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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 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 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 a invaluable freedom which we would not want to forfeit. Christianity itself is a faith which 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.

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