Evangelization is a bit of a spooky word for us Catholics. It’s not a notion that we embrace quite as comfortably as our Protestant brothers and sisters do. Personally, when I hear the word, the first images that come to mind are that of a sweaty, screaming tele-evangelist that swindles old people out of their meager income, or, a bit more benign, the well-meaning young gal from the film Jesus Camp who passes out flyers to people in a bowling alley saying “Um, God is just telling me that you’re on his mind and he just wants you to be able to follow him with your whole heart.” Nothing affirms what a bone-deep Catholic I am like uncomfortable scenes like this. This bowling alley stuff is just not our style, right? But what then DOES evangelization mean? Jesus DID instruct us to “go make disciples” but what does that look like for us?
Despite appearances, we Catholics aren’t about “winning converts to our fold.” Rather, we have a fierce tradition of respecting religious freedom and recognizing truth from wherever it comes. One of the most stunningly beautiful and authoritative documents of our church; The Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) states, “The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person and is to be recognized as a civil right. All people are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups…no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his/her own beliefs.” (DH, 2). We certainly can share our experience of God in Christ with others but trying to recruit dedicated people of other faiths is downright disrespectful.
We are also not called to wallop people over the head with one sledgehammer blow of the bible after another. And, Jesus never urges or models to us that judging or shaming people for being “nones” is in anyway acceptable – he really only takes the religious authorities of his day to task in this matter in the decidedly opposite direction. Maybe we don’t even need to be overly concerned about the falling numbers in the ranks of people who proclaim to be Christians because one, it’s not a numbers game and two, because there are undoubtedly many people (for a variety of reasons – some of them pretty damned justified) who the Church has that God does not and many people that God has that the Church does not. In short, God is inclusion (aka Fr. Greg Boyle) and in as far as the church is radically inclusive, it is doing what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes today. Perhaps people’s unwillingness to self-identify as a Christian might have to do with not being able to recognize Jesus in the people who claim to be Christians.
In short, evangelization for us is about being with people in such a way that they feel God’s love, unconditional acceptance and compassionate kindness through us. Pope Francis calls this the work of “accompaniment” – an essential part of our role as members of the Body of Christ. We are simply beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.
If what we celebrate at our altar table each week is truly good news, then we shouldn’t need to use the dated and ineffective tactics of obligation or fear of hell to get people to church – we don’t even need a clever marketing scheme. Our lives should speak of the lavish, transforming love of God in such a way that it should be about as hard to sell as ice cream – and if we are doing it right people should be asking “what in the world is going ON at that church over there??!?”
Our message is not just in what we say but in what we do and how we make people feel. If we really exuded the deep joy and hospitality that comes from intimately knowing and feeling secure in the lavish and unearned love of God, curiosity alone would be bringing folks to visit us to see why all of us are so danged hopeful, free and generous people, and more than a bit extravagant in all those things, because the unconditional love which we have received is so extravagant. As the saying attributed to St. Francis says, “Preach the Gospel and use words only when necessary.” Our role is not to bring people to church, but rather to bring church to people.
(Last line paraphrased from Boyle or Rohr…can’t remember which.)
If you haven’t gathered it already, I’m a big BIG big Greg Boyle fan girl. I truly believe he is a living saint. Below is a quote I heard in an interview with him. Here is a link to lots of his other awesome quotes. I listen to his books on audible everyday on my commute to work because I like the way he animates and tells his own stories aloud and his words bring me such enormous hope.
Fr. Greg Boyle shares this experience “I was once on the Christian Broadcast Network and a woman asked me what we do for our young people and I told her all the things we do here at Homeboy, from tattoo removal to training to welcoming them, so they can find some rest from their chronic toxic stress and shame. I went on at some length about what we do, and when I finish she said, ‘Yeah, but how much time do you spend each day at Homeboy Industries evangelizing and praising God?’ And I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know what to say.’ So I said, ‘All damn day.’ I don’t think she liked that answer very much because that’s what I think the whole thing’s about. If the love is not concrete, Jesus is not interested. So we spend so much time talking about how wonderful Jesus is, and Jesus is rolling his eyes and dozing off. It’s like praising God for being compassionate instead of being compassionate. Jesus took only four things seriously, inclusion, non-violence, unconditional loving kindness, and compassionate acceptance.” We are called to do likewise.
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