My most memorable early attempt at evangelizing a nonchristian took place when I was twelve and met a girl at the swimming pool. We hit it off and decided to meet there again. That’s when I learned she was an atheist. Our friendship from that point on pretty much consisted of us arguing about whether or not God existed. That included an entire day of debating while waiting in line for various rides at Cedar Point. Neither one of us convinced the other of our beliefs and by the time I got to high school we had drifted apart.
I’m starting an intense eight week class on evangelism tomorrow, so I thought it would be fun to write out what I know, or at least what I think I know, about evangelism so far.
Although I have had plenty of conversations and other encounters with people who did not profess any Christian faith, I think I have probably learned more about evangelism through having discussions with fellow Christians who profess a different faith than my own Catholic faith. I think there are a couple important reasons for this.
First, rightly or wrongly I generally assume that someone who is a Christian is saved and on their way to heaven. When I’m talking to them about matters of the faith, I’m talking out of this assumption and therefore I’m not trying to save their soul from eternal damnation. Sure, I’d love for them to convert to the Catholic faith (what good Catholic wouldn’t?) but the whole pressure of here-is-a-soul-in-imminent-danger-of-the-fires-of-hell is taken out of the equation. On the other hand, when I’m talking about matters of faith with someone who is not a Christian of any kind, while I don’t point blank assume they are definitely going to hell, I do worry that they are in danger of going to hell, and in my mind that adds an additional (and not fun) layer to the conversation–at least it has been that way in the past. I only really am aware of this when the conversation goes to matters of faith. It doesn’t usually enter my mind when we’re talking about other things which is most of the time.
Second, in talking with my fellow believers, we at least have the Bible in common–OK, most of the Bible. If I quote a Scripture verse to make a point, while my conversation partner may not agree with the point I’m making he or she will at least consider the verse itself to be authoritative. On the other hand, if I whip out a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they’re going to be like “so what?” which is pretty much how nonchristians tend to respond to the Bible. A paragraph from the Catechism could be useful in illustrating what the Catholic Church teaches on a matter, but it is not useful for persuading someone who is not Catholic to adhere to that particular tenet of Catholic teaching. In a similar way, a passage of Scripture can be helpful in explaining what I as a Christian believe, but it’s generally not going to persuade someone who does not consider it to be authoritative like I do.
With that said, here are some things I have learned.
Arguing is generally a poor approach When I was in college I used to get into these theological discussions with a fellow student from the Church of Christ who was very adamant about what he believed, was sure I was wrong and that my soul was in danger to boot. I used to call him Thumper because he so fit the mental image of “Bible thumper.” I could quote chapter and verse about as well as he could so I held my own, but he was not at all interested in what I had to say other than to quickly refute it, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that interested in what he had to say either. When I’m arguing with someone, I’m pretty much all about defending my position and not about listening to the other person. And that goes both ways. It is very hard to let down the defenses under the circumstances and just share.
Take this discussion on prayer between an “evangelist” and an atheist, for example. Paul the “evangelist” is trying to convince Jim the atheist of the effectiveness of prayer. Jim refutes everything Paul says, often by using Scripture verses himself. In the end, Paul is flustered and frustrated. One thing I can say with absolute certainty about that conversation: Jim did not learn one thing about Paul’s actual beliefs about or experience with prayer. How can you possibly share authentically about something as personal as prayer, or faith, for that matter, with someone who has zero interest in what you have to say other than to refute your every sentence? I have learned from experience to not waste time with people who merely want to argue. If someone has a genuine interest and openness to hearing what I have to say, even if there is some arguing involved, I am totally willing to pursue the conversation. But if all they want is a fight, forget it.
There is no such thing as a completely airtight ironclad case for the Gospel that will convince a hardened heart The guy who just wants to pick a fight is indicating a distinct possibility of a hardened heart to what I have to share. No matter what people say, no one makes a decision to follow or reject Jesus because they logically considered all the evidence and rationally came to their decision. The decision to accept one argument or fact and reject another is an emotional one. Maybe it’s your gut feeling, maybe it’s that you just have a better feeling about one or the other, maybe it’s that one is what you want to believe and the other is not. In any case, the decision is ultimately one that is made with the heart (emotions) not the mind (logic), though of course they are both involved.
