How To Evangelize (And How Not To)

If I knew you in high school or early college (or probably later college, God help me), I’m sorry. I’m sorry for judging you and lecturing you. I’m sorry for throwing my faith in your face at every possible opportunity.  I’m sorry for responding to your crisis of faith by buying you Anselm’s On the Incarnation and telling you it would fix everything–an excellent book, but not the compassionate response.

See, when I first came to know Jesus in the eighth grade I felt meaning for the first time. My life had purpose and my suffering had value and suddenly–shockingly–I was happy to get out of bed in the morning.1 And I wanted you to feel that. I wanted you to know him and to experience the joy he’d brought to my life. I wanted you to know how desperately you were loved.

If you dressed like this, you would have been desperate to impress, too.

If you dressed like this, you would have been desperate to impress, too.

But I also wanted to win. I wanted you to know that I was right. I wanted you to see that I was really holy. I was awkward and insecure and I thought that if I brought you to Jesus you’d like me better. I had some good intentions when I beat my Bible at you, but not only good intentions and I’m sorry.

When I was younger, I evangelized like a sledgehammer.2 I went at people like they were battles to win, not souls to love. And I did a lot of damage, some of which seems irreparable except by grace. Oh, I know I did some good too. But I don’t think anybody ever sat me down and told me that it wasn’t my job to save souls. And when you think you’re saving souls–and that truth is all it takes–you go at it with the zeal of a crusader and the finesse of a drunken elephant.

My sister has 8-month-old twins. Elizabeth, the older, reminds me of myself in a lot of ways. From the moment she was born, she’s had a big personality with much wider range of emotion than you see from her sister. Lately, she’s taken to screaming like she’s being eviscerated. Turn down your speakers and take a listen (starting at 0:13):

How could you scream in a face like that?

How could you scream in a face like that?

She loves this noise and she really thinks everybody else should love it too. So she crawls over to her twin, playing innocently on the floor, tackles her, pins her to the ground, and sticks her face in Mary Claire’s face, shrieking gleefully as Mary Claire sobs.

Sometimes I think that’s how we evangelize. We’re not trying to hurt anybody. We really think they’re going to love what we’re doing. But we don’t listen to them. We don’t feel for them. We don’t open our eyes to see if they want anything to do with our message. We scream in their face (or on their facebook page) about how we are FILLED with the love of Christ and they’d better be too or they will GO TO HELL!!

Friends, that’s not evangelization. It’s not loving or Christlike or even effective. That’s where we get this reputation of being closed-minded and bigoted–from the few of us who come across as closed-minded and bigoted.

But we have to evangelize–that’s a huge part of being a Christian. Our beautiful Holy Father has been speaking on this need to spread the faith at World Youth Day:

Sharing the experience of faith, bearing witness to the faith, proclaiming the Gospel: this is a command that the Lord entrusts to the whole Church, and that includes you; but it is a command that is born not from a desire for domination or power but from the force of love, from the fact that Jesus first came into our midst and gave us, not a part of himself, but the whole of himself.

So what do we do? How do we evangelize if the simple proselytizing method isn’t going to do it?

1. Pray

Before all else, you have to be in love with Christ. Your prayer life has to be your top priority, although that looks different depending on your state in life, as Haley so brilliantly pointed out. So pray. Go to Mass every week without exception.3 Go to daily Mass as often as you can. Read the Bible! Get to confession–aim at once a month. And seek God in silence. It’s so easy to fill our lives with noise and then let the Rosary or the Liturgy of the Hours be more noise;4 make time every day to be still before the Lord. Even 5 minutes a day will change your life.

Pray for the people in your life who don’t know God or don’t know Christ or don’t know him in the Eucharist. Before you do anything else, pray for them. You can’t change their hearts and you can’t save their souls. Recognize that God is doing the work and ask, seek, and knock on their behalf.

