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Pastors Should Prohibit ‘Proselytizing’

As much as possible, people should work out their conflicts within their own community of faith. It won’t always work, and people do have legitimate reasons for changing congregations. But pastors who make it too easy contribute little to the spiritual welfare of those they accept.

But the practice is perhaps more common than ever. Evangelicals love to convert Catholics. Catholics take quiet satisfaction from the flow their way of disillusioned evangelicals. The consumer mentality among churchgoers means folk regularly shift congregations or denominations in order to meet their preferences.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 
Megachurches unabashedly market to all comers. And mainline ministers faced with declining membership rolls are just glad to see any new faces come through the door.    
The result is a kind of ongoing degradation of ministerial courtesy that, like the biblical Jubilee, may have been more theory than practice in any case.

The idea was twofold. First, a minister should never actively seek to recruit members from another church. The underlying assumption is the unity of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />kingdom of God. This was always ignored by groups who believed they held an exclusive corner on the truth. 

If you were a Baptist who believed Catholics had no knowledge of personal salvation, it became your duty to convert Catholics. The early Assembly of God and Church of Christ movements came largely from Baptists who became convinced that either the baptism of the Holy Spirit (AG) or baptismal regeneration (CC) were necessary for salvation. They proselytized with impunity and glee. Little can be done to alter such practices without first altering the assumptions that fuel them. 
The second part of the prohibition of proselytizing is more interesting, though. It suggests that no Christian should jump from church to church for trivial or unhealthy reasons and that no minister should willingly assist such a change. In my own years in the pastorate, I seldom saw this idea addressed well.

One colleague from a sister church in town did make a point of telling me he would always notify me if someone from the congregation I served began considering joining his. He never actually did so though. A second colleague urged a disgruntled couple from our church to talk with me before moving their membership. But he allowed them to do so without following through. Nor was my own record much better.    
Shouldn’t there be a better way? What if we developed in advance a clear protocol for dealing with visitors from neighboring churches? What would happen if every minister visited by those from another congregation began asking three simple questions: “Why do you want leave the other church? Have you discussed your feelings with your pastor? May I call him or her to suggest that they call you?”     
Unhappy members in one church frequently make unhappy or marginal members in the next. Pastors have an obligation both to their colleagues and to their own congregations to make certain that the body of Christ stays as healthy and as unpolluted by unresolved conflict as possible.   
As much as possible, people should work out their conflicts within their own community of faith. It won’t always work, and people do have legitimate reasons for changing congregations. But pastors who make it too easy contribute little to the spiritual welfare of those they accept. 

This, it seems to me, is the essential genius of the proselytizing prohibition. I wish our seminaries, judicatories and ministerial associations did a better job of pushing us all in this direction.  
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.