Communication and Proselytism

by Carlos A. Valle

The Rev. Carlos A. Valle is General Secretary of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), 357 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5QY, England.

The following text was presented as part of a conference on World Mission and the Role of Korean Churches, held in Seoul, Korea.


The author examines proselytism from the standpoint of Christian communication. He lists four “impure motives” for evangelism: imperialistic, cultural, romantic and colonial. Conversion is possible only if people become subjects rather than objects of communication. And offering the present and future life as motivation must be used with care; it can be misused to prevent poor people from taking any action to improve their situation in the real world.

Proselytism is one of the major interchurch problems in Christian Church history. In ecumenical dialogue it is one of the issues that repeatedly has drawn the attention of congresses, seminars, committees. Even though there is ecumenical consensus that proselytism is unacceptable and the churches should renounce it, in the last years discussion of the theme has arisen again. Some of the reasons mentioned are: competitive missionary activities in several parts of the world; the re-emergence of tensions between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church concerning the Eastern Rite Catholic churches; the use of humanitarian help to influence people to change their denomination; the growth of religious fundamentalism and the impact of sects and religious movements.(1)

In the World Conference on Mission and Evangelism, held in Salvador, Bahia, 1996, this theme came up repeatedly. The Conference Message declares: "...many expressions of mission lead to unethical forms of coercion and proselytism which neither recognize the integrity of the local churches nor are sensitive to local cultures ... We therefore commit ourselves to promote common witness and to renounce proselytism and all forms of mission which destroy the unity of the body of Christ."(2) Later on WCC's Central Committee meeting 1997 approved a document called "Towards Common Witness" where proselytism is considered a "scandal and counterwitness". The document calls upon "a clearer practice of responsible relationship in mission, a sharper commitment to witness in unity and renunciation of all forms of proselytism." At the same time it agrees that it is necessary to have "further dialogue, reflection and study in a number of important ecciesiological, theological and other areas..."(3)

Is there any contribution that communication can make to this dialogue? Even though proselytism is basically an ecclesiological problem, that it is related to the self-understanding of the church and its mission, many of the motivations and misunderstandings created by acceptance or rejection of proselytism are closely related to communication. I will try to summarize the basic problems that emerge from the theme and provide some insights from the perspective,of communication.

1. Originally the word had a positive meaning. "Proselyte" comes from a Greek verb that means "to approach" and it appears only in Jewish and Christian literature. It is a terminus technicus to refer to a convert to Judaism (Acts 2:1 0). In the Judaism after Old Testament times, there was a strong missionary movement into the Hellenic world. Those gentiles that received circumcision were considered "proselytes".

In the New Testament the word "proselyte" only appears in four places, and with the exception of Matthew 23: 15, in the description of the new church in the missionary field ( Acts 2:11; 6:5, 13:43). In the case of Matthew, interpreters differ if Jesus is criticizing the missionary zeal of the Pharisees or only the fact that once they win one person they impose on that person their formalistic understanding of the law.

2. What happened in the life of the Christian Church that turned this positive meaning into the epitome of what the churches have to reject? It is not the purpose of this presentation to look into the theme of proselytism throughout the history of the Christian Church, but at least we should bear in mind that "Proselytism became a major interchurch problem through Roman Catholic (RC) and Protestant missionary work in countries where other Christian churches were already present - for example, among the Orthodox in the Middle East, Ethiopia and India, and among RCs in Latin America."(4)

We know that the meaning given today to the word mission is fairly recent. Until the sixteenth century the term was used exclusively referring to the doctrine of the Trinity, the relationship among the three persons of the Trinity. According to David Bosch it was the Jesuits who first used the word in terms of "spreading Christian faith among people (including Protestants) who were not members of the Catholic Church."(5) This concept of mission presupposes that there is a sender, a task to be accomplished, and also that whoever sends has the authority to do it. When the churches face the problem of proselytism, authority becomes an important issue that tends to predominate in the discussion, because it has to do with the nature of the church.

3. When discussing the problem of proselytism, we should keep in mind the relevance of communication, otherwise only the understanding of authority will prevail ignoring the people whom the churches have to serve. In other words we could reduce our discussion about proselytism to those who have the right or not of approaching others with the purpose of winning them for their own church . And the people themselves would become a remote point of reference. Saying this I do not underestimate the meaning of what the church is. What I am trying to stress is that the focus of many discussions about proselytism leaves out the role of communication. It is the communication of the Gospel that should be at the centre of the discussion of proselytism. But the fact is what was considered a positive expression of the incorporation of new people into the life of the churches now exemplifies the division of the churches.