Pray about evangelizing. Ask the Lord who he wants you to speak to and how he wants you to speak. Ask the Holy Spirit to be the one at work in your conversations. Pray before posting something controversial on Facebook, before commenting or sharing or retweeting. Ask Jesus to stand between you and the people you’re trying to bring him to–and to smack you upside the head and shove you away if you’re doing it wrong.

2. Love

He loved you at your worst. Do the same for his other children.

He loved you at your worst. Do the same for his other children.

There is no more powerful force in this world than love. Your job is to love the people around you–and not just as a strategy for their conversion, either! Sure, hopefully your love is so powerful that others recognize something different in you. But if you’re loving people so that you win, you’re fake and probably not terribly convincing about it. Your purpose in loving is not to change someone. Your purpose is to love as Christ loved.

The semester I studied in Italy,5 almost everyone I was there with hated the Church. Passionately. They would make filthy jokes about priests and spent their weekends experimenting with different combinations of alcohol, weed, and caffeine. I knew there was nothing I could say to change their minds, so I prayed and prayed and kept my mouth shut. And went out with them to make sure they didn’t get too drunk to get back. And sat with them on the balcony while they got drunk and high at the same time to make sure they didn’t fall over the railing. I was miserable and felt useless.

And then, at the end of the semester, one of my friends turned to me (drunk) and told me:

“Until this semester, I didn’t think there was a place for me in the Church. But now I think maybe there is. Because you love me. Thank you.”

We fell out of touch, so I don’t know what ended up happening to him. But that moment changed my life. I’d spent years looking for openings to preach when all I needed to do was let love speak.

So once you’ve prayed, shut your mouth and love until it hurts. Then keep loving.

3. Witness

Once people know that you love them, they begin to look at your life to see why. The witness of your life is a powerful statement, and it’s not just about wearing a cross and sharing Catholic memes. It’s about joy and consistency and openness.

Choose to be joyful. The world doesn’t need more dour Christians. Live with an eternal perspective. As Mother Teresa said, “Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen.” If your life is transparently joyful–filled with hope in moments that should occasion despair, not just chipper and shallow–people will wonder why.

Be consistent. If you can’t be Christian Saturday night, don’t ask me to join you Sunday morning. Modern man can spot a fake at a thousand paces and if your Facebook timeline is half quotations from Pope Francis and half drunken selfies, you’re doing far more harm than good. Get your stuff together. People don’t mind sinners who acknowledge that they’re sinners and ask for help to be better. They hate hypocrites.

It doesn't have to look like this. But it can.

It doesn’t have to look like this. But it can.

Don’t be embarrassed about your faith. Mention that you’re going to Mass when you make plans for Sunday brunch. Pray before meals. Have a chant ringtone. Those little things help people to connect your love and joy to your faith.

4. Propose

Finally–finally–after praying and loving and doing your best to be as Christlike as possible, finally you can say something. Maybe it’s as simple as sharing an article on Facebook or retweeting the Pope. Maybe it’s inviting someone to go to Mass with you or to join your Bible study. Maybe it’s sitting down with a friend and asking–gently–why he doesn’t go to Church any more. Maybe it’s talking to your friends about NFP. Maybe it’s just being open to how the Holy Spirit is calling you to evangelize.

I knew a high schooler once–captain of the basketball team, center of the school’s social life–who signed up for a holy hour every Friday evening at 10pm. He’d go out to dinner with his friends, go back to somebody’s house, start watching a movie, and then stand up to leave at quarter to 10. He just said, “I’m going to adoration. Anyone want to come?” The timing and the invitation changed that school. Kids would caravan to adoration on Friday nights. Because one guy had the guts to ask.

But when you’re asking those leading questions or inviting friends on a marriage retreat or explaining the Church’s position, be humble. You don’t have all the answers, even though the Church does. You’re not better than anyone or smarter or kinder or even happier. But I would guess that you’re better and smarter and kinder and happier than you were; that’s what you’re offering.

So often, it’s the little things that open people’s hearts to the Lord. It’s inviting them to go to confession, buying them a rosary, asking that question, sharing that CD. The Holy Spirit will lead you there–if you’re praying. It will mean more if you love them. It will be compelling if you’re living it.

