Have you ever, in prayer, tried to imagine yourself in the scene of a gospel story? Honestly, I have a terrible imagination, and always struggle with exercises like this. But it has occurred to me lately that it is getting a lot easier to imagine myself in the time of the disciples. Because the times we are living in are more like their times than many of us care to admit.
Think about it. They lived in a culture filled with rampant sexual immorality and degrading, violent entertainment. They belonged to a small, misunderstood sect that rejected all of this. It called them to reject the mores of the prevailing culture. That made them stand out, and invited ridicule, persecution and worse.
Does any of this sound familiar?
I was born into a seemingly solid Christian culture. A vast majority of people attended weekly church services. Most people at least tried to live Christian lives. So it was surprising when Fulton Sheen, back in in 1974, announced that “we are at the end of Christendom.” What on earth would lead him to say that?
There were cracks. The rules were still largely in place. But nobody understood why. People attended church. But were they really followers of Jesus Christ?
Apparently not, given the way things have deteriorated over the past 50 years. Are we a society of people sold out for Christ, willing to stand up for his truths and lay down their very lives to defend it? Are we people who even truly understand religious faith?
Or is it disregarded, marginalized, belittled?
The disciples of Christ’s era risked their very lives to proclaim the faith. We Christians here in America don’t (yet) face the risk of public execution. But let’s be honest. Do you feel a little strange letting the world know that you attend church? What happens when they ask you to declare your pronouns? Have you ever felt that, if you were truly honest about what you believe and the way you live, that your employment might be in jeopardy? Your social status?
Yeah, we’re more like the disciples than we’d like to think.
Like those early Christians, we are called to die to ourselves to follow Christ. And, increasingly like them, we are going to pay a social cost for that.
Also like them, we are called not only to live it ourselves, but to invite others into life with him. This is our “mission” as the Christian disciples of today. If we truly believe that we have found the true key to life, the real answer of all answers and the source of all happiness, then of course it makes sense that we would want to share it.
But how are we supposed to do it? In the old days, when everybody still believed in God, evangelization just consisted in reminding them of his love and of what he wants from them. Now, it doesn’t even feel like we have a shared language, or a shared worldview, or anything that would give us common ground to discuss our faith.
I’m not going to say that I’m any kind of expert at this in my everyday life. I struggle just like everybody else to find the line. But I did spend a whole lot of years traveling around the world speaking to large audiences about Christian sexual morality, a very unpopular topic in many circles. And I learned a few things about what to do — and what not to do. ⊲
First, a few “don’ts”
First, don’t approach it with an “us vs. them” mentality. There is no “us” and there is no “them.” There are only human persons, each loved madly and individually by God, and most doing the best they know how to do. The people you meet in everyday life are not your “enemy.” They are wounded, hurting men and women — just as we are all wounded and hurting in some way.
Second, don’t stand on your “side” and yell about how you are “right” and they are “wrong.” I think people who do this are mostly concerned with gaining “brownie points” with God, and less concerned with actually presenting a compelling case.
Just five minutes ago, I took a Facebook break and saw a meme depicting same-sex couples along with the word “ABOMINATION!!!” I get that the word comes from Scripture. But for people who have no knowledge of Scripture, or the Kerygma, or God’s love for them, is this the first word of Scripture you want them to hear? Do you think those people, who are just looking for love in the best way they know, are going to be more or less likely to give you and your faith a fair hearing after that?
And a couple of “do’s”
First, be yourself. Not your “say anything on your mind” self, or your grouchy self, or your judgmental self. Be the self who has been redeemed by Christ and is joyful about it. Seriously, we have the Good News. The Best News. So act like it! Be the person who makes people say, “I’ll have what she’s having!”
Second, love them. I’m not talking about “pretend to love them so that I can recruit them to my team.” I’m talking about real, honest-to-goodness, “recognize that this person is created in the image and likeness of God and that he is madly in love with them, and act accordingly” love. Love them because they are lovable. Find the good in them. Enjoy their company. Look out for what is best for them. Be a friend. Love them whether they show any interest in your “team” or not. Love them with the love of God.
Third, don’t hide your faith. When someone asks you what you did yesterday and what you did was go to Mass, say you went to Mass. When you’re out to dinner with a group, don’t hide the fact that you’re quietly saying grace. Be who you are. And when they ask questions about your faith, be prepared with answers. More than pat answers from the Catechism. Stories. Stories about how God has moved in your life. About what having a Savior means in real time.
And then, when controversial subjects come up, try not to run away from them. I know there is a time and a place. Trying to mount a compelling immediate response to every infringement on Christian morality, every day, would be a little like playing Whack-a-Mole. I have found that there are benefits to playing the long game. Wait for an opportunity to explain, well and lovingly, whatever aspect of the faith is in question.
And finally, you need to pray. A lot. We don’t “convert” people. God does. It is his grace, working through you and through them, that changes lives. Alone, we can do nothing. Literally. So pray for them. Pray for yourself. Grow in holiness. Reach that point where you “leak” the love of God.
Then, your very life will be a witness — not just to the rules, but to the love of God that animates the rules.
And that, my friends, is true evangelization.