Christians Reaching Out to Neo-Pagans

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Bruce Meyer left the following comment on a post that wasn't about this subject, so I thought it might better occupy its own post:

Recently Jeremy and I have been talking about reaching out to neognostics and pagans. After we talked, I realized that the guy with expertise in this area is in my own town (where I teach) of Salem, Massachusetts, Pastor Phil Wyman. So on Halloween I stopped by his church to catch up, and found their outreach at work. Also found that they were on the front page of the Salem News and The Wall Street Journal. The problem is that they were reaching out to pagans. Oops. Waddya know. Here are some links. BTW, I'm quite proud of my friend Pastor Phil.

Befriending witches is a problem in Salem, Mass
Let's Not Get Too Cozy with Pagans? Foursquare Church and The Gathering
The Missional Journey of Phil Wyman
Church severs tie with Salem branch:The Gathering chastised for getting too close to witches

I have to say I like the following quote from the first article:

"Sure, he wants to convert people," he says about Mr. Wyman. "But he does it in a way that respects you."

It's also worth noting how much some of his critics sound like Jesus' critics:

Mr. Wyman appeared "too familiar, too cozy, too amicable with that community," said the Rev. Kenneth Steigler, a United Methodist Church pastor.

Then there's this one:

Mr. Wyman, his associate pastor, Jeff Menasco, and their wives were summoned to a hearing in October last year at Mr. Hatcher's church in Weymouth, Mass., before several Foursquare leaders. They grilled the two couples as to how a Christian could be friends with witches.

The first article doesn't include his response after mentioning that. The fourth article and the blog post at the second link does. He said, "We live in Salem. How could you not?" One of the commenters on the post at the second link sums up my first thoughts on this:

These people are NOT the enemy! We do not struggle against flesh and blood.

I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with linking to a website that has pagan content. After all, doesn't it depend entirely on the context for those links? Nothing in the criticism offers any sense of how the context of those links implies endorsement of everything said on those sites.

I've seen similar resistance from Christians who want to reach out to the gay community. It seems there are certain sins that amount to the same level in our day as how the Pharisees of Jesus' time viewed prostitution, tax collecting, and being a Gentile or Samaritan. Apparently being a pagan or Wiccan is up with being gay for many evangelicals today, far above most any other problematic group to the point where Christians shouldn't even think about hanging out with them for the sake of the gospel.

11 Comments

This is probably one of the posts that I've agreed with more than any other that I've read here. I can't figure out why the Christian community seems so intent on condemning people in our world. Condemn the sin! Befriend the person! What kind of unconditional love are we showing when we can't be friends with a nonbeliever?

I still find it remarkably depressing that the Christian community feels the need to convert others, and sees them as devalued non-believers.


As a Pagan Priestess myself, I honor a greater divine being, and I have the right to do so in this great country.

America is spiritually and religiously and culturally diverse, and that's what makes our country so special and beautiful. This freedom, designed to protect us from the perils of a theocratic government, is described in our First Amendment.

Christians are free to worship as they see fit. So are Pagans. This is a fact that must be accepted by both.

Allow us to worship in peace.

I'm certain that "your" God would want it that way. I don't really understand the agenda to proselytize and convert. It's unfortunate that there's a sense of insecurity within the Christian community that forces members to impose their beliefs on others.

Pagans and Christians can co-exist. But first we need to start having some mature interfaith dialogue to better understand one another.

If ever such a conference or event occurs, I would be the first to sign up to participate. I have a great interset in interfaith dialogue, and how important it is for us all to acknowledge the divinity and spirituality of each and every person in this country, and let's not stop there - every person on this earth.

We are One People, One Planet, and we have One Future.

With blessings to all faiths,
~B

I don't think evangelism involves devaluing nonbelievers, and nothing in the Christian desire to evangelize comes from insecurity. It comes from a direct command of Jesus, fulfilling what he says to do and taking part in what he says would happen. It comes from a desire to spread what Christians see as good news and to expose people to a message of hope that is drastically misunderstood in some quarters and completely unknown in others. It comes from a desire to make sure that people have at least had a very good chance to respond to this message when presented in a careful and sympathetic way, as opposed to how Christianity is often presented by those who don't follow it. Ultimately, it comes from caring enough about people who disagree about what's fundamentally best for them that you want to help them understand what they think others ought to consider very seriously.

