in which he found himself. He felt trapped. As a campus minister through a local church, he was invited to join a group of professors for lunch. As far as he knew, none of them were Christians. When he sat down and introduced himself, one of the professors said, “You’re not going to try to proselytize us, are you?” My friend could tell, based on the other professors’ faces, that this was a comment all of them wanted to make.
“I told them I was just there to listen and ask questions,” my friend told me. “But I’m not sure that was the best response. What would you have said?”
His response wasn’t bad. But I think I know why he felt uneasy about it. He sensed, rightly so, that there was more going on at that lunch table than polite dialogue. Just the selection of their vocabulary term “proselytize” should have sounded an alarm.
I often tell Christians we need to employ a couple of tactics in these situations that go beyond mere answering of questions. Just providing the “right” answer to a specific question isn’t always the best strategy. Consider the many times Jesus didn’t answer people’s questions.
The two tactics I would recommend in scenarios like this are 1) buying some time and 2) leveling the playing field.
First, you must admit (even if those professors wouldn’t acknowledge it) that their question was loaded. It was more of an attack or an accusation than a real question. Most Christians are caught off-guard by these kinds of unfair attacks. So I tell people to buy themselves some time before responding.
Some possible time-buying lines are:
“Hmmmm. That’s quite a question. Let me think about that for a second.”
“Interesting question…I better give that some thought before I answer.”
“Is that a real question?”
“Proselytize! That’s a loaded term, don’t you think?”
“Wow. Talk about a tough way to start a lunch!”
Second, and more important, is the need to level the playing field. This was an unfair attack and, contrary to the way many Christians often respond, we need to push back a bit. I sometimes call this “evangelistic chutzpah,” employing a Yiddish word to express what no English word can do. Yes, there are many times we should “defend” the faith. But sometimes, we should put them on the defensive. When non-Christians feel morally or intellectually superior to us, it might be wise to first put them in their place.
(I know. This is uncomfortable. You may be thinking this is harsh. It depends on how you express yourself and the tone of voice you use. But consider how Jesus responded when he was asked, “By what authority are you doing these things?” (see Matt 21:23 and following). Jesus refused to answer their question and pushed back with his own probe that revealed their arrogance).
Leveling the playing field means showing people their own intolerance. Often it forces people to see their own attempts to “proselytize.” When these professors asked my friend if he was going to try to proselytize them, they themselves were attempting to “convert” him to their way of thinking – a way that believes you should not try to proselytize! That’s a very specific form of religious faith – one that the vast majority of people throughout history have disagreed with. It’s a recent invention, and a particularly Western-American-post-enlightenment form of religion. It’s remarkably intolerant of the views of millions of people.
So, I would have said one of these possible retorts:
“Well…I’ll make you a deal. I won’t proselytize you if you stop trying to proselytize me.”
“Of course I’m going to try to convert you! What kind of an evangelical Christian would I be if I didn’t try to do that!”
“Let’s be honest. We’re both trying to convert each other. You’re trying to change my beliefs to a kind of Christianity that doesn’t try to convert people. And I’m trying to convert you to a kind of Christianity that can’t do otherwise.”
“Aren’t you proselytizing me right now?”
Until people see their own intolerance, claimed in the name of “tolerance,” it will be difficult to have a real two-way conversation. This may take some time…and a healthy dose of chutzpah. But helping people get set free from this kind of bondage (and it is certainly not anything less than that!), may be the most gracious, loving thing we can do for them.
(If this kind of thinking is helpful for you, you may also appreciate D.A. Carson’s new book, The Intolerance of Tolerance).