May 31, 2009 [LINK / comment]

"Forcing religion" on people?

While I was crossing the street on my way into church this morning, a pedestrian heading the other direction hailed me and asked me what I thought about forcing religion on people. I was momentarily confused by the random solicitation, but decided to humor him and played along with his line of questioning, telling him that I was against it. He then proceeded to tell me what a terrible thing it is when religious beliefs are forced on someone, by the government or whoever, and I agreeed. So then he asks me why there are two churches right next to each other (Emmanuel Episcopal, which I attend, and a Baptist church), and complains about the large number of churches that dominate the downtown area of Staunton. He told me that this heavy concentration of places of worship amounted to forcing religion on people, and he quite clearly was deeply offended by it. He said he is from Lexington, which does not have nearly as many churches downtown compared to Staunton. I told him that no one is forced to join any church, and that whether he attends one or not is entirely up to him. It was certainly a strange way to start a Sunday service.

The guy wasn't dressed very well, and I know he is probably just a malcontented crank, perhaps down on his luck, but he raises an interesting point. It's just not the point he was trying to raise. Whereas he felt oppressed by all the physical edifices with Christian symbols, the truth of the matter is that most mainstream churches in Staunton and elsewhere are very reticent about proselytizing non-believers. The only days during the year when our congregation "hits the streets" to spread the Gospel is on Palm Sunday (the ecumenical procession through downtown) and on Christmas eve, when some members sing Christmas carols door to door. Otherwise, we pretty much keep to ourselves, hoping that new visitors will walk in our doors.

When you put that guy's complaint together with the facts, there is a glaring contradiction, and I think it teaches us a lesson. The problem is not that churches are doing too much proselytizing, it is that we are not doing enough. The guy is probably alienated and feels a vague sense that he should be in closer contact with God, and this may have been his way of expressing that longing. Or maybe not. Either way, it is clear to me that more church members need to get serious about spreading the message of salvation and redemption through Jesus Christ.

In an interesting coincidence, today was the Day of Pentecost, in which the resurrected Messiah breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples, who began speaking in tongues and working miracles. Nowadays most mainstream churches find it hard to celebrate such a holiday (holy day), feeling uncomfortable with the Christian Church's zealous cult-like origins. That is too bad, and really needs to change if the church is to play its proper role in reaching out to the millions of troubled people who are suffering from economic woes and other afflictions.

May the spiritual fire received by the founders of the church on that first Day of Pentecost be rekindled within all of us who believe, to the greater glory and honor of God.