Monday, 31 May 2010

Who's worse: missionaries or marketeers?

David Griffiths writes in defence of missionaries in the Guardian's Comment is free section today. Griffiths works for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organization completely focused on defending Christians from persecution, so his interest in the image of missionaries is less than an objective one.

[There has recently been considerable noise in the UK that Christians - the vast majority here in this country with a Christian State religion - are being persecuted.  It just amazes me when the increasing rights of the minority are termed 'persecution' of the majority!]

Griffiths would argue that missionary work - when done respectfully - brings exposure to new ideas. It is a healthy thing done only by those dedicated to preserving the status quo.

Well, he may be ignoring the obvious fact that it has always been the powerful and the affluent who have the ability to send forth such missionaries. The poor and weak are always at the receiving end of the 'saving message.' This is not hardly our ideal free exchange of ideas when it is so entirely tied to power and money.

On the other hand, we live in a world awash in a different kind of evangelism - advertising. There is almost nowhere we can go where we will not be exposed to the promise of salvation through purchases. I am beginning to suspect that a new iPad will truly bring me the independence, connectedness, efficiency, effectiveness and sheer joy that I have been craving!

In that kind of a world - where missionaries are so enormously out-gunned by corporate evangelism - is a bit of missionary activity really so bad?

I recently heard an excellent presentation by Brian Kiely, President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU). Kiely was very, very careful to ensure the audience that the ICUU was not in any way working to spread the U*U [Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists - oy!] movement, but rather to support those groups that have have already become identified with and connected to U*Uism. Good religious liberals like the U*Us are impeccably careful about imposing anything on anyone - so much so that we tend to be invisible. The ICUU is well aware of the history of Western religious imperialism. It clearly does not wanted to get painted with that brush.

But...  isn't there a good argument to be made that in a world awash in materialistic, corporate evangelism, a respectful message - a truly respectful message without attempts to convince or convert - would be appropriate? More than appropriate, perhaps it is irresponsible not to share a way of life that is more meaningful and satisfying than materialism.

I would be very supportive of some good U*U missionaries travelling the world, standing on soap-boxes, and shouting out our not so oppressive messages: "you are worthy of respect and love", "you have the right to think for yourself", and "it doesn't matter what you believe, just be good to each other and the planet."


  1. Interesting, I'm actually mid-writing an essay about how scientists and liberal types fail to change opinions by using the wrong style of argument, and that taking hints from the marketing world might actually be more effective. I shall have to drop you a link to it when I'm done!
    (Also I can't help thinking that telling people 'you must think for yourselves' is rather reminiscent of the Life of Brian: "Repeat after me, we are all individuals!" :-D )


    (P.S. For some reason my livejournal openID wouldn't work on here today, but it's )

  2. There's a difference between interfaith dialogue, evangelism & proselytising.

    However, telling people what UUism can offer - a community of like-minded people on a spiritual journey, with no requirement to leave your brain at the door - may be a kind of "evangelism" but not in the sense that Christians mean it.

    I think the IARF (though it needs to be higher profile) is excellent, as it fosters freedom of religion within existing traditions. Full-blown UUism as we have it in the West might not fit in all cultures, but our values would fit, and it's worth spreading those, by forming alliances with like-minded people of other faiths through organisations like the IARF.

  3. You write: "But... isn't there a good argument to be made that in a world awash in materialistic, corporate evangelism, a respectful message - a truly respectful message without attempts to convince or convert - would be appropriate?"

    Like this blog!

    It's worth noting that the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is a Unitarian, and that he has written an essay on how the Web is a lot like Unitarianism. The Web is characterized by peer-to-peer transactions, lack of hierarchy, open conversations, and (at its best) respectful dialogue. Thus perhaps the Web is the natural medium for Unitarian missionary work....

  4. Outside your own culture, at its most benign, missionary work is cultural genocide.

    Within your own culture, a missionary zeal can be useful, but marketing skills and knowledge much more so. We are right to support local expressions of religious liberalism, working with local groups to enable people to connect with liberal religious communities. Those local expresssions are equally as valid when they are British.

    If we are missionaries here, working within our local culture, then that is ok. Imported ministers need to support local expressions of Unitarians, but then you do that anyway.

  5. Ignoring ways in which it could be abusive, marketing is about communicating something with as much reach and retention as possible.

    I really don't get why liberal religionists feel that communicating their religion is somehow not the done thing. It seems utterly self-defeating.

    I agree with you 100% Andy. If you've got a message worth hearing, shout it out.

    It is interesting, I think, that the American Mega-church movement (for which I have a great deal of theological contempt alongside organizational awe) is driven by charismatic individuals with effective communication strategies. They understand how to reach people, and aren't ashamed to do so. Meanwhile sane religionists are sitting by navel gazing and wondering if they should even mention their own existence.

    Frankly, church growth is about marcomms, one way or another.

  6. I think we can be in danger of speaking only in caricatures and stereotypes when we speak of evangelism and missionary work. I would particularly dispute that is is ALWAYS the powerful who do mission to the powerless. I read recently that Christianity has only spread in three ways: colonialism, monasticism and martyrdom. It wouldn't suprise you to know that what I would advocate is martyrdom (meaning witness, not necessarily death, but it does suggest working from a position of vulnerability and powerlessness). Christianity began spreading this way. And I would argue that mission through colonialism is a distortion of true Christian mission.

    We also have to make a distinction between culture and religion. Any religion has to root itself in culture, so the same faith in a different cultural context can look and feel quite different. Someone can take on a different religion while still practicing it in a way that makes sense within their own culture. Although it's not always easy to work out what is the core of the message and what is it's cultural baggage.

  7. Ophelia Benson writes clearly and insightfully on this topic in today's Guardian CiF.