Thursday, March 1, 2007

Proselytizing and Sheep-Stealing

Last week I debated with myself about posting something “controversial” here again. Looking at my site meter, many of you graciously visited often back in October & November when we discussed the departure of Fr. John Fenton from the LCMS–and we had many other visitors as well. So I thought, in a purely worldly and sinful fashion, that if I were to post something that aroused the reader’s ire, perhaps I could gain more visitors. What can I say, I am a Church Growth-er at heart, it seems–or just prideful and seeking recognition. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!

While posting something like that purely for sake of publicity would be wrong (and make me akin to James Cameron–see below), an interesting discussion has developed at Weedon’s Blog that is worth noting. It seems a new Yahoo! Group called Lutherans Looking East has been formed, whose purpose is to provide…

an open forum for current or former Lutherans who may be either looking or going East - or simply open-minded and curious about the second largest group of Christians in the world. Lutheran converts to Orthodoxy are available to provide Orthodox answers to honest questions about the Orthodox Church.

Charges of sheep-stealing and proselytizing were immediately charged–and those are serious charges.

Sheep-stealing is more straightforward of the two. One minister in this area sent fliers to all the local churches advertising a special “Cowboy Service” to be held at a stockyard on Thursday Nights. It was unclear from the advertisements whether this would be an on-going attraction or a one-night only affair. The draw was to come and see how the Cowboys on the cattle drives would worship around the chuck wagons, I suppose (Government Springs near downtown Enid was a stop on the Chisholm Trail, after all, and we love our cattlemen here). Many churches dutifully placed the posters on their bulletin boards and went on with life. Only after a month or so did I realize that the Cowboy Church was the real deal, hosting services every week and encouraging membership. It raised my eyebrows, as it seems awfully close to say, placing a sign in a Wendy’s restaurant for a special activity that just happens to take place at the McDonald’s across town. It is generally seen as unethical to lure members of one church into another for the ultimate purpose of gaining members. When we host our Vacation Bible School, for instance, I intentionally only invite those “without a church home” to join us on the following Sunday.

Proselytizing is a bit trickier. In definition it doesn’t differ much from “religious conversion.” Some make distinctions this way: proselytism is enticing someone to your religious beliefs, actively seeking converts through advertising and “evangelism;” true conversion would entail a potential convert seeking truth elsewhere at his initiative instead of the church’s. Thus, knocking on doors and Ablaze programs might be proselytism, but taking telephone calls or emails from people who have heard about Lutheranism is not. Roman Catholics define proselytism as “forcing” conversion or by offering material inducements to those who convert which current members do not receive–a broader definition.

Our history as Lutherans would lead us to affirm the propriety, even need, of converting from one religion/church to another. If religious conversion were always bad, then there would be few, if any Lutherans. We do our own fair share of encouraging evangelism, advertising and “making our presence” known. If we have the truth, and others don’t, the Word of God compels us to proclaim it to any and all who might hear. Someone said something like this once back in 1521. And I know of no Lutherans who have ever been offered material gain for conversion (in fact, it is rare in my experience for Lutherans to give material need to our own who are needy–shame on us!).

So, is establishing a web-based dialogue for Lutherans who have heard about the Orthodox church and are interested or curious an act of proselytizing? Sheep stealing?

What do you think? Is it suspect because it is targeted to one specific religion (Lutherans), but something less targeted wouldn’t be suspect? Would it be appropriate for Lutherans to form a site targeted to the Orthodox? Catholic? Baptists?