You also seem to think that Christians who want to reach out to pagans or other non-Christians are somehow advocating that pagans shouldn't be allowed to worship as they see fit. I'm not sure why you say that, because it very obviously does not follow from what evangelism is. Evangelism is wanting to engage in dialogue and insisting on being a part of the community of those who are not believers, engaging them with what you see as the good news but also seeking to care for them. How does that amount to forcing others to do or not to do anything in particular?

I don't think the theocracy worries that some conspiracy theorists are putting forward are an accurate or fair representation of the political landscape in this country or of the views of most evangelicals. See the links here. I can see from your website that you are taken by this particular mythology. This narrative has been especially pervasive in certain segments of American society, but there's really very little to it except reading the influence of a few extremists into those who would be horrified at being connected with those extremists. The theocracy movement is pretty much an ineffective and largely discredited fringe movement within evangelicalism.

Most importantly, you seem open to dialogue. But that's all evangelism is. Do you oppose it when Christians engage in dialogue but then want it only when Christians refuse to explain their views and try to explain why they think Christianity is correct about who Jesus is and why he is worthy of following? It's hard for me to think of another explanation for your openness to dialogue but resistance to evangelism, given what evangelism really is, unless you're just operating with a very strange view of what Christian evangelism is.

Thanks for your reply. I appreciate your receptive tone. If Evangelism is about dialoguing to create equality, then that deserves applause. Unfortunately, the purpose of this dialogue is to change the other person's religion. There is no receptivity, or very little, on the part of the Christian-seeking-to-convert, to the other person's way of living. It simply turns into a discussion about why the Pagan/Wiccan/etc should change paths, and the Pagan/Wiccan/etc is put in the defensive position of trying to maintain their way of thinking. There's really no dialogue about similarities or how the two religions can co-exist peacefully and constructively. There's hardly any discussion about dispelling myths about either religion.

So my view of Evangelism, from personal experience, is that of a confrontational discussion. A strange view? perhaps. I wish it were not this way, but unfortunately there are very vocal members of that community who are forceful in their beliefs about others needing to convert.

Did you know that many Pagans and Wiccans already recognize Jesus? Perhaps not in the way that is preached from the pulpit in the mega-churches, but in another way.

The way most Pagans/Wiccans approach spirituality is that we are each responsible for our own choices and path. We appreciate the intention of others wanting to make sure we are going to join you in an afterlife that is aligned with a greater good, but we feel that there are many roads to reaching that. To say that things are so "black and white" is where there is quite a difference between the Pagan community and the Christian community. Many of us prefer to see the rainbow myriad of diversity in the path to spirituality and knowing our Creator.

Many of us would just like recognition for contributing in wonderful ways to the world that doesn't involve trying to convince someone that they are wrong, or lost, and need saving. While that is true of many many individuals in society, the Pagans are not the ones who need to "saved".

[And homosexuals don't need to be "saved" either, unless they are engaging in abusive or destructive activities, but that's another discussion for another time...]

It's the ones who scream at and beat their children and wives, who are addicted to methamphetamines or pain pills, who aggressively cut people off in traffic because they are angry at life, are from a broken home or are homeless, or are otherwise participating in abusive or destructive behavior that need the most "saving". It's the ones who have lost touch entirely with their souls and hearts that need spiritual coaching or attention.

Someone who honors a divine force, whether it be a God, Goddess, Jesus, Buddha, or other representation of higher spirituality, is NOT a good candidate for "saving".

It's not that Christians need to tell us they are "correct" -- it's that we need to share wisdom, because everyone holds a piece of truth and wisdom to share with the world. Everyone. You, too.

And I feel that this dialogue so far has been quite honest and open, and I truly appreciate that you are receptive to hearing my words, as I am open to answering your questions as well, and recognizing and trying to understand your ideas and perspective.

Blessings,

~B

If Evangelism is about dialoguing to create equality, then that deserves applause. Unfortunately, the purpose of this dialogue is to change the other person's religion. There is no receptivity, or very little, on the part of the Christian-seeking-to-convert, to the other person's way of living.

That sounds like what can (and maybe what often does) happen, but I don't think it's what must happen. I consider Campus Crusade for Christ to be one of the most fervent of evangelistic groups (among evangelicals anyway; I don't mean extremists like Fred Phelps and his "God hates fags" crowd). They generally use questionaires to see which people are open to talking and which aren't, because they don't want to waste their or someone else's time if the person isn't interested in discussing the claims of Jesus and the Christian gospel. I've had plenty of conversations when I've considered myself to be participating in an evangelistic endeavor, when the other person just considered it a philosophical discussion or a personal exchange of experiences.

