This March, Pope Francis named a new Dicastery for Evangelization as the prominent organization in his new structure. Another message to us about the importance of evangelization. Building on his predecessors’ call for the “New Evangelization,” Pope Francis dreamt of a “missionary impulse” and urged parishes and individuals to be outwardly focused. Now he has formalized it into the structure of the Vatican itself. And in doing so, he demonstrates… Evangelization is a must. Not optional.
“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” Mark 16:15
What do we mean by evangelization?
Before we dismiss “evangelization” as a predatory activity, it might be helpful to reflect on the definition from the USCCB website:
The simplest way to say what evangelization means is to follow Pope Paul VI, whose message Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World) has inspired so much recent thought and activity in the Church. He can rephrase his words to say that evangelizing means bringing the Good News of Jesus into every human situation and seeking to convert individuals and society by the divine power of the Gospel itself.
More simply put: Bring the Good News of Jesus to those around you. Let everyone know that they are loved. In Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), Pope Francis wrote:
It would not be right to see this call to growth exclusively or primarily in terms of doctrinal formation. It has to do with “observing” all that the Lord has shown us as the way of responding to his love. Along with the virtues, this means above all the new commandments, the first and the greatest of the commandments, and the one that best identifies us as Christ’s disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12).
Our Church teaches us that evangelization is quite the opposite of predatory. Instead, it is loving and invitational. Our role is to provide the good news and love each other so that those we interact with can become open to the Holy Spirit. In my article titled “Evangelization is not recruitment,” I refer to a homily from a priest from FOCUS that helped me understand how simple it really is.
The cost of failing to evangelize
I recently met with a diocesan Director of Advancement who expressed concern about the decline in the number of baptisms and confirmations in the diocese. He said “the number of donors has also reduced. We are raising more money from fewer people but it is not sustainable. The population in our diocese is growing dramatically but the number of parishioners and sacraments is dropping dramatically. We need to be focused on relationships with people to invite them into our community.” We went on in our conversation to talk about evangelization.
It’s easy for us and our pastors to be focused on “getting people to Mass,” but we have a much more far-reaching need. In order to grow and thrive, we have to bring our call to discipleship to the forefront of our efforts. We have to start with relationship and trust and cast a wide net of invitation. The invitation must go beyond hospitality to groups and activities that meet people where they are and value who they are as persons. If we truly believe the Catholic Church is the path to Christ and salvation, then failing to invite people to discover the path means we are failing to live the gospel and has big implications for our ability to sustain our parishes.
What are people telling us?
Feedback from research institutions like Springtide Research, Gallup, and the ACS Technologies American Beliefs Study highlights the importance of belonging, along with valued, trusted relationships. The top desire from people across the United States is to experience “warm and friendly encounters” in their church. Behind these comments is the assumption that people feel valued and appreciated, which occurs through groups and activities relevant to them. How often have we heard “meet people where they are?” This statement does not have modifiers like “as long as they come to Mass” or “assuming they are dressed appropriately”. We are likely missing the point if our efforts are solely prioritized around getting more people to register. And have them attend Mass.
Sherry Weddell raised the alarm in her book Forming Intentional Disciples. The first chapters describe the decline in sacraments and Mass Attendance and our lack of personal relationship with Christ. She references the model of Thresholds of Conversion. This reminds us we must personally build a bridge of trust with others that allows them the space to explore where they are in their faith. Father Mallon emphasizes Alpha because it helps to provide us some structure for small groups. The space we give provides the opportunity for an encounter with the Holy Spirit.
Yes, it is uncomfortable. A parish example
When I first read Forming Intentional Disciples I struggled with what Sherry was saying. It invaded my comfortable world and made me think differently about my faith and role in the Church. Rebuilt generates a similar reaction from readers. When I read the first book and listened to Fr. White and Tom Corcoran, I truly struggled with the idea of focusing on new visitors. It seemed disrespectful to parishioners. But we all experience how parishioners can become entitled. Maybe we are them!
But by trusting in Christ and the message of the New Evangelization, Fr. White has encouraged a parish community that is a great example of living a culture of evangelization. The staff at Church of the Nativity work to create an atmosphere that appeals to visitors to the parish. When visitors get to the parish, they have an excellent and uplifting experience. The team notes that they have an extreme focus on the music and language that appeal to a “typical person in Timonium, MD.” They have gone to great lengths to be aware of their mission territory and act in that area’s context.
Rather than focus on registering parishioners, the first step is to invite people to a group. Anyone participating in a group is considered an active member of the parish. And is treated as a “parishioner.” The staff fosters that relationship and provides the opportunity for the person to lead a group or to go a little deeper into bible study or prayer. The influx of new people fosters energy and excitement in the parish. It brings in new ideas and encourages new leaders for ministries in the parish.
Use data to “see”
A typical reaction to prioritizing evangelization is forming a group to focus on it and start canvassing neighborhoods. A good starting place is to look at what your parish is currently doing. And if your ministries are all aligned with your mission. Do your parishioners reflect the community that surrounds your parish? Do a driving or walking tour to notice who is there and begin to discern what is most important. Resources like MissionInsite provide detailed information that helps compare your parishioners with people in your community.
As important is to see who visits your parish and who gives to your parish. Even if they are not registered, both are participating in your parish. Do you have this data? If not, then consider what resources you need. You need to see how often people are there and what groups they may join. By having this information for visitors, you can develop a relationship with them. And you can see if your external efforts are bearing fruit.
The Good News
Evangelization is truly a must, not optional. But wh t does that mean? It mea s focusing on people and caring for Evangelization is truly a must, not optional. But what does that mean? It means focusing on people and caring for people. Showing others the example of Christ, and telling them they are loved. Allow them to be open to experiencing the Holy Spirit!
Terry Poplava is a multi-disciplined executive with extensive sales, product marketing, strategy and leadership experience in supporting faith organizations. Terry’s professional experience includes organizational leadership, corporate development and growth, consulting with and training church leaders, and leading strategic and priority planning for churches and dioceses. He currently serves on the advisory board for the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine FL, as cantor at St. Andrew parish in Myrtle Beach, SC. and recently as Chairman of the Finance Council at St. Mary the Virgin Mother parish in Hartsville, SC.