Christian evangelism is a bit of a touchy subject these days. Non Christians are understandably uncomfortable with the thought of being viewed as one of their Christian friends’ “projects.” Examples of ways to evangelize badly are numerous, and it seems so many approach it as a war to be waged. The recent movie God’s Not Dead from the Evangelical Christian world is one example, as reviewed here. In the Catholic world, the sheer abundance of online pages dedicated to proving us as the True Church and shoving it in the faces of our Protestant brothers and sisters is actually embarrassing to me as a practicing Catholic.
Unbelievers are uncomfortable with this for fairly obvious reasons. Christians are uncomfortable with this too but may not realize there’s a better way. And so we sadly come to the conclusion that evangelism is simply not something we are called to do. We might feel guilty about it, assuming that our unwillingness to shove our faith into others’ faces is due to a fundamental lack of fervor and courage on our part. Or we might conclude that when Jesus commanded us to go out to all nations and make disciples, He didn’t really mean us, or if He did, He surely didn’t intend for us to actually use words to do it. We even have a quote attributed to St. Francis which goes something like this: “Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.” For the record, St. Francis never said that, and he actually used a great many words to preach the Gospel in his day.
I personally was stuck in the midst of this cognitive dissonance for many years. I didn’t want to be the sort of Christian who used the Bible as a weapon or shoved my faith in people’s faces, because I don’t like being on the receiving end of this. Being a Catholic who has spent my entire adult life hanging out with Evangelical Christians I have run into my fair share of the anti-Catholic variety. I have gotten into debates with such people in which my entire life of faith (imperfect as it is) and my own knowledge of Scripture and my own experience of God were smugly brought into question and repudiated, and somehow the fact that try as I might I couldn’t find one single thing about my faith which truly contradicted Scripture made me a complete idiot in their eyes. It’s not a fun place to be. More importantly, it’s not a conducive environment for conversion of any kind to take place. Needless to say, I do not wish to return the favor.
In the course of my life I noticed something interesting. I do not have a lot of friends who have become Catholic as a result of anything I said or did, but there have been a few. There have also been a few friends who became Christian and something about me, my words or my actions, played a role in their conversion. None of those converts were people I ever intentionally set out to evangelize or change in any way. We had a fairly normal friendship, hung out together, talked, shared, laughed. In some cases we hardly ever interacted. I once had a classmate stop me on my college campus and proceed to pour out her life story to me, chronicling many problems which were very much over my head. She ended the conversation by explaining to me that she knew I had a connection to God and could help her. I was dumbfounded. This conversation actually led to the two of us studying the Bible together for several months and God miraculously resolving many of the problems she originally came to me with before we lost touch a few years later.
In the mean time people I was more deliberately trying to evangelize remained unconverted. It almost seemed like the less effort I put into evangelizing, the more likely it was that my friend would convert. And yet, there were also plenty of people in my life who I never tried to evangelize and as far as I know they never converted to a life of faith. In other words, it seemed like this truly random and uncontrollable thing. Trying too hard was definitely not fruitful. Not trying at all occasionally led to someone’s conversion. The overall results weren’t that great, but I definitely saw a better chance in not trying than in trying. So I more or less developed this philosophy that evangelism was something that was completely out of my control and that I shouldn’t try to do. If someone was drawn to Christ because of me, then that was wonderful. But I had no idea how to go about improving the odds of that happening. And I honestly didn’t know anyone who knew, or at least I didn’t think I did.
I didn’t give evangelism much more thought until a few years ago when the new pastor at my husband’s church started talking about it from the pulpit. Like many evangelical Christians, he believes that souls will by default go to hell unless they come to faith in Christ. From that perspective the world is just teeming with people who are destined to be forever lost unless he (and all Christians) personally set out to reach them. I learned a couple things about myself from listening to such sermons. The first was that guilt was a poor motivator for me. The thought of my loved ones, friends and neighbors going to hell unless I do something doesn’t bother me. I don’t mean that I don’t care about where they go after they die. I just do not find in me any ability to hold myself personally responsible, and even if I could work up some feelings of such responsibility, those feelings do not motivate me to change anything about the way I relate to them. What it really comes down to, is that I cannot be externally motivated into acting in a way that is unnatural to me, and randomly popping a question along the lines of “Do you know where you will go after you die?” is 99 percent of the time going to be very awkward.
The other thing I learned about myself is that I don’t actually believe that people will automatically go to hell unless they in some way I can comprehend place their faith and trust in Jesus. I believe hell is certainly a real possibility, and honestly the risk alone should be good enough reason for Christians to set out to reach them with the Good News of Jesus Christ. But I don’t see it as an automatic thing because I may simply be unaware of the way God has been moving in their lives and in their heart. In other words, it is not my place to say one way or the other. A more accurate way of expressing my view is that I have a really difficult time with the sense of urgency or guilt that often accompanies that view (when people really stop to ponder the implications). Oh my goodness, people are dying every day and they go to hell unless I right now go out and do something! It sounds too much like panic to me. It’s certainly a lot of pressure.
