Evangelism is not proselytism

‘Mission’, ‘evangelism'(and ‘evangelization’) and ‘proselytism’ are often muddled by speakers and this results in confusion and conjecture. Thus David Virtue mentions the Bishop of Los Angeles apologizing to Hindu leaders for the Christian Church’s proselytism of Hindus. Is this apology for ‘proselytism’ a confusion of terms or a denial of God’s calling of Hindu people to become followers of Jesus Christ?

“By declaring that there will be no more proselytizing, the bishop has opened a new door of understanding,” (Hindu leader Swami) Sarvadevananda said. “The modern religious man must expand his understanding and love of religions and their practices.”

Here are some definitions:

‘Mission’ is the Church’s participation in God’s work in the world. 

‘Evangelism’ is the proclamation that God is involved in history and has come into history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who is the Lord of all history, long expected Messiah and Saviour. Evangelism tells of Jesus’ life, crucifixion, resurrection, ascencion and return. Evangelism is an invitation and seeks a response.   

‘Proselytism’ is the practice of trying to change a person’s religious adherence to one’s own (see The Macquarie Dictionary). In common usuage today, however, it is generally seen as a negative activity because proselytism has come to refer to the winning of Christians of another denomination to one’s own Christian group. In this regard see an Orthodox Church explanation of the important distinction between Evangelism and Proselytism. Also proselytism can sometimes refer to the offering of an inducement to a person to join a religious group.

As the Bishop of Los Angeles is apologizing to the Hindu community for the Christian practice of trying to change the allegiance of their people from Hinduism to Christ, he either: a. does not believe that Hindus need to become Christians, b. sees Hindu allegiance as sufficient a religious allegiance as allegiance to Christ, or c. he is referring to a situation where Hindu people were offered inducements or perhaps threatened if they did not change their religion to following Christ. 

This is confusing. Let’s be clear in the use of ‘mission’, ‘evangelism’ and ‘proselytism’. Thus we will understand one another, whether in agreement or disagreement. 

Speaking of clarity about mission and evangelism, I long remember John Stott teaching in South America and encouraging leaders with words such as these:

As the Father sent the Son into the world, so the Lord Jesus Christ sends his church to participate in God’s mission by words and works. In this mission the church is called: to make Christ known; to proclaim God’s truth and the gospel of God’s grace; to make disciples among all nations; to exhibit God’s character through compassionate care for the needy; to demonstrate the reality of God’s kingdom through creative and sacrificial living, the community of love, the quest for righteousness, justice and peace, and the care of God’s creation.


Evangelism is not proselytism — 2 Comments

  1. Hi +John,

    Great distinction: Proselytism = an inducement or threat to change beliefs, Evangelism = proclamation of the Good news about Jesus.

  2. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the Bishop of Los Angeles is adopting positions a, b, or a blend of both. Having just been to a National Cursillo gathering, there were certainly some there who would line up at that point.
    Jesus said,”Come all you who are weary, and I can point you to a range of sources where you might find the rest that is appropriate to your own particular need”?????

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