It’s not yelling at people when they’re wrong. It’s not snorting derisively or calling them out in public. It’s not ever trying to be right but trying to seek truth. Truth and goodness and beauty–not smug correction or broken relationships.

I’d love to hear your thoughts–how do you draw the line between evangelizing like a sledgehammer and inviting people to Christ? Do you think it’s enough just to love people if you’re not actively introducing them to doctrine? Do you have any stories of how the Lord was leading people to him through you and you didn’t even know it?


If you live in the Harrisonburg, VA area, will you do me a huge favor? Will you like my mom’s pumpkin patch on Facebook? And then visit in the fall? Thanks!!

  1. Okay, I’m never happy to get out of bed. But I was happy to be alive and excited to face the day. []
  2. I hope it was only when I was younger–if I’m still doing this, please break it to me gently. And NOT in a comment on this post. []
  3. The Church requires that you go to Mass 57 times a year. That’s 0.65% of your life. Are you really so busy that you can’t give God less than 1% of your life? []
  4. These are great prayers. But if you’re not good at praying them–like me–you definitely need silence too. []
  5. I know, I know. Jesus is particularly fond of me. []

About Meg

I'm a Catholic, madly in love with the Lord, His Word, His Bride the Church, and especially His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. I'm committed to the Church not because I was raised this way but because the Lord has drawn my heart and convicted my reason. After 2 degrees in theology and 5 years in the classroom, I quit my 9-5 to follow Christ more literally. Since May of 2012, I've been a hobo for Christ; I live out of my car and travel the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, blogging, and trying to rock the world for Jesus.
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17 Responses to How To Evangelize (And How Not To)

  1. Karen says:

    I absolutely love this post. It is a balancing act between being a sledgehammer and being inviting. I have a friend that I talked with for 10 years before she agreed to go to confession. In the beginning, I did a lot more talking and trying to “convince”. As the years went on, I think I did a lot more loving and praying. I invited her to musical performances at church, to daily Mass, to Sunday Mass, and to Bible studies. She accepted most of my invitations. In the end, I asked the Holy Spirit (and tried to listen to the answer) to guide when to speak and what to say and do. I prayed. I asked the Blessed Mother to intercede. I tried to be an instrument, rather than the conductor. But I’m sure I wasn’t perfect at it. When one day she told me “I have to talk to that man (our priest) before Christmas” I made the appointment for her, gave her things to help with an examination of conscience, etc. There was much rejoicing in heaven that day, I am sure.

  2. Amanda says:

    Reading Dorothy Day talking about voluntary poverty and thinking of you.
    I heard a talk by Kimberly Hahn about the importance of a big family being a good witness in public. I am afraid we are the family that people see in public and decide firmly that they don’t want a big family, or maybe any children at all. Any suggestions on crazy families being a witness? (Especially to non-Catholic family members)

    • Meg says:

      Check out Ute’s comment below. You don’t have to be perfect! But do NOT worry about your family–I don’t think anyone finds them anything other than beautiful and charming and maybe a little loud but mostly awesome. And I think that when you love your children well (and have some measure of control, by which I mean nobody’s being allowed to throw things at people and nobody’s peeing in public), that’s a testimony to the joy of family life. Keep doing it, friend!

  3. Ute says:

    I haven’t heard that talk by Kimberly Hahn, but I have noticed that there is increasing pressure on Catholic families that our kids should be perfectly behaved and the parents perfectly disciplining, in order to convince others that big families are not so bad. And you know what increasing pressure causes? More craziness and everybody being miserable. I don’t think you fail to evangelize just because your kids are rowdy in public.
    Ute recently posted…Bible Verse Photography Challenge – July 2013My Profile

  4. MM says:

    Great article! Reminds me of Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, end of paragraph #19: “…those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation. For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.” A blanket statement, for sure – but, major apologies if any of my actions have ever driven anyone else further from God.