It is true that evangelism does have the goal of seeing people won over, but that's a goal that can be accomplished only if the other person has a change of mind/heart on matters that most Christians realize most non-Christians aren't interested in changing their minds/hearts about. What you're saying can certainly happen, and maybe it happens too much, but I don't think that sort of thing is essential to evangelism itself. It certainly isn't very much a part of most of what I've done that I've considered evangelistic. That's why I think it's strange to see it as essential to evangelism, because in my experience it is easily separable from evangelism.

I also want to say that it's consistent to think that others ought to convert but also not to be pushy about that view. I happen to think abortion is usually morally wrong, and when I get into discussions about abortion I do present arguments for my position, but I don't go around telling everyone who is pro-choice that to become pro-life immediately. I think the same is true of any political or moral issue. Most people don't change their views overnight when it involves such a drastic change of worldview as if does to move from something like Wicca or Paganism to something like Christianity.

When I interact with people of very different views from mine, I'm fully aware that a real dialogue is going to involve looking at the basic worldview differences to see if open conversation can move toward progress in agreement. Sometimes I might give some reasons to move more toward a view like mine, and sometimes I might instead just try to explain the overall Christian view and why I find it plausible, but I'm a pretty serious advocate of evangelism via non-confrontational discussion. There might be some place for confrontation of a sort, but I think the kind of confrontation you're speaking of is counter-productive unless the only purpose is to offend. It's not productive toward helping the other person understand what really drives Christians to do what they do, and it's not productive toward serving and caring for others. It's generally not productive toward converting people either.

It doesn't surprise me that there's a place for some picture of Jesus in Wicca and Paganism. Most people who have some spirituality like at least something about Jesus. It usually seems to me to be a far cry from Jesus as presented in the gospels, however, and those are our best sources to what he was actually like. I think the disagreements over a right path and a wrong path go back all the way and are not just something in contemporary mega-churches. If you gathered together all the references to hell (or something in that general vicinity) in the Bible, you'd find the greatest concentration in the gospels on the lips of Jesus. His language usually goes back to the judgment theme in the prophets.

I would affirm that most Pagans/Wiccans have a moral outlook that on the level of daily life and social and societal action is very admirable. I wouldn't want to minimize that at all. I don't think Christians are thinking biblically when they separate themselves from others as if Christians are more moral. I do think Christianity is going to differ on one crucial moral question, and that's on how people respond to God as revealed in scripture, but I realize that that's one place where you're going to disagree. Ultimately I do think someone's moral lifestyle is necessarily going to be better or worse just because of the person's religion.

I do think someone genuinely following Christian teaching will be better than that person would have otherwise been, because I believe the Holy Spirit of God indwells the Christian believe and promotes a transformation toward more Christian character. But that doesn't mean a Christian will be more righteous than someone else. Counterexamples to that abound, as you point out.

I don't think that issue really minimizes the goodwill, social conscience, and even wisdom of many Pagans or Wiccans. The biblical book of Proverbs includes proverbs from collections that come from Egyptian wisdom literature. Daniel and his friends were trained under Babylonian wisdom, which includes what we today would call astrology and the occult. They learned all that content but refused to give up on their dietary restrictions, because those violated the Torah. I'm sure they didn't practice divination or anything forbidden by the Torah, but they didn't seem unwilling to learn about it, and the Babylonians in that book seemed to have nothing but respect for Daniel and his friends' intelligence. All of this assumes that studying views that you happen to disagree with can be very fruitful. I've tried to put that into practice as I've been doing my philosophy Ph.D. work.

So in the end I would distinguish between eternal purposes and temporal purposes. In terms of eternal purposes, I do think I have a motivation to want to see people saved, but I admit that it's based on assumptions that you would deny. At the same time, temporal purposes shouldn't thereby be sacrificed, at the very least because loving one's neighbor is not just loving the future state of one's neighbor but consists of loving one's neighbor as one's neighbor is now. To serve those purposes, it's very good to acknowledge what is temporally good and serves the purposes of a good society, including seeking a public policy that makes for a better world but also caring for others' immediate needs and so on. It's also better for Christians to acknowledge that some people are very good at this (or can be, anyway) even though we disagree on things some of us might consider more fundamental.

