Proselytism, Indoctrination or Evangelism?


Denise was a warm, affectionate single mother of three young adult children and one teenager. Her life had not been easy: a marriage to an immature and irresponsible man had failed shortly after the birth of her last child and she had brought the children up on her own. She had secured what work she could, eventually paying off her Housing Commission home.

Her faith and involvement in the local community kept her going during these long years. She had a great devotion to Mary, Mother of God and belonged to various Catholic parish prayer groups. Two of her daughters married very young, and soon she was a proud grandmother to four small children. After years of turmoil and struggle, life seemed to have settled down for Denise; she had some financial security through ownership of her house, joy in the grandchildren and great hopes that her youngest daughter would be the first of the family to complete Year 12.

All this changed dramatically when Denise was introduced to some members of a small evangelical sect. Denise became a victim of intense proselytism. Members of the sect besieged her with visits, with literature, with invitations to prayer sessions and meetings, with offers of work should she join them. Eight months later, her family and friends were horrified when Denise sold her home to make an enormous donation to the sect. She left behind her son, her married daughters and their children, and her Year 12 daughter to move interstate to work full-time for the sect.

Denise has never returned and her children and grandchildren have little contact with her. Her youngest daughter now lives with one of her sisters and never completed her Year 12.

This sect that Denise is involved with is operating quite within the law. In Australia, all religious groups are free to preach and make converts, and this is an invaluable freedom that we would not want to forfeit. Christianity itself is a faith that is essentially evangelical, and part of every Christian’s duty is that of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The central question is: What is appropriate ethical evangelisation and what constitutes proselytism? This is not an issue confined to obscure sects, such as the one Denise joined. At the present time mainstream churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have been accused of proselytism in Russia and Latin America.

Can we come up with some suggestions for an ethical approach to this important question, based on an understanding of our own philosophical and religious tradition, and informed by respect for other faiths?

The following scenario allows you to explore the viewpoints of a range of different people.

Finding The Facts

To begin with, it is important to clarify the meaning of some of the key words associated with this issue. Proselytismevangelism and mission are three terms used in religious parlance that share certain similarities but are understood differently in different contexts.


proselyte in ancient times simply described a person approaching the Jewish faith and preparing to enter it. Christianity also adopted the term: proselytes were people who were not born Christian but became Christians as a result of preaching. To proselytise was simply to engage in preaching the Gospel with a view to attracting new members of the Church. However, in our time the word has developed negative overtones and the word proselytism now implies an effort to draw people to faith by manipulative or unworthy means.

Evangelism v Mission

Evangelism or evangelisation are the words more usually used now to describe the legitimate preaching of the Gospel, while the word mission conveys the sense of being sent out to others to share faith in Christ.

The Catholic Church

A useful starting point would be to read the World Council of Churches’ paper, ‘The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness‘ which sets out the distinctions very well.


Another word which is important for an understanding of how the Church goes about evangelising in the present era is ecumenism. A precise definition of this word is difficult to come by. Deriving from the Greek term oikoumen, meaning universal, the word has come to mean the effort of all Christian Churches towards unity. Among Catholics, the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) was a major impetus towards ecumenical interaction. Read at least the introduction to the Decree on Ecumenism to get a feel for what the Council taught on relationships between the Christian traditions.

In Context

A balanced and detailed article, Mission, Evangelism and Proselytism in Christianity by Joel A. Nichols,outlines the response characteristic of each of four main expressions of Christianity. It clarifies and expands on definitions of mission, evangelism and proselytism, and illustrates these concepts by raising some of the contemporary tensions between the Orthodox Church and other Christian traditions over missionary efforts in post-communist Russia.

In an article by Robert Traer, ‘Prosletyism and International Law the author explains that international law does not distinguish betweem evangelisation and proselytism, but only requires that religious groups not illegally infringe upon the rights of others in their efforts to make their message heard.

Ultimately, then, the issue is an ethical one: Are there right and wrong ways to go about preaching the Gospel? If so, which is the right way?


  • Write or role-play your own scenarios to illustrate how you understand the differences between evangelisation, proselytism, mission and ecumenism.
  • Is evangelisation compatible with ecumenism?
  • In the light of the documents you have read so far, how would you describe what happened to Denise?

Broadening Perspectives

Bearing in mind Denise’s story, we might ask ourselves, What larger issues underlie this situation? Ought religious groups, sects and cults be prevented by law from propagating what are clearly odd views, and from doing so at the cost of a vulnerable person’s lifetime savings and at the expense of familial and societal relationships?

Most of Denise’s family and former friends might say ‘yes’. But the difficulty is deciding on what basis such groups ought be prevented from proselytising and whether restricting their religious freedom would be a step towards a totalitarian society.