4. Let us start looking into the problem of proselytism and communication from the perspective of missionary activities. In spite of all that could be said about the positive contribution of missionary work carried out by many churches and groups we cannot ignore that missionary enterprises do not always show the marks of a solid interest in people. Perhaps we should talk, as J. Vekuyl suggests, of "impure motives."(6) He indicates, at least, four.

a) The imperialistic motive. The meaning of mission as "spreading the Christian faith among people" is closely associated with the colonial expansion of the Western world. To mention only one example, Luis Rivera Pagan in his important work on the political and religious conquest of the Americas, affirms that "Truly the Spanish conquerors of the Americas were driven by their quest for God, gold, and glory. But it was the language related to God - theology - that served to rationalize avarice and ambition, not vice versa. It was religion that attempted to sacralize political domination and economic exploitation."(7)

At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Spanish theological and juridical debates (1512-1513) over the legitimacy of armed interventions against the indigenous people culminated in a document called el requirimiento. "This was an attempt to give theological legitimization to the papal grant of the New World to the Castilian sovereigns for the purpose of evangelizing it." 8 With respect to those who refuse to accept Castilian sovereignty and the Christian faith the document includes this clause: "If you do not do it... with the help of God I will use all my power against you and will battle you everywhere and in every possible way, and you will be subject to the yoke and obedience of the Church and their Highnesses, and I will take your people and your women and children, and make them slaves, and as much I will send them, and I will inflict on you all the harm and damage possible."(9)

b) The cultural motive. Speaking at the San Antonio Conference, Lesslie Newbigin made reference to his own cultural background in these terms: "As I look back on my own life as a missionary in India, I realize now in a way that I never did at that time that I was not only carrying the gospel but that I was also a carrier of this so-called modern world-view which I now see to be breaking down because it is false. As I look back on my own judgments I realize that over and over again I was judging situations, thinking that I was making a Christian judgment. But that judgment I was making was shaped more by my training as an Englishman, a product of an English school and university education, than the judgment that arises from living in the world of the Bible."

We have learned, from the long missionary tradition of many of our churches, that the Gospel and culture always go hand in hand. However, it must be said that the relationship between gospel and culture has not been an easy one. Often people not only equated the Gospel with a particular culture but they imposed it as a sacred gift. The disdain of local cultures in the missionary enterprises is another sign of "impure motives".

Today, in many parts of the world, more original theologies are being developed such as liberation theology, black theology, Minjung theology, Dalit theology and various others - which are trying to respond to local realities and to take into account the cultures in which the Gospel takes root. Because of this there has been sustained dialogue between theology and culture, and many of the critiques of Western theology display a marked questioning of culture. Writing on the situation in Zimbabwe, Ambrose Mayo states this clearly when he says: "With zeal all missionaries preached Christ crucified, risen from the dead and alive today. But the Christ they proclaimed was above African culture. Both white and black missionaries understood conversion to Christianity as meaning adoption of a European style of living. Relations with the departed ancestors were declared idolatry, any Christian marriage had to be monogamous and initiation practices must be given up. African culture has to be destroyed and replaced with something very different, and the new thing was in fact identical with the western culture."(10)

c) The romantic motive. The desire to go far away, to live in exotic countries, to meet exotic people, sometimes was the incentive offered for recruiting new missionaries.

In "Evangelistically Yours,"(11) we find an interesting debate about evangelization that reflects something of this romantic spirit and the reaction to it. The proposal comes from Dr. Donald McGavran, Dean Emeritus of the School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary in California, USA, considered a pioneer of a movement called church growth, in an article called "Giant Step in Christian mission," that he wrote for an American magazine. Among other things he affirms: "Thousands of ambassadors and millions of dollars must very soon be devoted to the tens of thousands of unreached segments of mankind. It is not enough to call attention to the three billion who have yet to believe. Existing missionary societies - or new missionary societies - must very soon place well-trained, well equipped, lifetime tasks forces in the thousands of remaining unrelated peoples."(12) "Unless here in America literally thousands of new frontiers missionary societies are founded, in thousands of local churches in most churches (denominations), 'the Unreached Peoples' will not be reached."(13) In his comments Fung asks: "But is there any training and equipping of the missionary so that he or she can have an internal dialogue between gospel and American culture, between gospel and the American dream?(14) The romantic motive for missionary activities could sound sweet, the challenge to a heroic task appears exciting. But a commitment to missionary service that does not take into account those whom it purports to serve, turns the altruistic objective in a self-centred aim.