When I read Sacred Scripture I see God doing many things, but He rarely seems to be in a hurry to accomplish anything. He allowed His people to live in slavery for several hundred years. When He rescued them, he then allowed them to wander in the desert for forty years after they had complained one time too many, and made it clear they weren’t ready for the promised land. He put up with years of wicked kings and all kinds of sin, and then allowed His people to be conquered and forced to live in exile for seventy years. God eventually entered creation as Jesus, but only “in the fullness of time.” God is infinitely patient. I don’t see Him in any sort of panic about the many people in this world who are suffering and dying without knowledge of Him, and yet I do not question His love for them. While my own love for them is surely lacking and imperfect, I do not see any reason that anxiety, pressure or panic should necessarily have any part of my love being made complete and perfect. And at this point I tend to associate the anxiety with the “they go to hell by default” view, so I reject the view at the moment.
But none of this is to say that I don’t care about souls who might go to hell or about evangelizing them. This same pastor has rightfully pointed out that many arguments against taking the Great Commission literally are more about making excuses for our own apathy. All of my previous points could very well fall under that category so please don’t take them as anything more than me sharing my story. I’m speaking of my own journey, not trying to convince you I’m right.
In any case, regardless of how I might have rationalized my own ineffectiveness as an evangelist, none of these arguments could withstand something that was starting to grow deep inside me, something that I can only describe as a growing hunger to reach souls, a growing desire to go out and share my faith, unspoken words that were just starting to burn within me, threatening to grow into something I would not be able to keep in or contain.
I was blissfully unaware of these stirrings within me until one fateful day I went to talk to the pastor about something I thought was strictly administrative. I had offered to help out with a particular ministry I was already involved with and he had reservations because he saw the role I was seeking as evangelistic in nature. We had already gone over ways in which as a Catholic I do not resonate with the evangelical Gospel message so he didn’t want to put me in an awkward position.
Without realizing it I had knocked on a door into a world of evangelism, and was told I couldn’t enter. It was actually truly devastating news as in that moment I became aware of this deep desire to evangelize burning inside me like a fire. At that point it could no longer be contained.
It was only a matter of time before I would ask myself the question: “How do Catholics evangelize?” At the time I really didn’t know. Catholics have developed a reputation of not evangelizing, of not even talking about their faith. And the ones who do are rather obnoxious about it–people like Michael Voris and authors of many snarky online sites dedicated to teaching those heathens (and Protestants) a lesson about the True Church. But normal Catholics tend to say their faith is such a personal matter that it’s really not something you can just put out there for anyone to trample on.
This last point I have found is actually very true. My faith is a deeply personal matter. It is the thing about myself I most cherish and treasure. The thought of someone heartlessly cutting it down or trampling all over it makes my heart sick, enough to make me want to keep silent even when I need to speak. I have, however, come to the conclusion that as painful as it is to have one’s faith rejected, that is not a good enough reason to avoid sharing it. Jesus Himself was cruelly rejected and He reached out anyway. So I recognize that anytime I share my faith I’m putting my heart out there and yes it might come back to me in a wounded and bloody mess, but sharing my faith is still worth doing.
I put the question to Google and came up with a few interesting initiatives which were all going on somewhere else. I even contacted the director of one of those initiatives and asked if he offered training for people so others could do what he was doing, and he didn’t have anything like that.
Then the thought came to me: “Surely there is something going on in the Archdiocese of Denver!” So I opened up the website and sure enough I found the office of evangelism and contacted the director inquiring about what kind of evangelism was going on in Denver and Northern Colorado. He put me in touch with Aimee Cooper, who is in the process of developing the Catholic Gospel Project, a work borne out of many hours spent taking the Gospel message in the fullness of the Catholic tradition door to door.
It didn’t happen immediately but Aimee and I eventually connected and I started taking her classes. This coincided perfectly with accepting a position at my own parish where I essentially get paid to evangelize.
I was expecting to learn some specific methods of evangelism, and I did learn a little bit about methods and techniques. But mostly I learned about my own faith, the faith handed down from Jesus and His Apostles and faithfully kept and transmitted through 2,000 years of history so that it could reach me. It’s not that I learned anything new exactly–I’d studied my faith and knew all the components. I’d just never heard it presented in such a beautiful, compelling, and concise manner before. I couldn’t wait to make the message my own and start sharing it with everyone I knew.
But here’s the rub. I also finally understood the reason for my previous largely ineffective efforts at evangelism. The Catholic Gospel Message, like the Catholic faith it summarizes, is attractive and compelling. When I first heard it I found myself pondering it for many days afterwards, something I’d never experienced after hearing the Evangelical Gospel Message. However, although anyone could in theory memorize the words and speak them to someone else, and that someone else could be moved to faith by hearing it, the power of the message appears to be highly dependent on the interior life of the one sharing it.
What is an interior life? It is the inner spiritual life of a person whose life is completely given over to Jesus–the process Jesus takes his or her soul through to get to a point of complete union with God. It is something that those truly serious about their walk with God have. However, it is not mere fervor about the tenets of faith. In the Catholic world there are many people who have deeply studied theology and apologetics, but that doesn’t mean they have a deep interior life. There are others who may engage in prayer-related activities for many hours in a day but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are genuinely connecting with and being transformed by God. I don’t mean to judge anyone, but it is important to note that an interior life isn’t a sure thing just because someone attends church, knows a lot about the faith or even is very fervent about it.