The Catholic Catechism states that man can arrive at a certain limited understanding of the existence of God through human reasoning, but that in order to actually know God, He has to reveal Himself to man. The story the Bible tells is one of God revealing Himself over a long period of time to His people–revelation which culminated in His own Word taking on flesh in the person of Jesus. Jesus said that no one can come to Him unless the Father draws Him. Everyone who came to faith in Christ got there because in some way God revealed Himself to them, in some way the Holy Spirit moved in their heart. Without that revelation, there is no way to believe.
You need to have faith in order to share faith That seems pretty obvious, but I think sometimes that gets left out. I have attended evangelism classes in the past that focused a lot on the message and technique and took for granted that the people attending the class already had a vibrant faith and prayer life. In the absence of airtight ironclad arguments to soften the hardest of hearts, you’re left with sharing your experience. Even if your experience is fairly universal, it’s still your experience. Even if you’re sharing some sort of abbreviated Gospel message, it’s still your story. Conversion is not something that happens once and for all; it’s a daily process. You can only really share authoritatively about what you know. Do you know Jesus? If you do, you will have plenty of experiences of how He has worked in and through you and made a difference in your life here and now. Without those actual experiences, your message will probably come across as canned and flat and is unlikely to move anyone–although there are always exceptions. Definitely strive to know Jesus more deeply each day by spending time with Him in prayer.
I have to wear my heart on my sleeve That is probably the biggest reason I have been rather reluctant to share my faith. My faith is deeply personal. Jesus is my life, my everything, my deepest longing and Who I live for. The thought of sharing my faith in Him with a complete stranger is about as attractive to me as randomly opening up to some stranger about the details of my marriage or my deepest insecurities or heaven forbid my financial situation! What if I share something this deep about myself and then get rejected? Ouch!
A cursory look at Jesus’ example convicts me that the deeply personal nature of my own faith is not a good reason to keep it to myself. If anyone had a deeply personal relationship with God the Father, it was Jesus. “I and the Father are One,” He said. He spoke of the Father, of His Kingdom, of His will and of His purpose for being here publicly. He demonstrated the truth of His words by His actions, particularly His miracles and the way He interacted with people. And boy was He ever rejected! Crushed, mocked, scorned, beaten and killed. And I’m to follow His example and expect similar results. Oh yeah! So more and more I put my heart out there for the world to see.
It’s not about me so get out of the way There’s always a paradox somewhere, right? Wear my heart on my sleeve, and get out of the way. Sure, no problem. This past Saturday, Mark Shea was in town talking about how Catholics read Scripture. A line he said really stood out to me. “We write with words, but God writes with people.” The individual people highlighted in the Bible were real people who lived real lives. But their existence was also symbolic of what God was doing in terms of revealing Himself to mankind. Isaac, for example, played the role of the Son of God who was about to be sacrificed by his own father Abraham. And yes, Abraham actually laid his own son on the altar and was about to kill him until an angel appeared to him and commanded him to stop. What a traumatic experience for both of them, no doubt. But they were foreshadowing what God the Father actually did do in sending His own Son down to earth to be the Sacrifice for all the sins of mankind.
In a similar way, though perhaps not nearly as epic as what the characters in the Bible went through, God is using my life to write His story, and it’s that story that I need to be sharing. It’s that story which needs to be on my heart which is what I wear on my sleeve. My life, my body, my mouth, every part of me that someone else would encounter, needs to be something like a hollow tube that can transmit the light of God to them. The Holy Spirit should be able to go right through me.
Another way to describe deep conversion is the process of getting out of the way, of allowing the Holy Spirit to remove from me everything that is not Him. That removing can be painful but so worth it–not just for my sake but for the sake of those who cross my path.
I will never convert a single soul So why even try, right? It’s the Holy Spirit who converts souls, and it’s my job to give Him plenty of space to do this. The Holy Spirit is happy to work through me by inspiring me with just the right words or even by working through me to touch someone’s life without me being aware of it. I cannot even count the number of times that the Holy Spirit has worked through someone in my life to deeply touch me and that person had no clue, and even when I try to tell them, they either downplay it or completely disbelieve it. But trust me, it happens. Often. No matter how deeply involved I might be in someone’s life at the moment of their conversion, the process of conversion is completely outside of my control. I need to trust the Holy Spirit.
