Every so often the I Am UU team gets some push-back about our use of the word “Evangelism.” It has developed a bad connotation for a lot of people who think of “Evangelize” as synonymous with “Proselytize.” The words are related, but prosthelization is about trying to convince someone and convert them to your way of thinking. Evangelism is just sharing something with someone because you think it might be good for them. It is about engaging people, and not ensnaring them.
A while back some folks were talking about movies. So I mentioned one I recently saw, sharing a few things I liked about it. I didn’t try to convince people that they had to enjoy it too; I realize some people have different tastes. I was doing movie evangelism–sharing my experience and values. I didn’t expect to persuade (proselytize) anyone to change the types of shows they see. Yet I thought a few might enjoy the movie if they knew what it was about. I approach UU evangelism the same way. I share my experience and values. Some appreciate learning about UU-ism (often for the first time.) Others don’t, so we talk about something else.
That is a great way to look at the kind of outreach that we advocate here: share your ideas, and let people know that you are part of a community that affirms and promotes a set of Principles that help guide you. If they aren’t interested, you let the conversation move on. That shows respect for their personal dignity and their search for truth and meaning in their life, both by offering to explore ideas with them and by allowing them to say no. The invitation, the offer to share and to listen, shows your respect for them by suggesting that your community has room for them and that their voice is welcome.
This attitude of presenting without the expectation of a specific outcome is valuable even when we have an idea that our partners in conversation are actually interested in learning more. In being comfortable with them turning the conversation to other topics, we allow our friends to choose how much information they take in at one time. So many of those who come gradually to Unitarian Universalism are coming from places where they felt controlled or injured by other religious organizations, and it’s important to remember that they may be very sensitive to even mild pressure to adopt another’s point of view. They may be very interested yet still want to break away from the conversation quickly. Because we put effort into actively respecting their feelings, we can allow them to dip their toes in with no creepy undertones suggesting that we’re waiting until they look away to shove them in clothes and all (and ruining their cellphone in the process).
Equally important to sharing our version of faith with others who might be interested in adopting it, sharing with people who will never have any intention of joining has its own benefits. I have never been Catholic, nor Methodist, nor Jewish… but I have a vague framework of cultural references that help me to place them within our social structure. People of many faiths share enough of their beliefs and practices that outsiders know how to relate to them. This leads to greater acceptance of their rights to hold beliefs that not everyone agrees with. We need to be among those faiths in being recognized so that people can have a generalization to work from. Every mention of a UU project or program or goal informs the world’s opinion of what Unitarian Universalism is. Each time we casually mention the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, the Our Whole Lives curriculum, or the work social action groups do with Habitat for Humanity, we add another brush stroke to the collective mental painting of what UU stands for, and we increase the likelihood of finding allies.
In promising together to affirm (confidently stating that something is true) and promote (to actively support the growth or progress of) our set of guiding Principles, we’re agreeing that our intention is to publicly encourage others to consider accepting these ideas and acting on them in their own lives. Each time we share, we are planting a seed that could lead to a little more compassion, an additional action toward greater justice, or one more voice speaking up for the disadvantaged. We are shaping the world we live in. Outreach is essential to fully living up to our Principles.