Fire Up Your Faith! - Tips for Effective Evangelism
by Mike Sullivan
Catholics are known for helping the poor and defending the rights of the persecuted. We are known for our longstanding traditions and our beautiful churches and liturgies. Such things grow from a deep faith. So why is it that we often fall short when it comes to sharing that faith?
It seems our Protestant brothers and sisters have a leg up on us when we see their mega-churches bursting at the seams every Sunday, while Catholic parishes are closing in dioceses all across the country. Moreover, many of the members of these Protestant mega-churches are fallen-away Catholics-the second largest "denomination" in the United States.
These fallen-away Catholics often didnít know their faith to begin with and were attracted to the simplified message of "faith alone." Ironically, we Catholics have the fullness of the faith, which should itself draw fallen-away Catholics as well as nonbelievers into the Church.
But the message doesnít seem to be effectively reaching people or stirring hearts as we know it should. In 2000, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, gave a talk at a conference on the New Evangelization. He said that the Church is perpetually evangelizing the world, but that the de-Christianization of our society has made it so that people donít recognize the message of the Gospel.
What is needed is an authentic Catholic evangelization based on the message of Christ Himself. Taking our lead from the Churchís teaching on evangelization, letís take a look at what to do (and what not to do) when sharing the faith.
Learning from Our Mistakes
When I was a college student, I tried to convince some friends that they just wouldnít be happy until they became Catholic. I argued with them and tried to convince them of the logic of the Catholic faith. I was pushy, badgering them each time I saw them. I must have come across as an annoying salesman.
As hard as I tried, my efforts to share the faith fell flat. My failed attempts demonstrated that I didnít really understand evangelization. In fact, there were layers of problems with my attempts.
To begin with, I wasnít a very good example. Sure, I believed in the truths of the faith, but I was lukewarm in my practice of the faith. Additionally, I didnít meet my friends where they were. They were coming from a secular perspective, without any Christian formation, and I was assuming they had a Christian worldview. And finally, I was more concerned about winning arguments and "proving the truth" than about my friends and their relationship with Christ. At the time, I thought sharing the faith could be accomplished simply by hitting people over the head with the Catechism.
Evangelization is Not Optional
While I had a completely wrongheaded approach to evangelization, I did manage to get a couple things right: I recognized the necessity of sharing the faith, and I saw that I had a responsibility to do so.
Many people think that evangelization is simply proclaiming Christ to those who donít know Him. Others, citing saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, think that it is meeting peopleís physical needs and serving those in need. Authentic Catholic evangelization is a combination of these things and many more-including preaching the Gospel, teaching the faith (catechesis), and conferring the sacraments.
As people who love Christ, we should naturally desire for others to know and love Him as well. Such a desire is good-after all, we have the obligation to spread the faith. Pope Paul VI said that it is "unthinkable" that a person who accepts Godís Word should not, in turn, bear witness to and proclaim that Word (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 24). Evangelization is not optional.
Further, according to Pope Paul VI, "Evangelization will always contain . . . a clear proclamation that, in Jesus Christ . . . salvation is offered to all men, as a gift of Godís grace and mercy" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 27).
Yet we can be tempted, as I was, to limit evangelization to apologetics, assuming that any reasonable person would be convinced by the Churchís 2,000-year history and the interior logic of the Catholic faith. But logical arguments, while necessary, arenít the moving force behind conversion, and they can only take us so far.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus calling people to repentance as well as meeting their physical needs. Evangelization without care for peopleís needs is not genuine. Evangelization without the call to repentance is shallow and shortsighted. We, like Jesus, need to recognize others for who they are: persons created in the image and likeness of God. In charity, we are to serve them as well as call them to repentance.
A priest at my parish once said, "Anyone who knows anything about the Catholic faith can evangelize!" But we donít want to make the same mistakes I made when I tried to share the faith with my college friends. Here are some principles to keep in mind:
Nourish your relationship with Christ. This is foundational. If we donít know Jesus, how can we introduce others to Him?
You canít give what you donít have. Think of it this way: When you travel on an airplane, the flight attendant gives instructions for what to do in an emergency. In case of a drop in cabin pressure, oxygen masks come out of the ceiling, and each passenger is to put one on. The flight attendant always emphasizes that you are to secure your own mask before helping others to secure theirs. Why? Because you canít help anyone else if you yourself canít breathe.
Some of the best ways to grow closer to Christ are to pray regularly, frequent the sacraments, read the Scriptures, and perform spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
Strive to walk the talk. Authentic Christianity is contagious. If we want others to be attracted to Christ, then our actions must be consistent with our words.
In the early Church, thousands of Roman pagans converted to Christianity because they saw the deep love Christians had for God and for one another. They were convinced not only by the supreme sacrifice of the martyrs, but also by the faithfulness and perseverance of the early Christians.
