Go viral with the gospel!
We know, we know: We’re supposed to share our faith. We’re not supposed to cram it under a bushel but take it to the ends of the earth. Evangelization—that big tangle of a word—is basically Greek for going viral with the gospel. But how, precisely, are we supposed to do that without, well, being creepy?
Use words if necessary
The creepy-factor is significant, because every message comes embedded in its medium, and that context lingers. Recently I was watching an old episode of “The Vampire Diaries”—one of my guilty pleasures. A werewolf character who used to be a villain insisted he was now with the good guys because, frankly, he needed redemption. For Christians, of course, that’s a super-loaded word. Redemption literally means your ransom’s been paid and you’ve been rescued. You can’t redeem yourself: You’re dependent on those who love you to make the drop-off. My attention was momentarily diverted to the theological implications of a born-again werewolf but it was hard to forget that this dude seeking redemption was last seen ripping throats out—a tough context to overcome.
Context matters in Christian evangelization as well. Take the fellow on the milk crate shouting Bible verses in the park. He’s sharing his faith. The context is a public space and his chosen forum makes him an uninvited speaker at best, intrusive at worst. What’s the result? Some folks are annoyed, some amused or intrigued by the phenomenon, and most just walk on by. Over the course of a season a few souls already harboring troubled consciences may be touched by a random verse, feel personally addressed, and repent their direction. Maybe. But if the guy on the crate does not enjoy the charisma of a Saint Peter or Paul, his success ratio will likely be slim.
Then there’s the home-invasion brand of evangelization. I remember a day in college when I was in the dorm crying my eyes out. Someone had broken my heart or whatever. An unexpected knock on the door found me racing to answer it, desperate for a friend, if not the deserter-beloved himself. Instead I opened the door to someone holding up a brochure, wanting to come in and talk about the End of the World. Livid, I slammed the door in her face. While she was arguably an evangelist, and I apparently in need of good news, neither this woman’s arrival nor her tactic were of any use to me on that tear-stained day. I’d put the creep-factor of that encounter up there with the werewolf.
Saint Francis of Assisi originated the phrase: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” That is the guiding principle for effective evangelization. Our faith is a wonderful gift. It’s worth spreading far and wide but that doesn’t mean we’re obliged to have the “Jesus Talk” with perfect strangers, unless they raise the question. When people share faith with me in ways that genuinely influence me, I take note of how they did it so I can do the same.
How to be a missionary
It helps to have three friends who are real-life missionaries. They’re professional faith-spreaders today, but they were “normal” people when I met them. Ken became a Jesuit priest who works as a doctor in parts of Africa that rarely have access to medical care. He provides a vital service that people need, and he does it under really rough circumstances. His life is one big loving sacrifice. But he doesn’t say he’s doing it for Jesus. He just does it. As a priest, he’s already stated with this commitment that Jesus is the reason he’s out there.
The Works of Mercy have long been considered the most direct way to “preach the gospel without words.”
Corporal Works of Mercy
Feed the hungry.
Give drink to the thirsty.
Clothe the naked.
Shelter the homeless.
Visit the sick.
Visit the imprisoned.
Bury the dead.
Spiritual Works of Mercy
Warn the sinner.
Teach the ignorant.
Counsel the doubtful.
Comfort the sorrowing.
Bear wrongs patiently.
Pray for the living and the dead.
Brother John is a Franciscan friar. He studied Russian so he could go to Russia to encourage religious faith in a country that had suppressed its churches for a long time. John’s the sort of friendly, happy guy you just want to strike up a conversation with. I can imagine him running around Russia making friends and telling them he’s in their country because he loves Jesus so much. I just know Russians would find John so engaging that they’d be curious why Jesus is such a big deal to him and want to hear the whole story.
Let’s get this straight: I’m no missionary. I shrink from the idea of leaving my home and doing what my friends are doing; maybe you don’t. But I participate in their work by praying for them, as well as supporting the missions financially. I also tell the story of what they’re doing to get other people to pray for and support missionaries. That’s the first and most obvious way all of us can assist in spreading the gospel around the world.
If supporting missionary work is good, imitating missionaries is better. We can all do what Ken, Mary, and John are doing on our own turf and in the context of our more typical lives. Ken makes sacrifices for the people he serves. He embodies Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s ideal of the person who lives for others. Whom do we live for and serve? Family members, friends, fellow parishioners, coworkers, folks in the greater community. How can we serve them sacrificially? By going one step farther than we’re inclined to go. Offering forgiveness to those who hurt us before they have to ask. Spending an extra ten minutes listening to someone who needs to talk. Giving up a free night to set up chairs for the parish meeting. Mowing the lawn for the neighbor without a mower.
|THOUGHTS ON THE NEW EVANGELIZATION
“Woe to me if I do not evangelize,” says Saint Paul (1 Cor. 9:16). This, after all, is the job description of anyone who puts on Christ. Indeed, the evangelical imperative was a theme so recurrent at Vatican II that an inventory of its appearance reveals more than 200 showings. . . .
“No believer in Christ,” Pope John Paul II resolutely tells us in Redemptoris Missio, his 1990 encyclical announcing a new evangelization, “no institution of the Church, can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.”. . .
“And if we annoy people,” says Pope Francis, “blessed be the Lord. Onwards, as the Lord says to Paul, ‘take courage!’ ”
—Crisis Magazine, May 29, 2013
My friend John demonstrates what we usually think of as “real” evangelization: talking to people about Jesus directly. He doesn’t do it the “creepy” way—showing up unannounced and unwelcome—but in the context of forming sincere relationships. He meets people where they are and invites the question of faith by presenting the vital testimony of himself. He doesn’t pull punches: He’s a Franciscan and dresses like one. He’s a Jesus guy and he’s not afraid to say the Name.
As a layperson I don’t have a uniform that signals the approach of a Catholic—in case anyone prefers to step aside—but I do signal my dedication in other ways. I gather with the faith community at Sunday Mass, dressed in clothes that show I take this event seriously and singularly. My neighbors have learned that I won’t eat out or transact any business that makes other people work on this day I so honor. If folks step into my house, they see crosses on the walls, icons of saints, statues of Mary. I carry a rosary, which spills out of my purse when in pursuit of stray items. I’ve been known to wear a religious medal, I have a t-shirt with my parish’s name emblazoned on it, I bless myself when I pass churches, and I bless others when they sneeze. Praying before meals in restaurants, quoting saints in conversation: You can declare your identity as believers without ever pulling out your Catholic card.
So these are some ways we share our faith. Outward displays of religion, though, can be empty signs without a heroic commitment to a Christian life. Following Jesus produces saints. Saint Paul tells us what the fruits of a holy life will be: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Each one of these virtues is a challenge. Taken together they create truly radiant human beings. The kind sure to attract others with the whole-hearted desire to be like them—that is evangelization at its finest.
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