How To Effectively Respond To Missionaries

Most New Yorkers, especially subway commuters, have had experience with random and often comical street preachers. Most are harmless. If you’re on the street you can act like the New Yorker and ignore them like you do everyone else, and if you’re on the subway they tend to change cars or trains after one stop.1
Recently Jews For Jesus has stepped up a missionizing campaign in New York. Unlike the typical street preachers who minister to whomever happens to listen, Jews For Jesus actively tries to proselytize individuals with direct confrontation.

These confrontations can be very uncomfortable for most Jews. Few are well versed enough to respond to the challenges,2 and even those who are competent in the sources might not have the personality or debating skills to have an effective argument.

Ideally, I would suggest that when confronted the best response would be to walk away,3 however this is not always possible. So as a public service and in the interests of “know how to respond to heretics” (Avot 2:17) I’d like to offer my suggestions as a brief guide to handling the overly aggressive missionaries.


A Change In Perspective
Perhaps the greatest error people make in dealing with missionaries is assuming the defensive position. They allow missionaries to set the terms of argument and force themselves into a position of defending their beliefs. To some extent I can understand this psychology. If you’re a true believer who believes in the truth then you should have no problem defending your faith.4 Perhaps there is even an understated arrogance where people feel with their wit and education they can defeat the evil heathens.5 But despite these justification, the defensive tactic is not only unhelpful, but is most often counter productive.

I suggest taking the complete opposite approach, namely that of a customer listening to a sales pitch. You have a faith, and are entitled to believe whatever you wish regardless of consistency or rationality. You have the free will to believe that God is flying pink elephant or even a Spaghetti Monster. It is not your responsibility to defend your faith or inconsistencies to anyone, but it is burden of the missionaries to convince you that they have the ultimate truth.

What this means practically is that you do not need to prove the authenticity of the bible or resolve inter-textual inconsistencies. That’s their job. Remember that you’re not trying to convince them to convert to Judaism, but they have to prove their case to you. They have to demonstrate to your satisfaction – regardless of impossibly high standards – that the New Testament is legitimate, authentic, and ought to be followed. It is their role to defend inconsistencies within the New Testament or to explain why they wouldn’t follow the literal text of their own book.

For example, Ben suggested citing Mark 16:17-18:

17. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues.
18. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

If the missionary is truly a believer then why not ask him/her to fulfill the stated prophecy?6
Another fun one suggested by Ben and actually used by others is Luke 6:29-30:

29. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.
30. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.

The basic purpose would be to cite this verse and then ask for the missionary’s wallet. If the missionary doesn’t comply with the New Testament, there should be no reason for you to follow it either. For the record, YUTOPIA stresses that you can get your point across without smiting a cheek and those who do so risk criminal prosecution.

“The Only Winning Move is Not to Play”
For all the quotes one can cite and logic that one can argue, perhaps the best response is something I heard from a friend of my sisters who was once confronted on a subway. He was tired and did not want to get into a discussion so he told the missionary to just give him the pitch. The missionary began by asking questions about biblical verses, but the friend would not respond and replied that if the missionary had something to say he should just say it.

The problem of course is that most of the missionary work and argumentation is based on questioning other people’s beliefs. By taking away this tactic, my sister’s friend effectively reduced the missionary to a blubbering idiot. The tactic of debate is only effective when there is a basis on which to ask. When you deny the supporting basis of your own faith, missionaries have difficulty producing a compelling argument on its own merit.

Final Thoughts
This is not intended to be an anti-Christian polemic. For the most part, Jews and Christians have gotten along in recent years with a “live and let live” mentality and I do not recommend picking theological fights with anyone. Even those who try to convince you otherwise should simply be avoided or ignored. In the event that such is not possible remember that you are the master of your own mind and beliefs and it is their burden and obligation to convince you otherwise. If it’ll help pretend the missionary is a telemarketer. They need to give you a reason not to hang up on them and actually buy their product.

And no one says you have to make it easy.


1. And of course you can just throw out the DVD’s.
2. Note that widespread ignorance and illiteracy is an interdenominational educational failing. Yeshiva trained students are even more disadvantaged since they are trained to read biblical verses only through the prism of selected midrashim, as opposed to peshat. Furthermore even if secular studies are allowed, the closer the studies overlap with another religion, the stronger the opposition will be to have it taught. R. Tendler was thoroughly opposed to such a system. In his opinion Yeshiva (or at least YU) was the best place to teach the kefira since there is a Rabbinic staff and observant academic scholars who could handle theological questions.
3. If you’re in New York this is usually easier and should be second nature.
4. This is another failing of many Yeshiva systems which “educate” with sanctimony and social pressure rather than content. While this may be effective within the cloistered confines of the Yeshivish world, it fails miserably when talking to outsiders.
5. This is not to say that it cannot be done. Dr. Moshe Bernstein would gladly discuss the New Testament with missionaries provided they did so in Hebrew or Greek. My father on several occasions sent unsuspecting proselytizers home confused and confounded – and once even got a phone call from one of their pastors. The difference is that Dr. Bernstein has a PhD in Classics and my father is used to dealing with illiterate religious fanatics.
6. I’m not sure what the laws are regarding carrying around “any deadly thing” with the intent to distribute to missionaries. I suppose the next best thing would be to send them to Kosher Delight.

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2 Comments

  1. jacob
  2. ben
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