I was raised in a Baptist church. Though the church removed the denominational reference from its name when I was in high school, it is my understanding that the affiliation remained. Now, when you read “Baptist” it’s likely you imagine something of an archetypal Southern Baptist gathering. Whatever that looks like in your mind’s eye, it is probably more charismatic and musically inclined than the board-stiff, rich, mostly white congregation by which I was surrounded as a child. Cultural variations aside, my church still emphasized the denomination’s core traditions, such as, well, baptism (I got dunked when I was in middle school) and evangelism.
In addition to regular attendance at and involvement in said church, I also went to a religious camp every summer until 10th grade, which, while having no particular denominational affiliation that I’m aware of, was intensely evangelical. Sure, we played the normal summer camp games and had summer camp crushes and made summer camp crafts, but then we also had “Quiet Time”, which necessitated a journal and a Bible. And, we had daily “worship” sessions, during which we sang and raised our hands toward God (‘cause he’s up in the sky) and watched skits that taught us the importance of telling our friends about Jesus dying for their sins so they didn’t have to go to hell.
Through my entire youth I was inundated with the message that it was my responsibility to show those around me the error of their religious ways, and thus rescue their undying souls from eternal torment. Unfortunately, I was a quiet kid, if not shy. Dredging up the motivation to start casual conversations with classmates and fellow church-goers could be struggle enough. How was I supposed to approach total strangers? When my church’s youth group (in which I was heavily involved) went out to do community service (which, while it often involved things like handing out food and clothes, ALWAYS involved telling people about Jesus), I hung back and watched, as much as was possible. At that time, the problem wasn’t so much that I disagreed with the activity as much as it was that it pulled me out of my social comfort zone.
As I moved further through my adolescence, I gained more self- and situational awareness--like most of us do--and the reasons for my discomfort with evangelism started to change. Yes, I was still uncomfortable with approaching strangers for the sake of conversation in general, but I was also starting to talk to my friends at school about the gospel, and I already knew them, and it still kind of sucked. I entered these interactions assuming that the appeal of Christianity would be at least somewhat obvious to them, that it wouldn’t take much convincing. I mean, if Christianity really is the only way, and there’s so much benefit to it, shouldn’t it be pretty easy to get someone to see the light?
Well, they didn’t want to repent, and I felt bad. Only, I didn’t really feel bad because I was worried about their imminent damnation; I felt bad because they didn’t seem to enjoy being preached at or argued with or told their entire worldview was wrong. I felt bad because my proselytizing seemed to be having a negative effect on our friendship, and friendship, as it is to pretty much every teenager, was my most immediate concern. Believe it or not, people do not like being told they are going to hell.
Conversation after conversation, with friends, co-workers, and yes, sometimes even strangers, proved not only ineffectual but also frustrating and hurtful to all parties involved. Despite this, it took years and even one six-month stint at an international missionary school after college until I was finally able to seriously consider the possibility that this kind of “tough love” (which is what I was often taught evangelism had to be) is no love at all. And, it wasn’t until I had finally and publicly left the faith myself that I was able to experience for myself just how shitty it feels to have someone tell you that you’re not actually happy, even when you say you are, and that you’re lost, even when you feel more in line with your heart than ever before.
It is arrogant and patronizing and offensive and humiliating. I am so, so sorry for every time I ever did it to anybody. And for the record, I never converted a soul.
(Previously on Losing My Religion: The Root of All Evil)