How To Evangelize?: Success requires creativity.

This month the world’s bishops will gather for a Synod dedicated to the new evangelization. The preparatory documents for the Synod refer to a promise of “renewed missionary activity” and some in the church are hoping that these efforts will help capture the spirit of the New Testament evangelization. Yet we have some worries about the pastoral implementation of this enterprise. We suspect that the recent emphasis on evangelization is merely an attempt to draw those who have left the church back to an institution of the past.

The U.S. bishops’ web page on new evangelization states that, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, “only 23% of U.S. Catholics regularly attend Mass once a week.” Focusing on this fact is a mistake. In our experience of helping parishes to implement evangelization plans, congregations too often narrow their focus to “getting people back into the building.” An evangelization effort must be broader than that.


The sole resource on the U.S. bishops’ web site for new evangelization (Disciples Called to Witness) devotes only six lines to works of charity and justice in four pages about methodology. The initiatives suggested by the bishops are directed to people already in the church: prayer and popular piety, Sunday Eucharist and effective preaching. The Catholics Come Home web site, an initiative endorsed by many dioceses in the United States, asserts, “It is our job … to invite our fellow brothers and sisters home to the Church.”

Are we pessimistic? No, but we are skeptical. Although the Spirit can surprise us with breakthroughs, the evidence of recent years offers little encouragement regarding the prospects for the new evangelization—at least as currently envisioned by church leaders.

Why We Are Skeptical           

Three phenomena prompt our skepticism. First, most of us concerned with evangelization are constrained by our own experience. The church we have known works for us. As gray-haired individuals gathered on Sunday mornings among a greatly reduced number of our contemporaries, we wonder what is wrong with those who are not there.

Second, we fail to realize the scope of the problem confronting evangelization. Several commentators have pointed out how fundamentally different today’s world is. In The Great Emergence Phyllis Tickle demonstrates that Western churches face a cataclysmically changing society with an erosion of middle-class family values, a shift to an informational economy, a rise of globalization and an increase in mobility. These trends impact us drastically, but most particularly those under the age of 45. Two-income families, the loss of the “traditional” stay-at-home mother and the disappearance of time for at-home religious formation have rendered church life as we know it irrelevant.

Similarly, Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers details how churches experience a twofold challenge in engaging significant numbers of people between the ages of 20 and 45. Because younger adulthood is lengthening, younger adults postpone decisions about family and work: where one lives, whether one has children (and how many) and whom one socializes with. They now address these developmental tasks after they have “graduated” from the support and socialization provided by society’s institutions (including the church). Additionally, their lives are replete with uncertainties (job security, national security) within a rapidly changing society (information technology, immigration and globalization). In the face of these uncertainties they are “tinkerers,” constructing a religious world view with whatever is available.

Thirdly, those of us active in evangelization cannot see that the current operating model of church is broken. The paradigm of church that we have experienced does not work anymore. We are not yet ready to face the reality of the famous quote in the Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy—and he is us.”

Church leaders do not appreciate that a ministerial model addressing the needs of a previous generation has become irrelevant—particularly for those between the ages of 20 and 45. The church is broken, not today’s society or individuals within it. The problem is with those of us in the church, not with those who are absent. We never move from gathering to sending, or from membership to discipleship, because we tinker with a broken model of church rather than change the model.

A New Model           

The evangelical writers Leith and Andrea Gray (International Journal of Frontier Missiology, 2009) acknowledge that the inherited model of church is broken. They propose a “missional” model of church for evangelization. In contrast to a traditional model in which missionary work evangelizes people first, and then ministers to them second, they suggest a strategy wherein the line between evangelization and ministry becomes blurred. In their “missional” model the evangelizer goes to the places where people gather instead of inviting them to where the evangelizers assemble. The challenge of evangelization in this new model is to participate in communities wherever God’s redemptive work occurs, whether sponsored by the church or not. Rather than building and maintaining separate institutions, the focus is on “tak[ing] every human experience and giv[ing] it rebirth through the death and resurrection of Jesus” (Instrumentum Laboris,” no. 31).

Rather than inviting people to return to a church that was, evangelizers should go to where people are gathering, where God’s redemptive work is happening and where God’s kingdom of peace and justice is emerging.

Such a strategy for evangelization moves us from the center of the church to the edge. There we discover an exciting experience of faith in the company of those who have served outside the institutional church—people like Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez and Mother Teresa. On the edge, we inhabit a “foreign country” where we must join their gatherings, speaking the Gospel in their language rather than in our familiar church jargon. And with this strategy we are more clearly “catholic,” obeying the command of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).

Our strategy for the new evangelization suggests several entry points for missionary activity. These entries are where people likely gather today—mostly outside congregations—searching for meaning and community, or joining together to build a better world.

Social/Peer Networks. In today’s fractured and decentralized society people still look for connections with others and make them wherever they can: shared interest groups, professional gatherings, online communities, neighborhood associations, athletic and recreational interests, blog sites, etc. They search for social and peer networks where they experience direct and immediate relationships. If Rodney Stark is accurate in observing that successful conversion grows through direct and interpersonal attachments (see The Rise of Christianity), then we must go to where people experience these social and peer networks. In today’s world, especially with those under 45, evangelizers must inhabit the online networks of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus+.