I think what you're saying here is that the goal of the Evangelical Christian is to fulfill the words of Christ: "Wherever there are two or more gathered in My name, I am there". Meaning, to talk about scripture, praise higher thinking and deeper spiritual exploration, discuss parables and stories as lesson-teaching examples, and otherwise have conversation that promotes revelational/enlightening experience.

If that is true, than I, too, am an Evangelical.


But I don't think Christ wanted us to use religion, or his words and teachings, as a way to control, oppress, or otherwise politicize. I like that you have described above (and the Amanda person above has commented) the idea that evangelism is about going after the "sin", not the person. Teaching with love, not hate. I think we understand each other perfectly in this way, and it's refreshing to read.


A historian and a minister must surely understand the ways that power has been corrupted over centuries and centuries. It has been a curse and downfall of humanity. This is where my concern lies in those conspiracy theory-type fears of a Theocracy.


As we can see all over the news with the Extremists you mention, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and now hypocrits caught in webs of lies and secrets like Haggard and his now-public acquaintance with Jones, there are various examples all around me of Religion being used in a very ugly way that goes against the very teachings that you have described as 'loving thy neighbor'.


There should be a distinct difference between what the government uses its tax dollars for, versus what religious groups can do for outreach and education. This is where I think separation of church and state is meant to protect us.


For example, let me describe my views and morality about abortion and reproductive health. [I hope you're sitting down! ;)] I feel that abortion is not a situation anyone would ever want to experience. It is a tragic time that can cause trauma to of course the mother, and perhaps even the soul of the pregnancy [which is what this argument is really all about, right? the sanctity of LIFE? potential lives?]. If an unwanted pregnancy were to occur, the woman has a right and duty and responsibility to determine if she can provide the type of environment, with the health of her body, her financial stability, her general environment, her age, the presence of a suitable Father figure, a loving family life, etc -- then this decision should be made immediately. I say this because waiting too long and not doing anything about it, dragging this very situation out, is indeed, cruel. Serious attention should be taken to praying and connecting with God/dess and being honest about this fact, and to go through the process in such a way where you are assisting the guidance of that potential LIFE through to another family who can love for it and provide the right conditions for LIFE to EXIST in an able environment. A full ritual should be done to mark this. It is a sad and emotional time. Much meditation and soul-searching must be done. Lessons should be learned. We can say any words of wisdom or commune with the spirit of the soul that is passing through one's vessel and acknowledge this in a peaceful, nonviolent, holistic approach. It is my strong belief that a woman retains and deserves the right to determine if she is able to take the responsibility of caring for another LIFE in a way that is good, supportive, -- That her inner and outer ecosystem is appropriate for sustaining life in a way that is righteous.


It's not fair to the mother, and it's not fair to the child, to force a woman to go against her instincts and choices about her biological and domestic ecosystem.


[don't know if my description above is well articulated, but i appreciate the opportunity to put it down into some sort of text for later reflection.]


Whew! Not that I would really like this conversation to be controlled by the argument about abortion, but I would appreciate your feedback about any and all of the above. What I want to display above is that there is a sense of morality on multiple levels by people of other faiths. There are many perspectives, and what's important is that we're all concerned about the well-being of everyone. We want everyone to live righteously and make good decisions so that ultimately we can live in a better world and all be transformatively better, more divine, beings.


Something like that? There is a phenomenom I enjoyed reading about called Christ Consciousness. Plainly described as "what would Jesus do?"

I think being an evangelical Christian requires a lot more than that. It requires seeing Jesus at least something like the way the New Testament portrays him, for instance, and I think there are several important things evangelical Christians will affirm that you deny. You may have some important things in common with evangelical Christians, but the category of evangelical Christians is much narrower than you are allowing. I glanced through the Wikipedia entry on evangelicalism, and it seems pretty accurate (something I don't always assume will be true at that site).

I don't think Falwell and Robertson are theonomists. The extremists who are theonomists are people like Gary North or Doug Wilson. They're not household names. They really are on the fringe. I don't agree with Falwell and Robertson about a number of things, but they aren't theonomists. They think it's ok to vote for a policy on religious grounds, but I agree with them on that. I think we should vote our conscience, and many people's consciences are informed by their religious views.