The success of St. Paulís evangelistic efforts, Pope Benedict has said, was not the result of his "great rhetorical art or pastoral prudence." Rather, it was because of his willingness to suffer with the crucified Christ.
Our word martyr is the Greek word for "witness." Tertullian said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." In living the Gospel message and suffering with Christ, we too become witnesses and participate in a martyrdom of sorts.
If we want to share the faith, the most convincing argument is not one that we utter from our mouths. It is the example of our everyday lives. "We cannot give life to others without giving up our own life," St. Augustine said. And Pope Paul VI, highlighting the power of an authentically Christian life, said, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" (Evangelii Nuntiandi,no. 41).
Love your neighbor. Even with a one-time encounter, our approach should reflect a genuine care and concern for the other. We should see others the way God sees us, with true charity, no matter how broken or sinful we are.
Pope Paul VI tells us that "the work of evangelization presupposes in the evangelizer an ever increasing love for those whom he is evangelizing" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 79).
Be patient. Evangelization is a process. It is sometimes slow, and it rarely goes as we plan. Itís only possible with the action of the Holy Spirit. We arenít magicians; we canít force others to believe in Christ. We do what we are able, and the Holy Spirit works in hearts and minds to bring them the rest of the way.
We shouldnít be surprised when people resist evangelization. Sometimes they arenít ready to hear or accept the truth. If thatís the case, continue to love them, pray for them, and be a friend to them.
Exercising the virtue of patience can be agonizing when we long to see our friends and loved ones come to walk with Jesus. Think of the years St. Monica prayed for her sonís conversion. But think also of the magnificent fruit of her patience and prayers. Consider how God used St. Augustineís powerful conversion and works to convert many souls throughout history.
As Pope Benedict pointed out in his talk on the new evangelization, "Jesus had to acquire the disciples from God. The same is always true. We ourselves cannot gather men. We must acquire them by God for God. All methods are empty without the foundation of prayer. The word of the announcement must always be drenched in an intense life of prayer."
Here, There, Everywhere
Opportunities for evangelization abound. As lay Catholics, we can bring Christ to the workplace, the market, schools, hospitals, and all other areas of public life. Our field of evangelizing activity includes politics, society and economics, the world of culture, the sciences and the arts, and the mass media (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 70). There is room for each of us, with our particular gifts and abilities, in our own particular circumstances, to share the Gospel. We will never lack opportunities.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to bring Christ into our homes and establish our own "domestic churches." Our homes are a crucial place for the evangelization of our own families.
Once my wife and I invited some Mormon missionaries to join us for dinner in our home. As we relaxed after the meal, they began asking our children questions about the Catholic faith. One of our daughters, then four years old, surprised us all when she began talking, with great attention to detail, about the early life of Jesus. The Mormon missionaries were amazed (and so were we!) at her knowledge and understanding.
We realized later that praying the daily Rosary had taught her the Joyful Mysteries, which tell the story of Jesusí early life. This powerful moment of evangelization occurred more because of our regular prayer life than for any other reason. As we pray, so we believe-and so we evangelize. Even if we had taught our children advanced methods of apologetics, we couldnít have made a more convincing argument.
Pope Benedict once said that "to proclaim God is to introduce to the relation with God: to teach how to pray. Prayer is faith in action. And only by experiencing life with God does the evidence of his existence appear. . . . Speaking about God and speaking with God must always go together."
God wills that everyone be saved and come to know the truth (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). We can trust that He will help us to share that truth.
Sharing our faith isnít always easy, and if we want to do it well, we need to know what pitfalls to avoid.
Hit-and-run evangelization: giving out information and assuming our work is done. Most commonly done by leaving tracts or magazines for others to find.
While this can be a good thing to do, authentic Catholic evangelization requires a personal investment.
Ambush evangelization: leading someone into a situation where he is outnumbered or "outgunned" by a number of Catholics who wish to convince him about the reasonableness of the faith.
Authentic Catholic evangelization requires that we welcome others into our community and have an ever-growing love and concern for them.
Evangelization by intimidation: creating a situation in which a potential convert is unprepared to answer arguments or attacks on his or her beliefs.
Catholic evangelization requires that we respect others and that we meet them where they are in their faith journey, without pushing the faith on them.
Watering down the message: diluting the truths of the faith to make them more appealing.
Authentic Catholic evangelization is effective only if the saving message of Jesus Christ and His Church is conveyed with the utmost integrity.
"Results-oriented" approach: seeking the conversion of others as though it were a personal accomplishment or another notch in our stick.
Authentic Catholic evangelization recognizes the Holy Spirit as the moving force behind, and object of, evangelization. We participate in that work, but cannot take credit for the work of the Creator.
E-mail this article to a friend
Mike Sullivan is president of Catholics United for the Faith and publisher of Lay Witness magazine and Emmaus Road Publishing. This article first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2009 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine. Copyright © Catholics United for the Faith
. All rights reserved.