  5. Melissa H-K says:

    I very much appreciate the shout-out to the Mayland Pumpkin Patch! You and Rosie are neck and neck in your “best daughter” competition! 😀

  6. Melissa H-K says:

    I was such a rotten evangelist for years that I’ve gotten really, really timid about it—compared to the scorched-earth tactics I used to use, that is. When my friend Jack told me that he was a cradle Catholic but didn’t go to church any more, I prayed and prayed and prayed . . . and a few months later he said things that sounded Catholic, so I asked and he was back at church! I told him how happy I was and that I’d been praying for him. He was deeply touched. Sometimes I can evangelize, I guess!

  7. I read this post last week, and I’ve found myself thinking about it ever since then, so I realized I needed to come back and leave a comment. You are so right, and I’m sad to think of times when I have failed to do this properly. I will keep trying and hopefully one day I will get it right. Spreading the love of God is so incredibly important– too many people hurting that don’t need to!

    To Amanda: Personally I am always encouraged when I see large families, and I’m not turned off by rowdiness. It seems to me it’s a reality of having young children whether your family is small or large.
    Jennifer @ Little Silly Goose recently posted…Jenn’s Tips (Vol. 4): How to breastfeed and be a working momMy Profile

  8. Jett says:

    As a potentially conceited, self-described intellectual, raised in home that was both nominally Catholic from my father’s side- (I learned the Hail Mary), and Methodist transitioned to spirit-filled, believe in the literal seven day creation story or you are probably goin to hell, Penetecostal/ Protestant Evangelical bend on my mother’s side (I was told not to pray the Hail Mary… and that Catholicism is potentially the Whore of Babylon)–there are plenty of reasons aside from just the plain ol’ painful suffering human ones why I should be so jaded toward religion it is not even funny (… as children, we used to ask our parents why they would always fight on Sunday after dinner over the rightness or wrongness of each other’s faith… it wasn’t actually a fight as much as heated discussion—but us kids always reference these memories as the “Holy Wars”). In my journey and those whose witness rings true for me, are those who strive for holiness in ways that make them unpopular with conservatives and liberals alike. I never wanted a Church whose agenda was aligned with a political party, and I have always been extremely wary of “Christians” who do. Hence, when I converted/reverted to Catholicism—I did it because I found it to be the most uncomfortable place to worship if you do not have passion for humanity—all of it. I am currently in veterinary school in an environment of intellectually proud, science-minded, socially liberal, agnostic to atheistic, idealistic contemporaries who by and large see the Church through a similar lens as the Huffington Post. I wish I could express here how much I love them. How much they teach me about my Faith. How much they improve my Faith journey. Thus, my evangelization consists of both being unafraid of openness about my religion and its challenges. Being open about both my short falls in my quest of holiness and apologetic for the well-meaning intentions of those who have done much harm to them… (there are more than a couple stories, unfortunately). However, it also includes my love and desire for the Eucharist, and love and commitment to the Church. Words are one thing, but loving is another. I find that attempts at convincing closed hearts does more harm than good in most situations, but opening their hearts through the effects of converting our own… that is what makes people think. We are called to be Christian extremists—extremely Christ-like, extremely loving. We have to show the world again that Jesus loves humanity, that we love humanity. All of humanity, in all its glory, in all its horror.

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  10. skinnercitycyclist says:

    You could always try just being a decent person and accepting that others can be decent regardless of what they do or do not believe and leaving them to it. Less arrogant that way, but less Christian I suppose, and God-botherers will out.

  11. joseph says:

    Beware of the Antichrist/Satan Catholics! study of Gods word and belief is all that is required to be a disciple and saved( John 8:31/John 3:16. 2) thess. 2 tells it all about why many will be decieved.You have a destiny dont let this man or any other man or satan tell you to be “raptured” away! God bless I hope some read this and awaken to watch!as it is written what i say unto you i say to unto all Watch. Mark 13:37

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  14. Vinz says:

    I’ve been evangelizing for almost 5 years now and I’m really blessed in witnessing on how God moves in the heart of every unbeliever.

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