The interior life is that place where one’s soul interacts–really interacts–with Jesus (really, with God, as in each member of the Trinity). It is that point where Jesus comes in and makes real changes in the soul, to where the person is truly transformed following the encounter. It’s not about a person making a mental shift, though that can be part of it. It’s a soul change that is just as real as a physical change, and which will reverberate throughout the person’s life, affecting the way he or she lives and behaves.
The interior life happens through prayer–the type of prayer which goes beyond either reciting memorized prayers or petitioning for one’s needs, but ventures into meditation on God’s word found in Sacred Scripture and contemplation of God Himself. This prayer is anchored in the sacramental life of the Church, as in relies on the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist, and it follows a generally predictable series of stages (as observed from hundreds of years of the experiences of the saints who have walked this road) while also being unique to each soul. A true interior life also appears to be anchored in suffering, as God uses the imperfect and often painful circumstances of a soul’s life to refine and shape that soul to His liking. The initial stages for sure involve a lot of suffering from the sheer process of refinement and transformation, as a soul that is broken and wounded by original sin (as well as a history of personal sin) is repaired and remade into the way God planned it to be without the mark of sin.
It was this that was missing from my life for the greater part of my adulthood. It’s not that I didn’t believe in God; it’s not that I didn’t attend church or pray or study Scripture. That’s what’s so tricky about it because you can “do all the right things” but still have your soul ruled more by pride than by God’s love, and still have the door of your soul closed to Him really moving in. This situation doesn’t make you bad or “unsaved.” It may not even be your fault, as in no one ever told you there was more to the Christian life. But it does mean that God has some challenges in truly reaching you, and you are not going to be operating out of His full power, and your work for Him will lack the kind of effectiveness that should be your inheritance as His child.
In my case what it came down to was that my soul largely followed my own leading, rather than God’s. My will was king, rather than God’s will. I would put decisions in my life before Him, even ask Him to reveal His will for me. But it was my will which prevailed. If it happened to agree with God’s will, then that was a bonus. But I didn’t realize how very un-surrendered to God I was.
And there really wasn’t any way I could change that. God Himself had to show me, and He had to do it in a way that did not violate my free will but yet made it clear to me that He wanted me to freely give Him my will and take His instead.
This did not happen all at once but over the past couple years I took the epic step of giving Him my will and surrendering my life and my being to His will. Then I took a couple classes on prayer and suffering which essentially confirmed the process God was already taking me through as well as helped move things along much faster. He started speaking to me through others or directly about how my life wasn’t really my own, He prompted me to a place of making regular use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and then He helped make me more accepting of the whole idea of suffering (as well as the reality). It’s been a process, and I feel as if it is just beginning, but at least it’s getting off the ground and going somewhere. I am definitely growing.
Interestingly enough, a huge part of what has brought me to the place of deciding that it’s really worth going through the pain of dying to my will in favor of living in God’s will was the realization that doing so would ultimately make me truly effective at evangelizing other souls. Clearly at some point the desire to win souls for Christ became an overriding one.
And it remains an overriding driving force in my life. I think about the people in my life who I do regularly share my faith with–mostly people at my church who actually listen to what I have to say (yes, there are a few). In the past year I’ve shared the Good News of Jesus with people who really didn’t know, I’ve shown people how the Bible is structured and how to read it, I’ve even begun to share more openly about what Jesus is doing within me (mainly because I know He longs to do the same for them). And the entire time I’ve grown in a deep awareness, in a joyful non-pressured sort of way, of how important it is for their sake that Jesus completes what He is doing inside my soul. It’s almost as if they are watching the process or something, and I want them to see a real good example. And I want them to have every reason to follow my lead and entrust their own lives to Jesus.
It’s one of these full circle sort of things. A deep desire to evangelize got awakened within me, and this led me to begin to experience that elusive interior life (it shouldn’t be elusive, but for a lot of modern Catholics it has been, and that’s a whole ‘nother story), which is just barely beginning to bear fruit in the sense that I am now aware of something real and potentially powerful backing up my evangelism efforts. And that fruit is also motivating me to open my heart and soul even more to Jesus doing whatever He wants to do in me (regardless of any pain or discomfort His action within me causes).
The result for now is that for me, evangelism is becoming less of this random unpredictable thing of great unease, and more and more something that I just do, not because I’m saying anything in particular but because I am starting to be aware of Jesus’ life flowing out of me. OK, so right now that flow is a mere trickle, but there is outward movement, and great potential for even more outward movement. Mostly I feel like I am living out the Gospel on the inside and basically beginning to show it to the people in my life, which makes the words I speak make a lot more sense, at least to me, because they are backed up by reality (as opposed to mere theory). This makes me more comfortable saying the words in the first place.
I’ve spent a lot of time and used a lot of words to describe a process inside me that can probably be best summed up by the following principle: it really helps to be actually living out what I am preaching.