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.
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):
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
- Okay, I’m never happy to get out of bed. But I was happy to be alive and excited to face the day. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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? [↩]
- These are great prayers. But if you’re not good at praying them–like me–you definitely need silence too. [↩]
- I know, I know. Jesus is particularly fond of me. [↩]