Imagined Evangelization vs. People-Driven Evangelization

There’s probably a universal tendency among human beings (especially organizations) to gravitate towards the known. Gravitate toward what we think we do best. To look at the world through a lens that enables us to then act and do what we’re most comfortable with, most competent at.

Just look at the resources, programs, and conversations surrounding the New Evangelization in American Catholic parishes: We need to catechize better–that’s how we can evangelize former Catholics. We need to teach apologetics to defend the faith–that’s how we can bring back non-practicing Catholics. Our schools and institutions need more “Catholic identity”–that’s how we can keep Catholics from “falling away.”

While these types of initiatives may serve many good purposes, are they what the unevangelized need or want? When it comes to evangelization, the most important person (after those of the Holy Trinity, of course) in evangelization is not us and our needs, it’s the person we seek to reach.

A recent study from Nicolette Manglos-Weber and Christian Smith, Understanding Former Young Catholics, shines light on how some of our most well-meaning initiatives can miss the mark when it comes to giving serious attention to the real people we’re interacting with. While this study particularly focused on younger Millennials, it provides insights into the beliefs likely to be held by many Americans who consider themselves “post-religion.” And, since the Millennial generation is now the largest in America, we might as well start to expect their experience to be our default “typical” as we head out into the world.

So what is this typical that we should expect? And, how to respond?

Former Catholics identified in the study were by no means “staunch” atheists (6). Thus, apologetics to “prove” the rationality of belief in God aren’t the key to evangelization. These formerly Catholic adults were generally “uncomfortable with firm statements about who or what God is” and “suspicious of rigid viewpoints” (9, 24). So, “better catechesis” isn’t the initial blanket answer in evangelization either. In fact, leading with (even correct!) rational arguments for a particular doctrine would be unlikely to be received with on-going interest or desire for engagement. Interestingly, the young adults studied do “often attribute bravery or strength to not knowing the ultimate answers about existence” (17). Many struggle to find visible examples of how to be a person of faith, while at the same time respecting the diverse beliefs of others (25).

Now, you might be thinking–well, they are wrong. We do have ultimate answers, and can make firm statements.

But this reaction skips over the necessity of pre-evangelization. That we need to come along side a person and enter into his/her worldview, rather than facing-off in confrontation. (Note: entering into a worldview is different from adopting). As the Decree on Mission Activity of the Church states:

The Church, in order to be able to offer all of them the mystery of salvation and the life brought by God, must implant herself into these groups for the same motive which led Christ to bind Himself, in virtue of His Incarnation, to certain social and cultural conditions of those human beings among whom He dwelt (para. 10).

Coming along side those who are uncomfortable with firm declarations about who God is or ultimate answers about human existence is very natural for us as Catholics. Despite many movements over the centuries to try and “pin down” the precise nature of God or make certain claims on the mystery of God’s mercy toward His creation, our faith has resisted this. We embrace reverence of the mystery of God and His divine plan and have much to share with those who have a correct instinct that there is more to reality than human language can ever adequately convey. We uphold “vibrant paradox” (to use a phrase from Bishop Robert Barron’s latest book) even when it means accepting a degree of “not knowing” how certain paradoxes of divine and human reality can co-exist.

A full 1/3 of these formerly Catholic young adults frequently pray (7). This reveals a tremendous openness to the divine. A potential we should be excited about, not disappointed with. People-driven evangelization means that we lead with invitation, conversation, and language that is pre-evangelistic at all times, identifying the good values and instincts in those we meet, and then revealing how these connect to the fullness of the Divine mystery and life God shares with us.

Pope Francis has reminded those who preach Eucharistic homilies to “never respond to questions that nobody asks” when it comes to sharing the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium, para. 155). Let us follow a similar path, avoiding imagined evangelization, where we lead with answers the unchurched have no interest in; and instead, taking up a people-driven evangelization that brings us along side those who are not at our Eucharistic Table, yet have a desire for and interest in closeness to God.

Copyright 2016, Colleen Vermeulen





Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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