Tuesday, September 8, 2020

How to preach the Gospel as a Catholic.

I've had multiple years of experience in preaching the Gospel to non-Catholics and so I've felt the need to share my findings and results so as to help other Catholics. Those who have an apologetics mindset tend to want to know the most effective tips and tricks (or even 'perfect formula') for to how to effectively evangelize, so it's a shame this topic isn't discussed more.

When I first began real life evangelizing several years ago, I quickly learned that most people are not interested in intellectual discussions. This isn't to say these non-Catholics were stupid, but rather that they weren't "nerdy" the way your typical Catholic apologist is nerdy and excited about theology. As a result, I learned the hard way that there's a real distinction between apologetics and evangelism. So the first thing to know about evangelizing is that not everyone is nerdy, or even has much knowledge on theological matters, so most of what you know isn't even applicable when you talk with them.

With that in mind, I had some discussions with fellow nerdy Catholics on what to do with strangers instead of trying to generate theological discussion. One friend suggested that we should get familiar with the kerygma, which is a Greek term in the New Testament that refers to "preaching the Gospel". The idea behind the modern notion of kerygma is that any mature Christian should be able to summarize what the Gospel is to a non-believer. If you look online, you will see all kinds of videos and articles about why a mature Christian should develop your own kerygma testimony to tell to others "in the event you only had a few minutes to talk to a stranger". The irony about all these articles and videos was that they never really were able to give concrete examples of kerygma. It's one thing to have an idea of what the Gospel is in a nutshell, but it is quite another thing to actually put that down into words, especially words that a non-believer could understand. So without a concrete example of kerygma, I quickly learned that even that method wasn't going to work either.

I must emphasize: there is no "Gospel in a nutshell" kerygma, despite what articles make it out to be. Go ahead and try to explain the Gospel in 3-4 sentences that someone completely unfamiliar with the Bible would understand. You cannot. The reality is there is some crucial details missing in modern means of evangelism, and that's what I'm going to now share.

In my quest to discover the kerygma as defined by the Bible, I discovered that there was no such formula, and the Apostles didn't use any such formula anywhere in Acts. The Book of Acts is a key guide of how the early Christians evangelized, and of the 6 or 7 homilies of preaching the Gospel in Acts, they all had something in common. That common feature was that the Apostles were always preaching inside or near the synagogue. The synagogue was basically equivalent to a Catholic parish, which was a building in every major town where Jews and "God-fearing Greeks" would gather every Saturday to hear the Old Testament read and discussed. What this means is that the Apostles focused their preaching on people who already showed some interest in divine things, and more importantly these people already accepted the Scriptures. This means that the Apostles were building on common ground, and basically pointing out how the Messiah that everyone was awaiting, the Messiah whom the Old Testament Scriptures gave clues about, was fulfilled in the life of Jesus.

For example, if someone accepts the Old Testament but doesn't know who Jesus is, you could point them to Isaiah 53 and discuss how the Suffering Servant fits the suffering of Jesus. But if someone does not accept the Old Testament, then what use is quoting OT prophecy? The OT means nothing to a pagan. So if a pagan knows nothing of divine revelation, where would you even being? It turns out that of all the times the Apostles preached the Gospel in Acts, only once did they preach directly to pagans. In Acts 17, we see that Paul wanted to reach out to the pagans, but since they didn't accept any OT divine revelation, Paul had to struggle to find something to tell them. If you read Acts 17:16-34, which is a short read, you will see something very troubling: Paul had nothing to talk about, and his effort to preach to the pagans was largely a failure. So here we have it, the greatest Apostle to the Gentiles had serious difficulty preaching to pagans. Paul didn't simply blurt out the Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, since this already didn't mean anything to the pagans. Instead, Paul had to scrape the bottom of the barrel, trying to convince them there was one God and that God loved them (since they were surrounded by many idol gods). And such effort didn't bear hardly any fruit and was mostly a waste of time. So what is the solution?

As far as I can tell, from the Bible and my own experience, the only way you can evangelize non-Catholics is to either focus on people who already accept the Bible (e.g. Protestants, Jews, and possibly Muslims), while for the purely secular or pagan religion folks, you have to just invest the time to develop relationships. There is no 'easy' method, aside from miraculous conversions. From what I can tell in the Bible and from the various Catholic missionary efforts throughout history, effective evangelism always took a lot of time, effort, and prayer. First you establish friendly terms, then you get to know a person, and along the way you plant seeds. After time, often years, you can then seen fruit. Most pagans are deeply skeptical of a stranger showing them unconditional love, so it will take time for them to get beyond their suspicion of why you are 'being so nice to them'.

Even when debating Protestants, I have found that you should never expect them to convert to Catholicism the moment you 'win an argument'. Rather, you have to be patient and show a consistent effort of where their claims are wrong, why Catholicism is right, and wait for them to eventually realize Protestantism is lacking. This often takes years. In your typical online discussion, I have found that if a Protestant is not receptive, learn to better manage your time by not getting too worked up or investing too much energy. Get used to brief responses, since nobody wants to read long exchanges anyway (something I learned the hard way). You can only do so much, so again, try to keep things brief and don't waste your time if someone really isn't giving you a fair hearing.

Finally, no matter who you are talking to, remember that it isn't about how great you are, it's about how and when the Holy Spirit wants to convict their hearts. So don't think evangelism is even mostly about human effort. And why would God even grant you the gift of seeing conversions unless you are also already working on a relationship with the Trinity through regular personal prayer? I don't think God works like that. I think God shows us a little bit of fruit along the Journey, at unexpected times, to encourage us that we're on the right track, but avoids showing us too much fruit that we become arrogant and think it was our doing (see the endnote HERE).


nannykim said...

You have made some good points. Do you have a post where you summarize the gospel itself in terms of the Catholic perspective? Also just a comment on quoting or discussion the Old Testament with unbelievers---one of the things that led me to Christianity and to believe it was that a pastor went over numerous prophesies of the Messiah from the OT and then he showed me how they were fulfilled. Even though I had no idea of inspiration of Scriptures it stopped me in my tracks. It convinced me that I needed to seriously consider the claims of Christ because of the fulfillment of prophesy. Anyways--any posts on a summary of the gospel?

guy fawkes said...

Ever consider appealing to a miracle? Lourdes, Guadalupe, Fatima are all verifiable. God gave us these events for a reason.

Nick said...

Nannykim, I am not sure of any posts off the top of my head. The Apstles and Nicene Creeds are both "Gospel Summaries". Old Testament Prophecy is a fascinating thing that not enough people take advantage of when evangelizing, since nobody denies the OT was written prior to Jesus.

If I had to come up with a summary in this moment, I would say something like: God made the world and everything in it good, but human sin has caused things to become twisted. In God's Providence, He appointed someone named Jesus to repair all the brokenness and help us re-establish a relationship with God, especially a life of prayer and learning God's ways through His Church.

Guy Fawkes, I haven't considered a miracle, but I have heard that miracles have been used in helping convert people. A miracle isn't the same as the "Gospel" though.

Porphyry said...

Excellent points. The reality is that there is always some 'lag time' between the moment you plant the seed and the time at which it sprouts. It took nearly ten years for me to go from being a typical reformed evangelical to a convinced Catholic. It didn't happen in one fell swoop and at every step prior to my conversion I would have "fought back" when presented with various Catholic doctrines. But the final product is that I came to see the biblical, historical and philosophical inadequacy of what I was raised with, and the cumulative effect was my conversion. So never be discouraged when you appear to face resistance, you have no idea what someone's trajectory looks like, and that's all the matters in the end.