Evangelism and making disciples is everyone’s job We tend to want to delegate that job to Catholic priests, Evangelical pastors, Religious Education teachers and directors, and famous Christian authors, bloggers and speakers and the way our society seems to favor celebrities (with their numerous fans) tends to exacerbate that. But the truth is that evangelism is an integral component of the Christian faith, everyone’s Christian faith. I don’t think there is a specific method or style of evangelism that is right for everyone, but the bottom line is that we are sharing our faith and helping others to grow spiritually and in general growing God’s Church with new believers. We all want in on the harvest, so let’s all get busy planting and tending the field.
Seek to enlighten rather than persuade At no time was this principle more firmly impressed on me than when my friendly neighborhood Evangelical pastor asked me what the deal was with the Brown Scapular. Not knowing much about it at the time I pleaded ignorance and promised to get him some information about it. Then when I got home and did what any modern truth seeker would do (enter keywords into Google’s search box) I realized just what a major mine field in the dialog between Catholics and Evangelicals the Brown Scapular is! I read all kinds of fantastic stories about major supernatural powers attributed to this piece of cloth people wore with such great devotion along with arcane and difficult to understand explanations justifying it all. What am I supposed to do with this?
We got into some interesting email back and forth about whether or not God still prescribed guidelines for sacred buildings, objects and spaces. My Evangelical friend insisted that God absolutely did not prescribe such things anymore. “You know what the problem with the Catholic Church is? It’s that it’s the Gospel plus something else,” he wrote, and then made a list of examples. The conversation was definitely not going in what I would consider a positive direction.
During this time I happened to be attending RCIA classes at a local parish and one of the leaders had a devotion to the Brown Scapular so I asked him about it. He gave me some materials a week later which I read with great interest. Two of the booklets seemed to promote more of the same superstitious stuff I’d encountered on the Internet, but one of them turned out to be a gold mine. It was the Carmelite Order’s catechism on the Brown Scapular, and right off the bat it addressed the fact that in zeal to spread the devotion around some exaggerations, most of which had no basis in fact, had also been spread around. The rest of the book was a clear and concise explanation of what the Brown Scapular was and what it wasn’t, and as a Catholic I felt like I could definitely live with that.
But I knew it still wasn’t going to persuade my friend that the Brown Scapular was a wonderful thing, or even an OK thing. And that’s when I had this aha! moment. “Your job is to give him accurate information, not to make him believe it.” In hindsight I know that was the Holy Spirit speaking to me. Suddenly I knew what to do. I loaned him the Carmelite catechism on the Brown Scapular and said “I know you’re not going to agree with all of it, but at least you’ll know what the Catholic Church actually teaches about it.” Sure enough, after reading it, he told me that no, he didn’t agree with it, but he appreciated knowing what the deal was. Mission accomplished. Ever since then my goal in all such discussions has been to give accurate information about what the Catholic Church teaches on a given subject, not to defend it or impose it, and that has made all the difference to me.
Whether it’s a Protestant friend asking me why Catholics do or believe some interesting uniquely Catholic thing or an atheist or agnostic criticizing this or that aspect of the Christian faith, I try to give them as accurate a picture of what we actually believe as I can. To that end, books such as the Bible or the Catechism or other documents I consider authoritative but my conversation partner does not can be very helpful. Most reasonable people will agree that the Bible contains Christian teachings and that the Catechism contains Catholic teachings and as such are good sources to cite if you are wanting to know more about such teachings. The pressure to persuade is completely off my shoulders and I’m less tempted to argue and more disposed to have an actual conversation that both parties will appreciate. More importantly I can come away from such a conversation focusing on how I was blessed or what I have learned rather than on what I taught. Although this has not happened yet, I also think that if I were to be outright mocked, rejected or in some other way persecuted over what I just shared, I could take it better. If all I did was transmit accurate information and that caused a bad reaction I can know with near certainty that the bad reaction is not about me and it’s not my job to fix it.
With all I know right now, I can hardly wait to learn all about how evangelism is done