How to Evangelize

“Success requires creativity.” – James C. Gorman and Robert S. Rivers | October 15, 2012

how to evangelizeThis 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 theirlanguage 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.


James C. Gorman and Robert S. Rivers, C.S.P., currently assist parishes, dioceses and religious congregations through the Paulist New England Outreach Ministry. Fr. Rivers is also the author of From Maintenance to Mission.