Family. Decisions about marriage, children and residence are fundamental choices of life. Unlike previous generations, young adults today make these choices outside our congregations. The values by which they make sense of their “domestic” lives are not nourished by religious faith. But young adults are gathering around these issues—in day care centers, community centers and their neighborhoods—where they share insights, support and values that work for them and their children. Evangelization must find creative ways to be with them, proclaiming the Gospel values that speak to their issues.

Work. Today’s world presents an uncertain milieu for employment. Work no longer provides stability to people’s lives. Outsourcing, lay-offs, encroaching work demands and the demise of the one-job career are characteristics of today’s workplace. Yet people gather at their jobs to make sense out of all this, looking for support to negotiate that world. We must find creative institutional mechanisms by which we are present to the world of work.

Search for Transcendence. We are the “age of seekers,” searching for life that is more than material existence. The practice of meditation, a revived interest in mysticism and the emergence of counter-cultural forms of prayer and worship are focal points around which people gather. Though “seekers” may have no interest in institutional religion, an evangelizing church with revitalized worship and spirituality has a greater chance of speaking to them.

Service in the Public Square. In his landmark study, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam highlights the recent surge in the volunteer movement that serves the poor, the sick and the homeless. The “Occupy Movements” draw thousands of volunteers to demonstrate for social justice. Gatherings in service initiatives and “public square” protests are frequently outside the orbit of institutionalized religion. If God’s kingdom is one of justice and peace, then efforts to overcome injustice and its effects are evangelization. Our challenge is to find creative ways to be involved in these efforts.

Life Passages. People gather for births, weddings and deaths. We congregate to celebrate graduations, engagements and retirements. We come together to offer support in transitions, illnesses and milestones. These are times when we consider fundamental questions about life: What is truly important for us? Where are we going and why? Life passages are opportunities to bring extraordinary meaning to ordinary events of life. Although they often happen apart from institutional religion, they offer opportunities when God’s Kingdom becomes visible. When present at these gatherings, whether there is an identifiable religious ceremony or not, we uncover God’s redemptive work.

Congregations have yet to figure out how to meet and engage people where they are. Rarely are they present at the points of intervention listed above. The challenge is to be there—creatively! Only then can we gather people into communities of faith. Only then will we see a truly new evangelization.

As much as we look to the Synod Fathers for inspiration and recommendations for evangelization, the real challenge is ours. It is we who must go where people gather and provide Word, sacrament and fellowship to them.

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Anne Chapman
7 years 7 months ago
It is interesting that nobody is commenting on this story, either here or on the blog. So, as one who chose to leave active participation in the Roman Catholic church five years ago for an Episcopal parish (I did not "fall away" nor am I "lapsed"), and so am among the "targets" of the "new evanglization", I will jump in, using some excerpts from John Allen's article on the Synod, which, Allen says, some describe as " expensive talk shop".  Sounds like a pretty accurate description. I would love to address almost every paragraph above - however, there is not space for that.  So, selected comments, which still make this post "too long."

The authors of this article seem bent on pursuing a course that will produce little fruit, because it seems that they too ignore the elephant in the room - the real reasons there are tens of millions of disaffected Catholics. Crashing family weddings and funerals to "evangelize" the "fallen away" in Catholic families, cornering fellow workers at the office, tweeting and "liking" aren't going to cut it - not among the young, not among anyone who left the church out of conviction rather than just drifiting.  It's not the medium, it's the message. And there is not one mention of that in this article - these good men seem to be clueless about the reasons that even ever-growing numbers of older Catholics who have spent a lifetime in the church are defecting in their 50s, 60s and 70s. "As gray-haired individuals gathered on Sunday mornings among a greatly reduced number of our contemporaries, we wonder what is wrong with those who are not there."

They partially answer their own question - by referring to their own myopia -  "First, most of us concerned with evangelization are constrained by our own experience. The church we have known works for us."

Now - authors - have you asked your gray-haired peers why they are no longer in the pews? If you do, what attitude do you bring - one of listening or one of judging?

Read what you wrote "...  what is WRONG with those who are not there?"  Maybe there is nothing "wrong" with those who are not there - maybe those who are not there left because the Roman Catholic church as it has evolved over the last few decades, especially under the current and recent papacy, no longer convinces them that this particular religious institution is the "best" teacher of christian values and way of living - as taught by Jesus himself, but often, it seems, totally ignored by the PTB in favor of a lot of man-made rules, interpretations etc that it now DEMANDS be "assented" to by all Catholics in order to be "real" Catholics.

From John Allen's article.

1. ... liberal critics would argue that if the church is serious about reaching disaffected Catholics, better missionary strategies alone won't cut it. What's required, ... is reform in church teaching and practice: ...the real evangelical problem in the West isn't with the sales pitch, but with the product. That's a view unlikely to be expressed, at least quite so directly, on the synod floor.

