We have all heard that Catholics don’t evangelize. Some think that is because we worry we don’t know enough about the faith or we are afraid of rejection or conflict or we don’t want to seem like we’re judging someone else’s choices. But none of those reasons account for our weak evangelization efforts.
A 2013 Barna study found that only 34% of Catholics believe they have a personal responsibility to evangelize (compared with 100% of Evangelical Christians).
But here’s the thing you need to know as a catechumenate leader. Even though every Evangelical believes they should evangelize, only 70% of them actually do so. On the other hand, of the 34% of Catholics who believe they should evangelize, 33% actually do so.
In other words, for every parishioner you can convince that they are responsible for evangelization, you will have empowered an actual evangelist. Catholics are great at evangelizing once they believe it is their job to do so (see Barna Research Group, “Is Evangelism Going Out of Style?”, December 17, 2013, http://www.barna.com/research/is-evangelism-going-out-of-style/#.UrRaofRDuSr).
Providing the motivation
The Barna study did not say why only about a third of Catholics think they should be evangelizing while most of us think it’s someone else’s job. I have a hunch though. Perhaps we haven’t been providing the right message to Catholics about why evangelization is so important.
We frequently hear that we should evangelize because Jesus told us to or the church tells us to. Every time an authority tells me to do something “because I said so,” I’m immediately eight-years-old again trying to get out of some chore my mother is imposing on me. Appeals to authority are not very effective in motivating adults.
Another common message is that our numbers are declining, and we have to find more parishioners to keep the doors open and the lights on. Besides being inaccurate (Catholics have increased from 45 million to 75 million in the United States since 1960), recruiting donors to pay the utility bill is not something most Catholics find inspiring.
Sharing a living faith
A better but still inadequate message is that when we evangelize, we strengthen our own faith. This is true, and the benefit is more focused on the potential evangelizer. But any active Catholic could quickly come up with a dozen easier ways to grow in faith.
If we want to convince parishioners of their responsibility to evangelize, we have to appeal to the reason they are Catholic in the first place. Let’s agree we are not now talking about lukewarm or marginal Catholics who are in need of evangelization themselves. Rather, we are focusing on every day, ordinary Catholics who have a living faith.
If you ask these folks why they are Catholic, most probably won’t have a ready answer. We don’t ask very often (or ever), and we assume everyone is Catholic for the same reason we ourselves are.
Sharing a sense of belonging
But when pollsters or Catholic commentators do ask, folks say they are Catholic because what we do and who we are as people of faith gives meaning to their lives. They talk about a sense of belonging—anywhere and everywhere in the world. They talk about a sense of peace in the midst of the turmoil of the world. Some say it is their faith that healed them. Some will even say that Jesus saved them from a life of despair and hopelessness.
So here’s the thing we need to communicate to the majority of parishioners who have a living faith but don’t feel a responsibility to evangelize. If they were walking down the street and saw someone laying on the ground bleeding, they would call 911. They would get help for the person. They would probably even try to stop the bleeding themselves before the ambulance arrived.
So imagine that person they meet on the street looks just fine. But internally, that person is spiritually bleeding. They are deeply wounded, gushing out loneliness or fear or hostility or addiction or sadness or shame or self-hatred.
Treating the invisible wounds
We meet these people every day. The invisible wounds people suffer are endemic. And we Catholics, we have the spiritual 911. We have the solution. This is what the 33% of us who are evangelizing realize. We have the medicine that will heal every single wounded person we meet. Pope Francis reminds us of why this is so important:
All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives. In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without him; what you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others. Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing. (Joy of the Gospel, 98)
So it’s not really true that Catholics don’t evangelize. It is more accurate to say that most Catholics don’t realize it is their personal responsibility to evangelize. But once they do understand and accept that responsibility, Catholics are powerful and effective at getting the word out about Jesus’s love for everyone.
How does your parish talk about evangelization? What could evangelization look like in your town or city? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
2 thoughts on “Why don’t Catholics evangelize?”
Good article. I think there are many reasons why Catholics don’t evangelize.
Primarily, I would suggest that Catholics don’t evangelize because most of them have not been evangelized nor have they been invited to embrace the discipleship habits that develop and deepen a personal and communal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Rather, most Catholics have been “sacramentalized” only and this is why so many of them have become “nones” or have migrated to other Churches where they are invited into a personal relationship with Jesus and to start practicing the discipleship habits. Yet, we keep up the practice of trying to catechize children, teenagers, and adults who have not been evangelized.
It is in sharing the joy of a personal relationship with Jesus that our joy grows and is strengthened. It is in sharing the fruits of personal and communal prayer, celebrating sacraments, service, and using our gifts to build God’s Reign that excites others, as they see the joy and freedom of life in Christ in us.
The foundation of Catholic faith and discipleship is a personal and communal relationship with Jesus Christ where we become his hands and feet, companioning Him in joyful ministry.
Beautiful challenging article.
The catholic church is blessed to have Catholic Social teachings as it’s basis to be the hands and feet of Christ to all the world – reflecting the life that Christ lived and breathed in His words.
Having converted to Catholicism, I am amazed and blown away by the richness and purity of the faith lived by our church fathers. The simplicity and purity of prayers that help guide our lives cannot be suppressed and so the outlet of following His footsteps is in the sharing of His love to others. That is evangelization.
If I can find a small way to live this faith in serving others I would keep doing it – and I am blessed to be part of the Archdiocese Evangelization Commission, to be an RCIA animator, to be part of the liturgy commission and I see how living your faith in telling your story is the best way to evangelize.