Institute on Religion and Democracy
December 3, 1999
A Chicago interfaith council is condemning plans by the Southern Baptist Convention to target their city for evangelism next year. Indeed, the council warns that the Southern Baptists' missionary zeal could provoke "hate crimes" against religious minorities in Chicago.
The indignation is typical of our hyper-sensitive, relativistic age. Any substantive disagreement with liberal conventional wisdom is now labeled "hate." And beliefs in any moral absolutes, especially the truth claims of a particular religion, are stigmatized as bigotry. Even many religious leaders have succumbed to this mindset.
The Southern Baptist plans for Chicago are more benign than portrayed. During the year 2000, Southern Baptists are hoping that 100,000 volunteers will come through the city at some point to participate in social service projects, organize block parties, and witness to their faith. Some will even knock on doors.
Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses have been knocking on doors for years to proselytize for their faith, so it should not be anything shocking. All Christian churches, and most other religions, want to win converts.
The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, which includes mainline Protestants, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Unitarian, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox groups, admits that some of its member groups evangelize. But they do not "target specific faiths or religious groups" for conversion.
According to the Southern Baptists, neither are they. "We are not targeting groups," said James Queen of the Chicago Metro Baptist Association. "We want to show love, show our faith. Everybody needs to hear the Gospel." The council's charge that Baptists are targeting Jews and Muslims in Chicago is based on a Baptist prayer guide published earlier this year that urged prayers for the conversion of Jews, Muslims and Hindus.
According to the interfaith council, the shooting of six Jewish Chicagoans last July and vandalism of a Chicago mosque are evidence that Chicago's religious minorities are vulnerable. The vandal has not been caught, but the killer, Benjamin Smith, has committed suicide. A member of the white supremacist World Church of the Creator, Smith also murdered a black man and a Korean American in Chicago.
In contrast to Smith's racial hatred, the Southern Baptists say their "Strategic Focus Cities" initiative is an effort to expand their church's racial diversity. They worry that America's churches are too focused on primarily white, affluent suburbs.
Interestingly, only 13 percent of Southern Baptists in Chicago are white. Half are black, and most of the rest are Hispanic or Korean. As America's largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention has over 40,000 local churches and strives to start 1,500 new churches every year. There are 185 Southern Baptist churches in the Chicago area.
The interfaith council cited a Baptist promotional video which calls for "an army of believers to converge on Chicago" as evidence that the Baptists were evoking "images of a crusade." A large Baptist evangelistic presence could "disrupt the pattern of peaceful inter-faith relations in our community," the council warned.
As an alternative, the interfaith council asked the Baptists to join them in innocuous social service projects, such as helping the homeless or rehabilitating affordable housing. As one Baptist pastor in Chicago responded, the council's politically correct definition of tolerance is: "You be bland, I'll be bland and we'll all be bland together. I'll be tolerant of you as long as you sit down and shut up."
The Chicago interfaith council, like many multi-faith coalitions, suffers from well-intentioned blandness. Agreeing to set aside any meaningful theological differences to ensure cooperation, they instead focus on non-controversial humanitarian work and vague but usually liberal social justice projects.
Demands from the ecumenical council that the Southern Baptists shift course probably would not have attracted much media attention if the council did not include the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. In an initial statement, Cardinal Robert George was friendly to the Southern Baptist initiative.
"Catholics should welcome Baptists," the Cardinal wrote. "We all live Christ's life together through our common baptism. We truly are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ." He suggested that Catholics listen respectfully to the Baptist's message and invite them to become Catholic.
But in a later column, Cardinal George stepped back, saying he had not considered the reaction of many Jewish people we might resent an evangelism project that targets them. He said true evangelism listens to and respects each man and woman before presenting Jesus Christ. It is doubtful that many Southern Baptists would disagree.
Instead of criticism, Cardinal George could have offered the example of Pope John Paul II's recent visit to India, where the pontiff respectfully met with members of all faiths but nonetheless offered his prayer that all of Asia would accept the Gospel.
A less thoughtful critique of the Southern Baptist plans came from United Methodist Bishop J. Joseph Sprague of Chicago. "I'm always fearful when we in the Christian community move beyond the rightful claim that Jesus is decisive for us, to the presupposition that non-Christians...are outside God's plan for salvation," Bishop Sprague said. "That smacks of a non-Jesus-like arrogance." He warned that "traditional proselytizing" would create yet another "potential for violence." Neither Sprague nor any of the protesting religious leaders cited a single example of Baptist evangelism having incited violence.
Sprague is controversial in his own United Methodist denomination for denying traditional understandings of the Trinity and Christ's deity, and for favoring acceptance of homosexual "marriage." His opposition to Christian evangelism is not surprising.
But traditional Christians within Chicago's interfaith council should be more understanding of the Southern Baptist response to Christ's commission to make disciples of all nations. And non-Christians should not feel threatened by a free exchange of religious ideas.
In walking the windy streets of Chicago, the possibility of hearing a Baptist hymn should be the least of worries. And everyone should understand that an evangelistic appeal that withheld the Gospel from some ethnic or religious groups would be far more conducive to racism and bigotry than the Gospel's universal proclamation.
The only "victims" of the Baptists' crusade are likely to be Chicago's bartenders, whose business will suffer as thousands of teetotalers descend upon the city. The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago should pray for them.