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When I heard that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) planned to send 100,000 volunteers to Chicago next summer to evangelize the city, my first reaction was, Good luck. (Perhaps I have been living in New York too long.) Evangelism, of course, is essential to Christianity. The Great Commission enjoins the faithful to spread the Good News to all the world, Chicago presumably included. Christians disagree among themselves how best to obey that injunction almost as vigorously as they agree that, in some manner, they must in fact obey it.

In the Missouri Synod Lutheranism of my childhood, the style of evangelism was not much different from that of today’s SBC. We hadn’t the numbers to match anything like the SBC’s Chicago enterprise, but we were of a similar spirit. Every fall LCMS congregations would celebrate Mission Sunday; often a number of them would join together to organize a Mission Festival. Missionaries were heroic figures in our eyes, and, unlike today, when they often function as little more than ecclesiastical social workers, their animating purpose was to win souls for Christ. We burst with enthusiasm as we gathered funds to send missionaries across the globe, ranging, as the words of the popular hymn had it, “from Greenland’s icy mountains to India’s coral strand.”

Styles of piety change. As my initial response to the SBC Chicago venture indicates, I am less persuaded than I once was of the efficacy, perhaps even the wisdom, of mass evangelism programs. But I remain ambivalent, and I have no problem wishing the Baptists well in their efforts.

Not everyone, it seems, agrees. On November 27, 1999, the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago released a letter over the signature of Executive Director Paul H. Rutgers to Paige Patterson, president of the SBC and of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, urging the SBC to “modify” its plans. The letter from the Council (which consists of forty representatives of the region’s Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestant, and Jewish communities) warned that the SBC’s efforts, “however well-intentioned,” might well “disrupt the pattern of peaceful interfaith relations in our community and unwittingly abet the designs of those who seek to provoke hate crimes by fomenting faith-based prejudice.”

The letter complains that the SBC’s “call for ‘an army of believers to converge on Chicago’ . . . evokes images of a crusade.” The original crusades, of course, had some very unpleasant consequences, and the Council suggests that it could all happen again. “We are particularly disturbed that the two groups who appear to be among your primary targets, Muslims and Jews, have during the past six months been victims of faith-based terrorist violence in Chicago.” While the Council charitably concedes that the SBC volunteers would no doubt arrive “with entirely peaceful intentions,” it nonetheless worries that “a campaign of the nature and scope you envision could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes.”

The Council insists that it is not opposed to evangelization per se. It is, after all, “protected by First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech.” (What higher mandate could there be?) Indeed, the letter goes on, some of the churches represented on the Council themselves engage, like the Baptists, in “seeking converts,” though, presumably unlike the Baptists, those churches “try to be sensitive to local realities”—a reference, one supposes, to that peculiar “faith-based terrorist violence” that seems to plague Chicago. Given such local realities, the Council helpfully suggests that the SBC confine its Chicago initiative to “service projects, such as food delivery to the homeless and building or rehabilitating affordable housing.” 

If the Council hoped to deter President Patterson and his colleagues, it woefully miscalculated. Dr. Patterson begins his uncompromising response, dated November 29, by noting that the Council’s November 27 letter had been published in media outlets before it had made its way to him. “Letters released to the media prior to delivery to their intended recipients,” he says, “can never be considered as serious attempts to engender either cooperation or understanding.” Their purpose “is to intimidate rather than to negotiate.” “Pleased be advised,” he goes on, “that all such unworthy attempts will fail to intimidate Southern Baptists from fulfilling the task assigned by Jesus in the Great Commission to [carry] the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the world, of which Chicago remains a vital part.” 

The SBC, Dr. Patterson makes clear, is not simply an adjunct of Habitat for Humanity. “We will, indeed, attempt to provide for those in physical need, but we will also point people to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus . . . To all who wish to hear we will share the hope of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins through repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Patterson turns the Council’s argument back on itself. “If there is violence or ‘hate crimes,’ such will not be perpetrated by Southern Baptists or in any way engendered by our compassionate message. To the contrary, we are much more likely to be the targets of such attacks. Furthermore, letters like the one that you wrote to the press, under the guise of writing to me, are more likely the stuff from which hate crimes emerge.”

Finally, with reference to the Council’s declaration that it recognizes the SBC’s right to evangelize, President Patterson acidly suggests that “you appear to desire religious liberty for . . . evangelicals as long as they agree not to exercise that freedom.” He signs off with this: “Friends, we will see you [next summer] armed with peace on earth and good will for all men and hearts full of love for you and all the noble people of Chicago.” Then the delicious P.S.: “We have yet to receive your letter.”

There is little doubt, in my mind anyway, that Patterson got the better of his exchange with the Council. But there are larger issues at stake. Evangelism was until recent years an unproblematic matter: it was simply what Christians did, and nobody doubted the propriety of their doing it. Things have lately become more complicated. Popular usage increasingly marks a distinction between evangelizing (acceptable) and proselytizing (bad form, at the very least).

The distinction, variable and imprecise at best, is notably difficult to maintain in practice. Among aggressive secularists and certain religious liberals who have forgotten why they were religious in the first place, virtually all forms of evangelism collapse into proselytism. Even less sweeping critics regularly place the Southern Baptists on the wrong side of the divide. They object in particular to the SBC’s purported habit of targeting specific groups for conversion.

Jewish organizations have led the opposition. They complain of SBC resolutions and programs that designate Jews as objects of missionary efforts. Of special concern is the cooperation between Southern Baptists and messianic Jewish groups (e.g., Jews for Jesus) that insist that Jews can remain fully Jewish even while recognizing Jesus as the messiah. Michael S. Miller, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, accuses the SBC of complicity in messianic Jewish organizations’ “deceptive tactics” of employing such traditional Jewish symbols as prayer shawls and skullcaps.

Once again, Dr. Patterson is unapologetic. “Southern Baptists are targeting nobody specifically,” he told the New York Times. “Our expressed mandate from Jesus is to take the gospel to the whole world. Jewish people are part of that world.” He insists, furthermore, that messianic Jews cannot fairly be accused of deception as long as they make clear their belief in Jesus. He suggests that critics, Jews and non-Jews alike, complain of SBC evangelistic practices not because they are objectionable in themselves but because they might be successful.

Cultural sensibilities are clearly in play in all this, but they are not finally the issue. Between Jews and Christians, and between Christians and other Christians, matters go deeper. Relations between Jews and Christians will be forever agonistic: Jesus cannot for them be other than a figure of contention. Good manners count, but they can go only so far. Intra-Christian differences are more complex. They have to do, in the end, with how Christians respond to the critique of modernity. Many of them have been so abashed by that critique as to fashion a gospel that is no longer a scandal. Others, the SBC perhaps included, have too much reduced the scandal to comfortable assurance.

Should the Baptists go to Chicago? Yes, they should, even if one wishes they would go more in the spirit of Paul Ricoeur’s second naivete—the simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity. But were that the case, of course, they might not go at all.