"Sharing the Gospel": A Charitable Reading

Once upon a time, I took a brief, planned sabbatical from LDS services to attend a local Unitarian Universalist congregation. During those few weeks, I had a long, heart-felt conversation with their minister. At the end of it, she said, “I so hope you continue to worship with us . . .” and then she paused and amended, “Actually, I hope you choose the path that makes you the happiest.”

I appreciated both of her statements – first, she had obviously found meaning and joy in her own worship and desired to share that with me. Second, she demonstrated regard for me as a unique individual.

I’m not a natural missionary in the traditional sense of the word. I understand the discomfort some feel with the terms “missionary work” and “missionary opportunities” for fear that it implies a problematic, impersonal binary: person = potential convert. But I am likewise uncomfortable with unqualified distrust of any attempt to share religious beliefs and experiences with others.

This is on my mind because of some of the reflexive responses to Maria’s gift idea. She didn’t advocate passing out Book of Mormon’s to neighbors she had never met. She passed along a gift idea that was 1) cheap 2) in keeping with the spirit of this religious holiday 3) distinctive and subtly reflective of her family’s background and culture.

I wonder who I would be – how much more ignorant and impoverished – if my friends and neighbors of the last fifteen years had been reluctant to let me in to their spiritual world. My four closest friends in college were, as part of their identity:

1) an orthodox Jew
2) A member of Opus Dei (a group within Catholicism)
3) A member of Campus Crusade for Christ
4) A Baha’i

As such, I’ve been to many masses and Catholic education events; Passover, Purim, Succot, and orthodox wedding celebrations; evangelical pop concerts; Baha’i services. I have been handed catechisms and prayer cards. I have read articles friends have photocopied for me that help explain their beliefs. I know that, if I had decided to join the Catholic Church or chosen to be “born again,” my friends would have been thrilled. They would have helped me through the conversion process. But I didn’t. And they are still my friends.

I take sharing as a sign of people’s comfort with their own faith. When I attended a Quaker meeting last year, several people came up to introduce themselves, to offer me pamphlets, to extol what they liked about their Meetings. When I went to an Episcopal church one Easter, my pew-mates likewise introduced themselves and, upon hearing me sing with my usual gusto, invited me to join their community choir (I was flattered).

I am grateful that I don’t view evangelicals as a monolithic block, that I don’t buy the DaVinci Code’s sinister portrayal of Opus Dei, that I have insight into the Orthodox traditions, that I know Unitarians can be as devoted to their faith as those who have more dogmatic creeds. If I am reluctant to share my faith, I am contributing to the religious ignorance. I may not be personally gung-ho about “missionary work,” but I want to be comfortable being ME with others – and part of me includes my faith. So if I really like a MoTab CD, why not share it with a friend? And if I am running the Primary Program – as I recently did – and it has taken *hours* of my time, why not invite a friend? After all, I would invite them to a school production I was directing.

As it was, I brought my husband along to watch the children sing. Church isn’t his cup of tea, but he came because he loves me and cares that I care about this church. And he was OK with the fact that lots of people came up to introduce themselves. I suppose some may have been thinking “let’s go fellowship that non-member” — but mostly, these good people were just being themselves and allowing that to come through.


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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9 Responses

  1. Lynnette says:

    Thanks for this post; it captures many of my own conflicted feelings about proselytizing. On the one hand, I’m wary of the superiority which can so easily creep into efforts to share the gospel, the condescending sense of “I have the truth, so I’m reaching out to those poor souls who are lost in darkness.” But like you, I think it would be a tremendous loss if we weren’t willing to share the beliefs and experiences which have shaped our spiritual lives and enabled us to find meaning. I’ll be the first to admit that I can be awfully cynical about missionary work, perhaps too much so. But I nonetheless have on occasion given LDS scriptures to my non-LDS friends, or sent LDS e-cards, or brought them to church; not because I think they’ll be converted, but because it’s a central part of my life and identity. And I appreciate the aspects of their religious lives that they’ve in turn shared with me; in recent years, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about what it means to be Lutheran, or UCC, or Catholic, from spending time with good friends in those traditions. It would be sad for all of us, I think, if excessive concern about even the appearance of proselytizing led us to refrain from sharing those kinds of things.

  2. Caroline says:

    Deborah, this is great. I am one of those people who tends to not tell others that I’m Mormon. I’ve been working at my school for three years now, and not a single person there knows my religious background.

    But I love your way of thinking about it. Telling people about my faith tradition isn’t an attempt to convert, but instead a gesture of trust and friendship.

  3. Dora says:

    Last week, I attended a small lecture by Drs. Claudia and Richard Bushman. And the second most thrilling thing I heard was RB saying that we Latterday Saints need to find something more to say to others besides, “Join us.”

    RB talked a lot about the relationship-building that’s been going on between the LDS church and other faiths, especially with evangelical Christians. Despite a great desire to convert, there has also been a more friendly exploration of shared beliefs and differences in doctrine and practice. And given the bitterness that has seemed to taint past interaction, it’s encouraging to think that we’re all learning to be more respectful of each other.

  4. Anonymous says:

    As I said in my earlier post, I’ve been on the receiving end of such “gifts” and I find them odd. I’d rather receive nothing than a gift with a hook. It is one thing if I ask you about your beliefs, or it comes up in conversation; quite another to send a “gift,” and a cheap one at that, with a missionary purpose.

  5. Deborah says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    Anon: I suppose that discomfort or distaste might partly depend on the prior relationship with the one giving the gift — e.g. if religion a point of concern, conflict, or annoyance (an Ensign subscription for a distant relative who has recently left the church). But I would place most of the religiously oriented gifts I’ve received (from “cheap” prayer cards to a book of Pope John Paul’s teachings to a wooden dreidel)in the category of *sharing* — which am differentiating from the “Join us!” mantra Dora mentioned. When we shun sharing for fear of proselytizing, I think we’ve lost something. And I’m thinking about this in macro — Maria’s post just spurred my long-simmering thoughts on the topic.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Deborah, I appreciate your clarification. Also the insight about the nature of the relationship is spot on, since it’s precisely that which has kindled my rather harsh assessment. Thanks!

  7. Liz says:

    I agree 100% with this post.

    I always appreciate that someone values me enough to share their innermost feelings about God/High Power/etc. And I make sure that if I share anything, it is coming from the same spirit–that of respect and a desire for mutual understanding—not conversion.

  8. Bookslinger says:

    Amen, sister.

  1. September 24, 2012

    […] recently required that I do — I had to dig deep.  This post from my past reminded me that I am not adverse to spiritual sharing – quite the […]

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