Discussing the Church in Evangelization – Part I

Photo courtesy of Thomas Wolter (Pixabay)

Street evangelization has the goal of bringing people to salvation in Jesus Christ. A component of this is to introduce them to the Church He founded, the Catholic Church. At times, this introduction can be difficult to make for various reasons, such as:

  1. It can come across as “proselytization”
  2. It can sound like a sales-pitch
  3. The negative publicity the Church has received in recent years makes many people extra skeptical of the church
  4. The Church is in conflict today with some popular ideologies.

Over the course of three articles, we will discuss these four reasons and offer some counter-points that might be helpful for street evangelists.

Proselytization

Bringing up the Church in evangelization can trigger the negative modern-day sensibilities concerning proselytism. Bishop Arthur Serratelli provides some background to this word in his 2018 article “Pope Francis: proselytism vs. evangelization.” He notes that in the Greek Old Testament, the word was neutral and meant, “the attempt to persuade someone to make … a change [over opinion or religion].” In contemporary English, the word tends to communicate to the modern mind a kind of aggressiveness.

What caused the word to go from “neutral” to “negative?” That takes a little explanation. There was a change in perspectives about religion and its history that began around the same time as the Protestant movement. Up to then, there had been a fairly united Christendom in the West, but the sad condition of the Church at the time led to division and revolution. Wars of religion erupted all over Europe. Eventually, relative peace was restored, partially through the view that one’s religion was a private matter.[1] Unfortunately, this view set Western civilization on a course towards secularism, the relegating of religion to the back-burner of society, assigning it no real importance in everyday life and human affairs.

Secularism persists up to our day and colors the perspective of most people.[2]  Those who maintain a strict secularist viewpoint typically do not see the need for evangelization and will often cast it in a negative light through propaganda and disinformation. A popular tactic is to attempt to shame the Church for her work of evangelization in past ages. Take, for example, some present perspectives on the Church and indigenous peoples of the New World. The Church is said to have “forced” Christianity upon “peaceful people.” There may be some truth in the criticism, but it is not the whole truth. One response to the criticism that I have seen is to remind its proponents that some of the indigenous cultures were into war and human sacrifice, and to that extent were not “peaceful.”

There were also many evangelists who rejected underhanded practices that seemed to put undue burden on those natives who did not want to embrace the faith. They stood up for the dignity and rights of the natives. Bartolomé de las Casas, O.P., is one such example. It is because of his efforts that important information got back to Europe about the situation and a defense of natives was issued.[3]

Photo courtesy of Ashish Choudhary (Pixabay)

For better or for worse, the word “proselytism” became associated with negative forms of evangelization. The term is now used in this way widely, even by Christians. For this reason, proper distinctions must be made and Bishop Serratelli offers us an important one in his article. On the one hand, proselytism, he says, “does not respect the freedom of the other”; on the other hand, “inviting others to the fullness of truth is not only not wrong but is truly an act of love.”

Bishop Serratelli’s distinction between imposing the faith on someone’s freedom and inviting them to the Faith provides an excellent point for street evangelists. First, it puts Christ at the center of the encounter. We have first encountered Christ and wish to facilitate for others a similar encounter with Him. This model is based upon the Christian ideal of love of God motivating us to love our neighbor. If “loving” another means to will their good, then that willing of the good extends both to sharing good things with them, and to respecting their free will while doing so.

St. Paul Street Evangelization encounters the mystery of free will and evangelization all the time. It happens when our evangelists offer a Rosary or medal to someone only to receive a very quick, “No, thank you” as the person continues along without skipping a beat. At that moment, there is a choice. We can go chasing after the person and accost them, or simply let them go about the rest of their day and pray for them. To be clear, we encourage the second response, not the first.

A second reason why Bishop Serratelli’s distinction is important for street evangelists is because of the challenge it issues. The distinction between force and invitation implies that evangelists must truly live the Christian life, a life so taken up in God that He is made manifest in us. The love of God, radiating powerfully and evidently in us, draws other people in. The choice is free because of how love acts upon the will — by attraction, not coercion. The dignity of the other is honored and respected because the will of the other remains free to accept or reject the manifestation of God’s love. The challenge then for the street evangelist is to be united with God (not, of course, merely for fruitful street evangelization, but to love God for His own sake).

Considering all of the above, here is some practical advice with respect to bringing up the Church in evangelization:

  1. We must recognize that there is a cultural bias or negative perspective on seeking the conversion of others that creates notable difficulty.
  2. This difficulty is not insurmountable. A little knowledge goes a long way, such as what we presented earlier about the origin and rise of secularism. That knowledge can help us to avoid any unnecessary or excessive shame and speak the truth in love when and where appropriate.
  3. “When and where appropriate” means that we must consider where the person is at in their life and understanding of Christianity. For example, it is usually a very bad idea to open up a conversation with a passerby with a line like, “Hey! You should join the Catholic Church to be saved!” Doing this is essentially “rail-roading” people and is disrespectful. Conversely, the subject might come up immediately, depending upon the person. For example, the passerby might respond with, “Don’t you guys believe that the Church is necessary for salvation? What about Jesus?” Such a response may be rare, but is a possibility. The evangelist needs to be flexible and ready for anything. In the present example, a little apologetics might be useful when replying to such questions, as well as some wisdom and discretion.

No matter what the situation on the street is, what comes first is love of God, then love of neighbor. Everything else follows after these two things. The street evangelist has to gauge where the person is in life and talk to them accordingly. It is for this reason that we teach and recommend the evangelist to use the “listen, befriend, proclaim, and invite” model of evangelization.

In all we do as evangelists, the love of God should be apparent. It is His love that not only prepares hearts, but moves them towards Him. Our job is to reflect that love and let it work in us. We need not be afraid to proclaim the truths of the Faith, such as the necessity of the Church for salvation. We must have hope that the love of God is over all and will guide us into how and when such truths will be most beneficial to those we meet on the streets.

Part II Here


[1] For some considerations, see Kevin Symonds, “Religious Pluralism and the Contemporary World.” Catholic Stand (September 15, 2015).

[2] Cf. Kevin Symonds, “Contemporary Culture Wars.” Catholic Stand (July 26, 2016).

[3] Cf. Margaret Bunson, “The Church and the Native Americans.” Catholic. April 4, 2009. One can read the Papal Bull mentioned in this article, Sublimus Dei, on Papal Encyclicals Online.

Author: Kevin Symonds

Kevin Symonds was born and raised in Massachusetts. In 2003, he received his B.A. in Theological Studies from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio with an emphasis on the Classical Languages. Three years later, he obtained his M.A. degree in Theological Studies also from Franciscan University. Kevin lives in North Dakota. He specializes in the Catholic Church’s theology of private revelation and has written books and numerous articles (print and Internet). He is a member of the Mariological Society of America.

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