Spreading the Word
Georgetown University tries to define what is acceptable evangelism on campus, while its Protestant students explore the most effective ways for respectfully sharing their faith

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

A new anti-proselytizing policy at Georgetown University has spurred debate about where the line is between vigorous faith-sharing and intolerance.

In adopting the policy, the Jesuit school joined a growing number of colleges and universities trying to spell out what constitutes acceptable evangelism in an America that is increasingly religiously diverse and less comfortable with absolutes.

Major denominational groups have made similar efforts over the years, and employment lawyers say cases about evangelizing in the workplace are becoming more common as well.

The trend in the new rules is to equate proselytizing, a neutral word in the dictionary for the act of trying to convert or convince someone, with badly intentioned or harmful evangelizing. But the lines aren't always so neat for evangelical Americans, who say evangelism -- at Georgetown and elsewhere -- seems to have entered a new zone.

John Borelli, special assistant for interreligious initiatives in the Georgetown president's office, was the main driver behind the new policy's language, which was announced in May. The difference is clear, he said, between evangelizing and banned actions, which include "moral constraint," and depriving people "of their inherent value as persons."

"It's not about the conversation being uncomfortable, it's about tearing down another person's church in order to show how superior yours is," he said.

Stephanie Brown, 22, who graduated from Georgetown in the spring, embraces the gist of the new edict: Respect other people's religious beliefs. The Kansas City, Mo., native takes seriously the Bible's edict to personally represent Jesus, so she doesn't want to offend anyone.

But as soon as she starts talking about the policy, which forbids "any effort to influence people in ways that depersonalize," the words seem to defy obvious translation. How do you express that Jesus is the only way to salvation without sounding judgmental? How do you deal with the question of what happens to a nonbeliever in eternity?

"I'd probably be like, 'Wow, I don't want to answer that,' " Brown said. "How do you communicate what you believe to be true without offending people?"

The Georgetown policy replaces a much more general statement about ecumenism. The policy is the product of months of dialogue with six private evangelical Protestant campus ministry groups the school expelled last August amid finger-pointing about poor communication and evangelizing. It is part of a broader "covenant" that restored the groups' status as recognized Georgetown organizations in May.

The groups, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which Brown belonged to, applauded the deal; InterVarsity issued a statement on its Web site saying the policy "does not restrict InterVarsity's witness."

Terrence Reynolds, a Georgetown theology professor who chaired the advisory committee overseeing the development of the covenant, said the precise line between acceptable and unacceptable practices is not clear. For example, he said, what's the difference between saying that "Christ is the only way to salvation," and saying, "I believe if you don't accept Christ as the way to salvation, you will go to hell"?

David French, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund who advised InterVarsity during this dispute, said the "haziness" around the policy could still chill evangelicals from speaking about their faith.

"People talk about all kinds of other stuff -- politics, sports, all kinds of contentious things. Then someone bring up Jesus, and suddenly . . . "

But there is a difference when it comes to matters of faith, Borelli said. "You're talking about one's convictions as one relates to God," he said. "So you're talking about something profound to our being, our position of faith, to our relations with God. That would be the qualitative difference."

Robert Smith, director of the spiritual student center at Penn State University, said schools are writing policies like Georgetown's because the U.S. religious climate is changing so quickly. Penn State polls show the percentage of students who call themselves religious or spiritual has been rising, as has the number of religious groups.

Penn State is one of only a few public institutions with an ethics policy for faith organizations, he said. The policy, however, is vaguer than Georgetown's, requiring groups not "to coerce or diminish."

According to the Association for College and University Religious Affairs, a group of chaplains and deans of religious life, policies about evangelizing in the past tended to be less specific and more positive, focusing on respecting one another's beliefs more than laying out what is prohibited.

Nathanael Oakes, who was involved with evangelical student groups at Georgetown until graduating this spring, said many people his age believe that the "broadcasting-your-message" evangelism style of previous generations is an ineffective way to spread the loving word of God.

"The goal isn't the number of Christians -- the goal is to love the people God has placed in your life," he said.

He and Brown cited a term that has become the buzzword of evangelism today for many faiths: relational. That means sharing your faith in the context of a close relationship. Another expression that has become trendy in Christian youth magazines and blogs and on T-shirts is one attributed to 13th century Saint Francis of Assisi: "Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words."

Because Christians feel the need to "self-censor" their talk about God, Brown said, young people now are putting more emphasis on "being more radical in their acts of service," such as in work with the poor and sick.

The debate reaches far beyond campuses to evangelicals like Hugh Holmes, a 42-year-old government auditor from Bowie who sees shying from straight talk about salvation as akin to strolling past a burning house. After work or on weekends, he goes to popular outdoor spots to evangelize. He believes that "yelling" doesn't work, so he uses a sketchboard and magic tricks to attract people.

On a D.C. sidewalk recently, Holmes reenacted a few faith-sharing approaches he uses. One involves three pieces of rope that at first appear to be of different lengths but when flipped around in Holmes' hands become equal. As he did this trick, he explained that while some people believe there's such a thing as a "small sin" that won't keep them from heaven, God sees all sin as being of the same size.

"People are much more visual; they don't want to hear [about] hellfire and brimstone. . . . But what's important to me is eternal life, salvation," he said. "If they don't want to hear it, walk away. At the end of the day, there is no real difference between proselytizing and evangelizing."

In writing the new policy, Georgetown looked at previous major efforts, including a 1989 statement by the World Evangelical Fellowship that condemned "deceptive proselytizing" to Jews and a 1997 statement by a Catholic-Pentecostal summit saying the term "proselytism . . . has come to carry a negative meaning associated with an illicit form of evangelism."

Borelli said that no specific complaints led to the new policy and that it was written simply to "clarify." However, several professors and students in the evangelical groups said there have been confrontations over the subject for years.

Even with a new policy, the question of what constitutes acceptable evangelizing is "definitely ongoing," said Clyde Wilcox, a government professor at Georgetown whose research focuses on evangelical Americans.

While the younger generation "is much more about quiet witness rather than consigning you to hell," he said, it's not clear if the switch is one of style or substance. "I don't think there is a shift in theological beliefs."

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