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Evangelism: a tale of two salespeople

Yesterday I went to Costco for a long-overdue eye exam.

Among other things, I wanted to return to wearing contacts. The optometrist—who has perfect, uncorrected vision—mentioned that he tries out every new kind of contact. He said, “There’s this one—the moment I put them in my eyes, I knew they were terrible. I don’t sell many of them.”

“Because you choose not to, or because people try them and don’t like them?” I asked.

“Both,” he said. “The sales rep told me, ‘Just sell them to people who’ve never had contacts. They won’t know the difference.”

“Ugh,” I said. “That’s why people don’t trust salespeople.”

Later he recommended a brand of monthly replacement contacts, and gave me a pair to try.

I slipped them in my eyes, and despite the five-year hiatus from contacts, they felt great. I could hardly tell that they were in my eyes.


This story is really about two salespeople—the rep and the optometrist.

The rep was willing to do anything to sell his brand of contacts. The result? Distrust.

The optometrist tested all the contacts, and only recommended ones that felt comfortable in his eyes. The result? Trust.

Distrust of salespeople is not new.

It’s pervasive. Most of us go out of our way to avoid looking like we’re selling something.

In UU circles, it often keeps us from sharing the good news about the religious community we call home. We’re afraid people will think we’re snake oil salesmen.

But there’s another way to “sell.” It’s the model my optometrist uses. Try something. See if you like it. If you do, share it with people you care about. If you don’t, warn people off.

It’s simple, and it’s trustworthy.

So if you’ve found a religious home that you enjoy, don’t be afraid to tell your friends about it.

Don’t push. Don’t presume that what works for you will work for them.

But don’t keep it a secret. Invite them to try it.

They might like it—or not. That’s up to them.

Your job is to make your religious community a healthy, life-enriching place to be—one that keeps the door open, and has clear signage inviting newcomers to come on in.


Monsters in our closet

I have a working theory that many UUs are more afraid of the imagined beliefs of other UUs, than they would be if they knew what those other UUs actually believe.

Here’s what I mean. When I hear people insisting that we need to define our UU identity, that we need to name the core of what UUs believe, I get nervous. I’m afraid that the circle they might draw would shut me out.

But something changes for me when I hear what people really believe, rather than what I imagine. The bedroom light switches on, and the monsters in the closet are just shirts and shoes.

I first realized this when Patrick McLaughlin shared with me David Bumbaugh’s suggestions about UU core beliefs. Bumbaugh’s poetic language allows enough space for a range of interpretations, for a broad spectrum of UUs to say, “Yes, this is what I believe.”

Christine Robinson has also risked articulating our common beliefs. Here’s what she says:

Life is good, and so are you.

Reason and Intellectual Faculties are good.

You can trust them to understand life.

However it’s a Very Big Universe out there,

and many important things can’t be known

through reason and intellect.

For this we have intuition, heart, spirituality,

and other faculties which are useful

but don’t lead everyone to the same conclusions.

Truth on these Very Big matters

is best found in conversations,

actual, virtual, literary, and internal.

It is to be expected that there will be differences.

They enrich us.

That’s what we do as Unitarian Universalists…

grow in spirit, together.

It takes a certain amount of bravery to propose a list of “things commonly believed among us.” We’re a tough crowd. We attack imagined monsters before anyone has time to turn on the lights. We shred a lot of shirts and shoes.

I think it’s time for us to find our courage. Courage to speak our beliefs––and courage to listen to others without reflexive critique.

We are not children. We can expect more from ourselves. We can replace fearfulness with a deep and abiding trust that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”


The high cost of covert evangelism

Two days ago ten members of a Christian medical team were killed in Afghanistan.  The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying that the volunteers were trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The medical team was organized by the NGO International Assistance Mission.  IAM is a signatory to a Red Cross/Red Crescent code of conduct which, among other things, includes a pledge that “Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.”  In other words, IAM pledges not to proselytize.

I can understand why it might be difficult to trust that promise.  And I also can see how easy it would be for the Taliban to capitalize on that mistrust.

I’ve been thinking about world religions lately, recognizing that when I interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I will need to know more than I know now.  So when I was in our local used book store a few weeks ago, and saw a paperback copy of Reza Aslan’s No God but God in the new arrivals section, I snapped it up. I also decided to take a trip down the world religions aisle.

In the Islam section of that aisle, one title in particular stood out.  There were about six copies, all brand new, of Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs.  Further investigation confirmed what I suspected–that this book should have been shelved with Christian apologetics.

When I was in college, belonging to a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was an important part of my journey out of fundamentalism.  One year I went to IVCF’s Global Missions Conference, Urbana, where I remember learning how to be a missionary in the 10-40 window, and specifically how to work covertly within Muslim countries where proselytizing is illegal.  A quick trip to IVCF’s page about Urbana showed me that this is still something IVCF is doing.

Christian missionaries who go into Muslim countries as undercover evangelists probably think long and hard about the personal risks they are taking, and they probably call it “counting the cost.”  But I wonder if their accounting considers the risks their choices create for others.  I wonder if they realize how their covert evangelism erodes trust, breeds suspicion, and endangers those whose mission is simply mercy, and not conversion.