d) The motive of ecclesiastical colonialism. Throughout its history Western Protestantism was fractured into a great variety of denominations. Denominations were created on a voluntary basis. Nothing prevented "free" churches from being organized where there were already established churches. In the United States, for example, where there was no established church, very soon a variety of denominations were organized. Undoubtedly this has to be considered one of the fruits of the Enlightenment. "it was only when religious belief was removed from the realm of 'fact' to that of 'value', about which individuals were free to differ, that a societal system could evolve in which a multiplicity of denominations could exist side by side and have equal rights."(15)

The medieval dream that one day the world would be put under the sway of the church collapsed. In the middle of the nineteenth century this dream was considered impossible. Now the time has arrived for the divided territories to be conquered by the denominations. The "advance of the Gospel" was counted by its concrete results: number of baptisms, communions, etc. Bosch believes that at that moment "The church had, in a sense, ceased to point to God or to the future: instead, it was pointing to itself" That is why he believes that what Schere comments of the Lutheran mission of the time could be said of the projects of other groups: "The Kingdom of God was reduced to a strategy by which Lutheran mission agencies planted Lutheran churches around the world. Questions were seldom asked at this time about the relationship of these churches to the Kingdom of God. Their very existence appeared to be its own justification, and no further discussion of mission goals was required."(16)

The "impure motives" for missionary work are not necessarily innocent motives. From the point of view of communication they constitute a denial to human dignity. Because "Christian communication should be an act of love which liberates all who take part in it" and because "the Good News for the poor embodies genuine reconciliation by means of which the dignity of all people can be reaffirmed."(17)

5. Two other missionary motives should be mentioned. Perhaps they should not be considered "impure" but often they are theologically more ambiguous in their manifestation.

a) The motive of conversion. We are not dealing here with the concept of conversion as such but with conversion as a missionary motive. For some churches to talk about conversion is to talk about proselytism, for others the experience of Jesus Christ as a personal experience is at the heart of conversion. In an historical and documentary survey about the concept of conversion in the Ecumenical movement, Ans van der Bent,(18)concludes, among other things, that: a) throughout the history of the church, the churches and groups have had many experiences and practices of conversion, "these are often not seen as complementary but as competitive, even contradictory." b) Some of the discussion about conversion tends to concentrate on the rejection of proselytism as an illegitimate way of adding members to one's own particular community. He does not see that in their agreements about the understanding of conversion and proselytism the churches "hardly go beyond this to strive to achieve mutual understanding and to carry out jointly a Christian witness more convincingly and effectively." Once again people are not on the agenda, except as objects of communication. But "only if people become subjects rather than objects of communication can they develop their full potential as individuals and groups."(19)


Thomas F. Stransky, Paulist Father of New Jersey, USA,(20) tells us about his long pastoral experience that provided him with many opportunities for instructing and counselling people who intended to become Catholic. Even though he believes he was trying to give an authentic witness, he recognizes that he can be tempted to distort that witness. At least he mentions three possible temptations: a) One can manipulate a person with previous bad experiences in another church. b) One can be tempted to forget ecumenical learning of common gifts and simply go to us-them language. c) One can list ideals of his or her own church alongside the "practices" of others. He concludes. "By such convert-techniques I am building up my case, not the Lord's, at the expense of others and of truth."

The present and future life motive. The Bible's scholars found it difficult to find in the New Testament a defined concept of conversion for doctrinal or ideological use. "However, conversion is always linked with the kingdom of God rather than with entry into the church or a mere individual decision."(21) The understanding of what is meant by "kingdom of God" entails a number of tensions, for example, between present and future, between the kingdom and the church, between socio-political and individual interpretations. These different approaches remain as part of the ecumenical discussion.

We are concerned here about the use of these tensions for manipulating people because these tensions have been used to send messages of double meaning. For one side, to warn people they should expect nothing of this world, because what is offered with the kingdom has nothing to do with the present life. From the other side, to encourage people to expect "blessings" in this world (health, shelter, prosperity). This will show the fruits of their faith and their commitment to a particular community. How this double message has been delivered is well known. Firstly, to prevent poor people from taking any action to change their situation. Poor people have to learn that their situation will only change in eternity. Secondly, to warn poor people in case promises are not fulfilled that something is wrong with their faith.