Freedom of Religion

One of the most basic rights safeguarded in modern democracies is freedom of religion. America, for example, was founded largely by groups fleeing the religious persecutions of Europe, and religious freedom became a cornerstone of the American constitution. It is the first of the freedoms mentioned in the Amendments. You might like to read some of Thomas Jefferson’s views on religious freedom which underpinned this part of the Constitution.

Australia and Religious Tolerance

Though Australian history is much more secular, the Australian Constitution, Section 116 guarantees similar freedom. According to Australian Law, people ought to be free to hold whatever beliefs convince them and to preach and practise these beliefs freely. Look at the statements on religious freedom on the Religious Tolerance site. Tolerance and respect for other people’s beliefs are always virtues. Australians like to think that acceptance of a variety of viewpoints and tolerance are characteristic of our society.

Relativism v Tolerance

However, sometimes tolerance is confused with relativism. A relativist approach asserts that there are no absolute standards of truth or behaviour, right or wrong, and that ethical and moral norms are entirely a product of particular, even personal, circumstances. This would mean that there are no objective standards by which we could judge whether others (including members of Denise’s sect) are right or wrong in their beliefs and practices, but simply that while these beliefs and practices might be right for them they would be wrong for us. This relativist view is criticised by many including Pope Benedict XVI who maintains that there really are objective standards of truth and goodness.

A site that will introduce ways of thinking about truth and the difference between matters of ‘taste’ and matters of ‘truth’ can be found in a chapter by M. Adler, ‘Seeking the Truth’ on a philosophy page organised by Phoenix College. Some good questions for discussion are suggested.


  • How important in society is the principle of religious freedom? Should it take precedence over protecting people from harm?
  • How would you explain the difference between tolerance and relativism?
  • While Denise is quite happy in her new life, her family and friends judge that the sect is untruthful, misguided and wrong in both its beliefs and its methods. Are there objective ways in which we can assess the rights and wrongs of Denise’s situation? Use the Hot Spots thinking routine to sort out the truth claims of both Denise and her family.

Exploring Sacred Texts

Gospel of Matthew

A core text that has motivated Christian desire to announce the gospel is the final command of Jesus recorded in Matthew 28: 18–20 where he sends his disciples to the ends of the earth to preach and baptise. The sharing of the gospel is a constitutive element of being Christian. Christianity is a religious tradition orientated not to the wellbeing and salvation of the individual alone, but of the individual in relationship to others. Christians are to freely share what they have freely received Matthew 10:8.

Jesus, when sending his disciples out to announce his gospel emphasised the simplicity with which they were to travel and encounter others. There is no hint of bribery or coercion. If the message is not received they are simply to move on to the next place. It is worth reading the whole of Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel, which is often known as the ‘Missionary Discourse’. Helpful footnotes are a feature of the edition of the Bible on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops site.

St Paul

St Paul, the great missionary figure of 1st Century Christianity, is often at pains to point out that he has never made himself a burden (e.g. 2 Cor 11:9) on communities to whom he has proclaimed the good news.

Gospel of Luke

Another text which is significant for gaining an insight into a scriptural approach to evangelism and proselytism occurs in Luke’s gospel Luke 9:49–50. Jesus reproves his disciples when they want to punish others who are working in his name but are not part of the Twelve—his personal followers. Jesus’ response ought to remind Christians of different traditions that they do not ‘own’ the gospel, but are servants of the gospel.

Nor are those who refuse to accept Jesus, to be punished. A verse or two further on in Luke’s gospel the disciples are asking permission to call down retribution on towns who do not receive him. The prophet Elijah had done precisely that, but the disciples are rebuked by Jesus.


  • Having read the parts of the New Testament referred to above, can you describe at least six characteristics of a genuinely Christian approach to mission and evangelisation.

Understanding the Catholic Tradition

The Early Church

Ever since the time of Christ, the Church has been missionary in character. From a tiny group of believers at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, the Church grew in its first 300 years, despite persecution, to approximately 10% of the population of the Roman Empire by the year 300. After the time of Constantine (the first Christian Emperor) missionary activity saw the faith spread throughout the Roman Empire, which at that time embraced most of Europe, North Africa and the near East, and into parts of Asia. Russia was evangelised in the 900s. In the fifteenth century the discovery of the New World prompted vast missionary activity.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

As we have noted, the impetus for this missionary activity originates in the Gospel itself, and the self-understanding of the Church has always been bound up with the call to evangelise. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sets out the Church’s vision of mission in announcing the Gospel to all. Reading further in this section, it is worthwhile noting the respect with which reference is made both to other Christian traditions and to non-believers.

