The Characteristics of Effective Evangelization
If, then, our encounter with Christ is the premise of evangelization, what are some of the other characteristics of evangelization that will render it effective in our time? Let me suggest the 4 Cs of effective evangelization – namely that it needs to be CLEAR, CHALLENGING, COMPASSIONATE, and CONVINCING.
First, our presentation of the Gospel and the faith of the Church needs to be clear and accurate. I wonder how many people have left the Catholic Church, or never considered joining the Church, because they received incorrect information or were laboring under a misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine or discipline. More than once I’ve heard someone say, “I left the Catholic Church because I was divorced and could no longer receive Holy Communion.” Or, “I left the Church because Catholics don’t believe in the Bible.” Both statements are completely inaccurate, of course, but there are many others like it.
We have to admit, that in too many settings during the past 50 years, the teaching of the Church hasn’t always been presented in a clear and consistent manner; and in other times individuals have simply misunderstood the tenets of the Church. In any case, a serious approach to the believing community needs to be based on teaching that is accurate and authentic.
Next, evangelization in the world today needs to be challenging.
Many critics have suggested that the Catholic Church would attract more adherents if, for example, we changed our teaching about difficult topics such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, divorce and re-marriage, the ordination of women and clerical celibacy. But, we need to ask in response: Is an easy Church, devoid of any moral imperatives or challenge, being faithful to its mission? Is it contributing anything of value to the moral well-being of the world?
I recall that a journalist asked Pope Benedict what we could do to make the Church more “attractive” to the modern world. The Holy Father responded: “I would say that a Church that seeks to be particularly attractive is already on the wrong path. Because the Church does not work for her own ends, she does not work to increase numbers and thus power.”
In other words, the task of the Church is to proclaim the truth – whether easy or hard, popular or unpopular, “convenient or inconvenient” as St. Paul charged. (II Tim 4:2)
The fact is, we do no one a favor if we water-down or minimize the hard teachings of Christ and his Church in a vain attempt to make them more palatable to modern taste.
The Third “C” of evangelization, for those returning to the Church or those who have never been part of our community, is that it needs to be compassionate.
Here I mean that our presence in the world and our outreach has to be attuned to the real life experiences of those we meet; we need to be sensitive to their needs and concerns. Good teachers and preachers, in the Church as elsewhere, have to be careful listeners and astute observers as well as articulate speakers.
Some folks who have departed the Church have done so not for doctrinal reasons but because of more personal experiences. Perhaps they had an argument with another member of the Church – clergy, religious or lay. Maybe they approached the Church with a pressing, personal need or problem and were turned away.
It’s instructive to recall the many personal encounters Jesus had – with the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the sinner. Jesus was always alert to and responsive to their situation. He was a listener, a counselor, a companion. And while he clearly challenged individuals to repent of their sin and to live a moral and upright life, his starting point was the human condition. In short, he was compassionate. And so must our evangelization be.
Finally, it seems to me that our evangelization in the world today has to be convincing, and by that I mean that we can effectively evangelize by our deeds as well as our words, by our actions as well as our axioms.
Pope Francis has certainly given us an example to consider.
The early days of his pontificate were marked by symbolic gestures that spoke of his desire for simplicity and humility in the Church – for example, the preferred simplicity of his attire, personal and liturgical; the personal phone calls he made; the fact that on the day after his election he stopped and paid his hotel bill; his decision to not reside in the Apostolic Palace but rather in the Domus Santa Martha.
I have to confess, when the media turned somersaults because the Pope paid his own hotel bill, I said to myself – and I think to a few others – “Big deal; I pay my own hotel bill all the time, and nobody cares.”
But it seems clear that while this simple approach is truly the Pope’s style, with or without the presence of cameras, he is also sending a message to the rest of the Church, especially its leaders.
But even beyond these simple symbols, we evangelize most effectively by our works of charity. In the works of education and health care, in the ministry of our homeless shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens, we serve Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We serve without asking for baptism certificates or parish registrations. We serve in the name of Christ and with the knowledge that in those we serve we encounter the real presence of Christ.
Effective evangelization is a combination of words and deeds. It is in our works of charity that our words are fulfilled, that we convince people of the authenticity of our message.
-+Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, Diocese of Providence,