The Synod will obviously produce nothing new - since they won't even discuss the real reasons millions and millions of Catholics have left active participation in the church in Ireland, the UK, Europe, in N. America etc. 

2. On the right, some have long been convinced that the church's missionary enterprise has been fatally hobbled by "ecumenical correctness," meaning an unwillingness to flatly tell other Christians, followers of other religions, and nonbelievers, that they're wrong and Catholicism is right.

So, will the church continue its retreat to the triumphalist past? To the point of totally deconstructing the ecumenical movement? Benedict has already done so in some arenas - perhaps convincing more Catholics that the church is on the road not just to pre-Vatican II but maybe back to the 19th century, and figure they might as well just throw in the towel now. 

3. More practically, some middle-of-the-road Catholics ...quietly grumble that the best thing the Vatican could probably do is to get out of the way. Recent scandals, meltdowns and PR disasters, from the Holocaust-denying bishop contretemps to the sexual abuse crisis and the leaks scandal, they say, all have made the work of evangelization more difficult. Care to take bets on anyone saying that out loud during the next three weeks?

See comment for #1.

Realistically, it seems the "new evanglization" will have about as much impact in the US as did the "Fortnight for Freedom."  Barely a ripple, by preaching mostly to the choir.

The "bleeding out" will continue among the "educated" classes because the PTB are not open to "changing" anything in the authority structure of the church, they are not open to listening (even to the Holy Spirit), but seem hell-bent on shoring up their own power and "authority" (even if over ever shrinking numbers of Catholics in the west).

 And just as the PTB are not willing to change, most of those who have left for "real" reasons of faith and belief (as opposed to just "drifting" or "laziness" or  poor homilies, they don't like the music, Father was mean to them or whatever) will not be convinced to return by a superficial campaign such as the "new evanglization" appears to be.  Sending the "message" out by using social media technology does not change the message. For those for whom it's all about the message - about the "teachings and practices" of the Roman Catholic church - superficial communications campaigns just won't cut it.

As much as the official church would like to believe it, the Roman Catholic church does not own God, it does not have a monopoly on religion nor on "truth", and it seems to understand almost nothing about the nature of the current hunger for guidance for a real spirituality that is not quenched by the 1000 page catechism of "must believes" and "must dos" so emphasized by the current "leadership" of the church.
Michael Cassidy
7 years 7 months ago
This is an excellent article, and one that I hope we'll take to heart.  Our American society makes more and more demands upon people's time, and the pace of life is increasingly frantic for many people.  For many of them, the "missional" approach makes sense; and the basic message - that our model no longer fits our world very well - is critical. 

At the same time, there is another, darker side not discussed here.  Just yesterday I had a phone conversation with a very devout Protestant friend who is not ill-disposed toward Catholics.  As we discussed recent church events, she very charitably conveyed to me that her view of the present Catholic hierarchy is that they are un-Christian.  She didn't put it quite that bluntly, but that's what she meant.  The sexual abuse crisis is not over; the cover-ups continue; and the result is that many, many people who are not Catholic do not trust the Catholic Church or its clergy.  The same might be said for many Catholics.  How many young parents, of any persuasion, are willing to risk the well-being of their children? 

Sadly, this is the situation in much of the country, perhaps in much of the world.  All the 'evangelization' in the world will be hollow unless and until we face this, and associated problems (hierarchical lying, etc.), in more forthright and effective ways. 

A "New Evangelization" is certainly needed, but the present efforts are misguided or simply a sham, a way to avoid fixing the real problems in our Church.  It seems best if we begin with contrition, amendment, and true reform; otherwise, who will take us seriously as representing the Gospel?
Anne Chapman
7 years 7 months ago
Thank you, MCassidy, for emphasizing this (#3) in John Allen's article.

I have written thousands of words in dozens of posts on this site about the reality of the absolute loss of credibility of the Catholic church as teacher of morality, christianity etc due to the sexual abuse scandal. The "leadership" never held itself accountable, as a group the RC hierarchy has all too clearly demonstrated that they lack even a basic understanding of "right and wrong". The pope has also never held even one bishop accountable for enabling kids to be raped because the bishops maintained clerical and insititutional "solidarity" rather than call the police. And yet the pope quickly removed a bishop for even suggesting that the church reconsider the teaching that denies a sacrament to women because of their gender.

There are many who now do not trust these men as moral guides on anything anymore.
Gerardine Luongo
7 years 7 months ago
We are called to heal the sick, comfort the grieving, visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger. This is the work of the Gospel. When we do so and do so with love we create relationships that serve as the catalyst for sharing more deeply the Good News. The act of healing or feeding or whatever often leads to an invitation to talk about faith…it opens doors that welcome the discussion about their faith. And when the door is open, the Spirit enters. Without those acts we are just another Sunday morning preacher with empty words. The Nuns on the Bus will do and have done more to spark the faith of those they serve then those who attempt write a new methodology of evangelization…we’ve got the methodology; it was written by some pretty inspired people….
Hamra Sam
7 years 7 months ago
That was something very new and unique, looking forward to see some good and effective result.

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