I don't like how Falwell and Robertson pick out sins they aren't prone to commit and then blame all of society's problems on those sins. I think they're closer to the fringe of evangelicalism largely because of their rhetoric, but they are not as extreme as theonomists. I disagree with their willingness to see the church's mission in so starkly political terms. I do think the church should influence society, but I don't think that it should so easily be reduced to politics. Even so, I don't think advocating a political policy as a citizen merely because one has a religious basis for that policy is at all a bad thing. Everyone ultimately bases their decisions on undefended assumptions that someone else will disagree with, and I don't see why religious views are any different. That does not amount to theonomy.

I'm not going to get into the details of abortion here. This is getting far enough off-topic already. I've written lots about abortion all over this blog (see here for example, but you can find all my posts with the word 'abortion' here. What you're proposing is a standard pro-choice view (though somewhat more moderate than most pro-choice politicians, who I don't think are much motivated by seeing abortion as a tragedy). I don't think the best arguments lead to such a position, because I don't see how what you've said is an argument for abortion per se (as opposed to adoption), but I'm not going to pursue that in this comment thread.

In the comments at the opening of this string, there's an ambiguity. Phil and company didn't get flack for being in an online internet conversation with wiccans, but for pursuing personal friendships with people who are outside of polite church life, such as wiccans and others involved in the occult, new agers, and gays. Now, there is opportunity for online discussion, but that's not the issue.

In my own friendships and conversations, I've been quite fortunate to have people like Aradia B in my life.--I don't know Aradia, but I mean people with a similar graciousness and well-grounded suspicion. One Jewish friend had never heard any Christian admit that we'd ("my people" the Christians) had ever done anything wrong to the Jews. I know what we've done! So I was able to at least say that I was sorry for what my people had done. Not as an institution, but from me as a person. My friend said that no one had ever told her that before. And about "trying to evangelize"--well, I would like to see people know God through Jesus Christ, just as I have (without my messups, that is). I understand well, from being the object of someone's evangelism, that being the object of said "evangelism" often is nothing more than a cover for less noble purposes. If we can get past the power trips and personal rejecting of people, there is still the "real thing" that Jesus is and does. At least, many of the spiritualist folks know that there's something real out there, that the Power of God is not just a philosophy or a nice idea.

One of the criticisms was that he had linked to pagan websites from the church website. So some of it was about online activity.

this has been a truly enlightening discussion. Intention, true intention, is so important. It dictates the end result in many cases. My intention here was to understand the Evangelical intention, and dispell myths that Neo-Pagans are unholy beings because they do not attend Christian churches. Please continue to reach out to those who need to find spirituality. Pagans do not proselytize or preach, so that's why there are others, like the Evangelicals, who do.


I'd like to make a call for all religious groups, starting with the Pagans and the Christians, to come together and truly accept each other's existence with respect and compassion and humbleness. We each have much to offer in this world, and when all is said and done, I am sure this will ring true for all.


Blessings,

~B

Having found myself being discussed here, I thought that I would respond.

As far as attempting to convert Pagans: I do not view my task in life as being that of converting anyone. Conversion occurs because someone has an interaction with a spiritual experience, and decides to change because of that experience. Of course, that reasoning has gotten me in trouble with evangelicals who hold altar calls, and push for sinners prayers at the end of conversations. I understand Neo-Paganism enough to know that my attempts to convert someone can be viewed similarly to a form of malevolent majick - an attempt to force someone's will. That would never be a true conversion anyway. So my task is to try and be like Jesus in my own failing way, and when I get a chance to dialogue about life, death, God, and other stuff.

We do have internet discussions between Pagans and Christians, 5 or 6 years ago we started a group called Circle and Cross Talk, and it is still going strong. Asking any of the people on that discussion list about how we operate you will generally hear that we respect Pagans highly.

As far as pursuing friendships with Pagans - that really is just part and parcel with living in Salem, MA. Of course, we do hope to break down the barriers of misunderstanding between Pagans and Christians. That is something which I would think would be a benefit to everyone in the end.

In the end of it all, it just seems strange to me that even the more agressive evangelicals would have a problem with developing friendships with any form of non-Christian. I can only attribute this situation to the deeper need for education among Christians, so that their superstitions about Neo-Pagans can be broken. Heck this isn't the Dark Ages, but the trial we have been through felt a bit like an Inquisition - we were the heretics being tried next to the Witches by deTorquemada.

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