Chaplaincy and Evangelism: Is “Sharing the Gospel” the Same as Proselytizing?

So in reading a few other blogs yesterday looking for other comments and thoughts on faith and chaplaincy I came across the following clip.

I found this clip interesting on many levels and got in to a discussion with the blog poster who brought it up as an example of how postmodern Christians, especially mainline chaplains, seem unable or unwilling to present the Gospel to those who need it. But I found this clip very interesting regarding the skills a chaplain needs as well as whether or not it is considered proselytizing for a professional chaplain to share the Gospel.

First, I’m not sure if this chaplain did a very good job. I think she starts off on the right foot, addressing this man’s feelings of guilt and need for forgiveness. However she draws nothing out of him. She uses a lot of nondirective, nonjudgmental talk, but doesn’t illicit anything either. A major mistake she makes is saying “I understand…”. You never say you understand. You say you’re sorry. You ask them to say more. But whenever you say “I understand” you are pretty much invalidating the other person. She says she understands, but she clearly doesn’t. It’s clear to us and clear to the patient, and it’s at that point that communication shuts down.

A second observation I had was regarding this man’s request on how to make himself straight with God. It struck me as odd because, given his concern and his language, he seems to know exactly how to make himself straight with God. Yet he wants to be told by the chaplain. I think there is something underlying his guilt and shame that isn’t brought out. Of course with this being a 2 minute clip with absolutely no context, it’s pretty much impossible to know what that might be or how the situation eventually resolved. However I think this is a good thought exercise regarding what the question-behind-the-question might be.

A third important question that this clip addresses is when is it appropriate to share the Gospel with a patient? Where is the line between proselytizing and sharing your faith? Professional chaplaincy requires that we do not proselytize, which means attempting to convert a person from one religion or belief to another. Rather than try to change a person’s belief, chaplains instead try to help individuals find truth on their own. They provide tools and resources, but share their own beliefs only as much as it helps the other person to clarify their own. Some read this as it being never right to share one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, or even answer a person’s faith-based questions directly. Others see this as being evasive at best, and at worst denying the other person the opportunity to hear the Gospel message – which is what the guy at the end of the video thought.

This is a very tough area, one in which I found myself even today. I visited an elderly man who, at 93, still has more sense in him than I do. In our conversation he mentioned the death of his wife a few years ago and how he hoped she was in heaven, but how he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure what heaven was like, or if he would be there either. This gentleman was a lifelong practicing Catholic. He wasn’t a stranger to the Gospel.

Now the immediate reaction of many, I would expect, would be to respond something similar to “well I can tell you how you can have assurance of salvation” followed by the requisite scripture texts and prayers, which will most likely make everyone feel better about themselves. I seriously leaned toward that direction inside. However I didn’t go there. He was sharing the same doubts that many have all through life – not just at the end of life. Even some of the most devout people I know still question whether or not this whole Jesus thing is really all it’s cracked up to be. John the Baptist famously asked, concerning Jesus, “are you the Messiah or should we expect another?”. Jesus’ response was clear and yet cryptic at the same time. He could have provided scriptural proofs and so on to defend who he was. However his response was not to educate John. He didn’t need educating. He also didn’t need more faith. What Jesus did, and what John needed to hear, was a reminder of what he already had seen and heard: the lame walking, the blind seeing.

Do I think that a chaplain should never share their faith with another? No. If a person asks me a direct question about faith, forgiveness, God or Jesus I try in some way to answer their question honestly and truthfully, but only after listening to them first and hearing them out. That’s because their real question might be behind that initial question. If someone is asking me a direct question about faith and I feel uncomfortable responding to it, then it is my ethical responsibility to find someone who can. I think that one thing that the chaplain should have done in this video was to stop at some point and say “I’d love to be able to get hold of a pastor for you to talk to. Is there anyone in particular?” if she didn’t feel comfortable pointing this person toward any particular belief. He was asking for something, and she wouldn’t give it to him.

However I also don’t think that chaplains should always share their faith, even when it tugs at their heart to do so. The reason is that we are so often too quick to speak and so slow to really listen. Listening first keeps me humble. Do I really know what’s best for this person? Am I taking something away from them by telling them what to believe? Am I teaching them to fish or giving them a fish? Worse yet, am I doing the theological equivalent of giving them a good pat on the head, telling them that everything will be OK if they say these words and pray these prayers, leaving me to walk away feeling that I’ve won a soul for heaven while this other person wonders what happened and what to do next?

There are times and situations where self-disclosure is appropriate. However it takes training and self-awareness to know when those times are. They are rarely as cut-and-dry as they seem. While proselytizing is professionally out-of-bounds, sharing my own experiences and faith as a way to help shine light on someone else’s question I don’t think qualifies as proselytizing. If we as chaplains draw too hard a line we can easily end up like the chaplain in the video, fumbling around with nothing meaningful to say. But if we don’t draw a line at all then we trample all over the other in our effort to correct their thinking, while in fact it may be our thinking that needs to be corrected.

Finally I think that there is more than one way to share the Gospel. To some it is witnessing and evangelism. To others it is acts of kindness and mercy. To others it is proclaiming justice. It may just be showing up. I had an online conversation about proselytizing and chaplaincy with another who stated at one point something along the lines of “I don’t care if I’m the guy emptying bedpans, I’d share the Gospel with people!” My response was “Good – go empty some bedpans then.” Of course he didn’t see this as his vocation in life. Sadly too many others see evangelism as only one thing. In reality it is many things. We are the Gospel that people will hear, and we need to rejoice and fear in that.


4 thoughts on “Chaplaincy and Evangelism: Is “Sharing the Gospel” the Same as Proselytizing?

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I just started my first unit of CPE, and I am really struggling with the tension between my role as a chaplain and my duty as a follower of Christ. It’s good to know that I’m not alone!

  2. I’d just like to pass on another way to help spread the gospel and it’s simply this:-

    Include a link to an online gospel tract (e.g. as part of your email signature.

    An email signature is a piece of customizable HTML or text that most email applications will allow you to add to all your outgoing emails. For example, it commonly contains name and contact details – but it could also (of course) contain a link to a gospel tract.

    For example, it might say something like, “p.s. you might like this gospel cartoon …” or “p.s. have you seen this?”.

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