We should remember what Lesslie Newbigin defines as conversion: "A turning round in order to participate by faith in a new reality which is the true future of the whole creation. It is not, in the first place, either saving one's soul or joining a society. It is these things only secondarily."(22)

6. As I mentioned at the beginning, a full picture exceeds the purpose of this presentation and I have only highlighted some of the problems that emerge from the theme. It is evident that proselytism needs to be considered as a serious communication problem. According to the document "Towards Common Witness" some of the characteristics which distinguish proselytism from Christian witness are: unfair criticism of caricaturing of the doctrines, beliefs and practices of another church; presenting one's church or confession as 'the true church'; the use of humanitarian aid, educational opportunities or moral and psychological pressure, to induce people to change their affiliation; exploiting people's loneliness, even disillusionment with their own church in order to 'convert' them. I found these and other characteristics mentioned in the document, are an invitation to initiate a self-analysis of our own Christian communication. I believe that this document is valuable if we can start to read it as if it speaks to ourselves, our own church, our own tradition than if it were addressed to 'others'. This could constitute in itself the beginning of a good communication process.

Finally, I would like to share with you what Guillermo Cook tells us about what happened during a meeting where Christian communication was discussed.(23) Divided in study groups, they went out into a village by the seaside to learn about the situation of its inhabitants. One morning they found an unexpected guest, an old villager. They wanted to talk with him and know about his life situation. Suddenly, a pastor, the camp manager, began questioning him whether he was saved or not. When the villager started to mumble a reply, the pastor commenced to preach, urging a decision to Christ from him. Later on they learned that this man, an old resident of the village, knew nothing about the camp and the people that used to meet there, and he never had been invited to that place, not even was he allowed to fish. For Cook, that place, where they were supposed to learn about how to communicate the Gospel was, in fact, standing in the way of the Gospel, at least for the people in that small village. And he concludes: "This experience taught me, a conservative evangelical, that when Christian witness is done in a spirit of vulnerability, service, and openness to others, it is evangelism... Proselytism, in contrast, is motivated by a spirit of churchly pride which goes against the grain of the Gospel. Proselytizers are often overbearing. They assume that only they possess the truth and that it is therefore the duty of the unregenerate to accept it without question. They usually do not take the time to find out where their hearers are. And because they are not vulnerable, they miss the chance of being evangelized by others." As we affirm in the Christian Principles of Communication: "... the Good News for the poor embodies genuine reconciliation by means of which the dignity of all people can be reaffirmed."


1. Towards Common Witness, Appendix VI, Minutes of the Forty-eighth Meeting, Central Committee, WCC, Geneva, 1997, pp. 198-211.

2. Conference Message and Acts of Commitment, Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, 1996.

3. Towards Common Witness, p. 204.

4. Loeffler, P., PROSELYTISM, in Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, WCC, Geneva 1991, p.829.

5. Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission, Orbis Books, New York, 1991, p. 1.

6. Quoted in Bosch,D., op.cit., p.5.

7. Pagan, Luis Rivera, A Violent Evangelism, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville,1992, p.xv.

8. Pagan, L.R., op.cit., p.33.

9. Pagan, L.R., op. cit., p.104.

10. Mayo, Ambrose, Zimbabwe,WCC, Geneva, 1996, p. 11

11. Fung, Raymond, Evangelistically Yours, WCC, Geneva, 1992, pp. 127-187. This is an anthology of the monthly letter that R. Fung, a layperson from Hong Kong wrote when secretary for evangelism at the World Council of Churches.

12. Fung, Raymond, op.cit., p.128.

13. Fung, Raymond, op. cit., p.129.

14. Fung. Raymond, op. cit., p.178.

15. Bosch, D., op.cit., p. 329.

16. Bosch, D., op. cit., p. 332.

17. Christian Principles of Communication (CPC), WACC, London, 1997, p.5.

18. van der Bent, Ans, The Concept of Conversion in the Ecumenical Movement, Ecumenical Review, Vol. 44, 4, October 1992, WCC, Geneva, pp. 380-390. The whole issue is dedicated to the theme of conversion.

19. CPC, p.7.

20. Fung, R., op.cit., pp. 208-21 0.

21. Loeffler, R, CONVERSION, Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, pp. 229-230.

22. Quoted in, Loeffler P. op.cit., p.229.

23 Fung, R. op. cit., pp. 203-204. G. Cook worked several years as coordinator of CELEP in Costa Rica.