The Catholic Mission

The whole history of the Church is an account of the efforts to share the gospel with as many as possible. A brief summary of the history of the Catholic missionary effort is contained in Wikipedia while a further site explores the nature of Catholic missionary effort between 1200 and 1600. There is much evidence of both the importance of evangelisation in the life of the Church and also the way in which the Church’s approach to missionary language and practice has changed over the past century. Gerard Hall SM explores the changing approach to missionary activity especially since Vatican II but he also provides a brief outline of the Church’s evangelical effort throughout its 2000 year history.

The Christian Mission

An article that critically examines the work of Christian missionaries is by Carlos Valle, ‘Communication and Proselytism’. Though it is written from a Protestant perspective, it contains many points that would also contribute to a useful discussion of the missionary imperative in the Catholic Church. It shows how easily the motivation for announcing the Gospel of Jesus can be corrupted by less worthy considerations.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Despite some of the great evils which have resulted from unworthy evangelical activity, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Capetown, asserts the inestimable worth of the gospel. He notes what a priceless (and subversive) gift to the African people the Bible has been in its assertion that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God and ‘that all belong to God and that all are of equal worth in His sight’. He is very honest in his assessment of the shortcomings of the Church over the centuries in its efforts to proselytise but in no doubt at all about the power and worth of the message itself.


  • Discuss the Church’s vision for mission that the Catechism of the Catholic Church proposes. Compare and contrast this with the motivations mentioned in the article by Carlos Valle.
  • After reading Fr Gerard Hall’s article prepare mind maps of the different approaches to evangelisation and mission in each era he discusses.
  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu makes the point that even out of unworthy evangelical activity great good has come from the gospel being preached in Africa. Is he arguing that the end justifies the means?

Respecting Other World Views


Islam is a faith that is committed to the spread of faith in God (Allah) and Muhammed (his prophet). An article entitled ‘The Growing Religion’ describes the spread of Islam which arises from the command of Muhammed, recorded in the Quran ‘I am the Messenger of God sent to you and to humanity at large.’ While fundamentalist regimes frequently resort to drastic measures to ensure that Islam is the only acceptable faith, Islam itself gives no warrant for such measures.


Unlike the other two monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam, Judaism does not have a pronounced impetus to mission. People may become Jews but conversion, as described in Judaism 101 (an online encyclopedia of Judaism), is not widely sought, and it is a faith that depends principally on passing on culture and belief ‘organically’ through family and community membership. However, converts are not discouraged and the Jewish Conversion Page gives an insight into the steps to be taken by those approaching Judaism.


One of the world’s oldest religions, Hinduism, originated in the Indus valley and evolved from many sources over a long period of time. It is multi-faceted, and not as unified in belief as those religions centred on teachings of an individual or those based on scriptures or sacred writings, though the Vedas are an important source of Hindu philosophy. Nor is Hinduism a missionary faith, so its adherents are predominantly those of the Indian subcontinent itself.


Originating in Hinduism, Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama who became known as the ‘Buddha’, which means enlightened one. This faith emphasises detachment from impermanent things and the effort towards enlightenment. It spread under the influence of kings and travellers throughout Asia, and in modern times has also become quite significant in Western society. Though Buddhism welcomes converts it cannot be described as a ‘missionary’ faith. The Buddhanet site gives a good introduction to the tradition and mentions Buddhism’s reluctance to preach or take part in proselytism.


  • ‘There is only one God and he is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic’.  (Mother Teresa of Calcutta).  What do you think of Mother Teresa’s approach to bringing people to God?
  • ‘Evangelisation is the highest service the Christian can offer followed by many other forms of spiritual and material service’. (Orientale Lumen #14).  Is there a conflict between this statement and Mother Teresa’s approach?

Examining Personal Experience

Most of us at one time or another have been on the receiving end of a religious enthusiast. Perhaps we also have tried to share our own beliefs and convictions. Exchange some of these experiences.

  • What kinds of religious talk and behaviour embarrass you?
  • What kinds impresses you?

Australia is a very secular society, yet all kinds of people are free to try to spread faith in what they believe.

  • Is it possible to distinguish between ethical and unethical approaches?
  • Should the law intervene when people’s credulity is being exploited or would this be a limit on one of our basic freedoms?

A saying attributed to Voltaire, a French philosopher, is, ‘I might not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’ Would you agree or disagree?


Articulate a response.

After going through the process with members of Denise’s family of establishing their response, identify and articulate your own.

  • Find out the facts.
  • Broaden your perspectives.
  • Explore the sacred texts.
  • Understand the tradition.
  • Consider other world views.
  • Review your personal experience.