Evangelizer or evangelist? Depending on your frame of reference, the term “evangelist” conjures up the writers of the gospels, slick Protestant TV personalities, or the kind of modern corporate marketing fervor pioneered by Apple. And the term “evangelizer” sounds just plain ignorant and clunky. It reminds me of the similar problem with “baptizer” and “Baptist” which, as you can see, my spell-checker insists on capitalizing. But perhaps a rose by any other name smells the same, as the Bardist says: To evangelize, we need to know what we’re doing, have supreme confidence in the face of resistance, and never fail to press an advantage.
Or do we?
Actually, I’m rather afraid that this is what most people think, and why many people don’t evangelize. Even worse, it is all too easy to get this impression from reading people like myself, who have the supreme luxury of spinning well-thought thoughts in the privacy of an office connected only by cyberspace to the nearest critic. Like the proverbial sports official, we here at CatholicCulture.org may be wrong, but we are never in doubt.
But this absence of uncertainty is not the normal human condition, nor even the normal Christian condition.
I do not mean that we should fail to learn our faith well; this is a fundamental duty we have to God. Nor do I mean we should be reluctant to share the faith; this is a fundamental duty to our neighbor. But what I do mean is that we cannot expect to know the answer to every question or to be absolutely certain we are taking the best possible approach to bring a particular person to Jesus Christ and His Church. That is why the single most important characteristic of a successful evangelizer is not intelligence, or training, or courage, or even self-confidence, but holiness.
Unfortunately, while the advice to seek holiness does orient us properly, it doesn’t provide much practical guidance. So let us identify three characteristics we can acquire on the way to holiness, specific characteristics which will always make our efforts at evangelization more fruitful:
- Humility: Humility is, of course, the very ground of holiness. It is the virtue by which we recognize who God is and who we are, that we are not God, and that in point of fact we depend entirely on God not only for our existence but for every good work. There are two sides to this virtue. The first is a radical reliance upon God, which I will treat as a separate characteristic below. The second is the recognition and acceptance of our own inescapable inadequacy in sharing the Christian life with others, which is what I wish to focus on here.If we are embarrassed by our inadequacies we will be reluctant to expose them or to admit them when others cheerfully expose them for us. This is the result of pride and self-love. An effective evangelizer will always be frank about his own deficiencies in both virtue and knowledge. Questions will come up to which the evangelizer has no ready answer. Rather than bluster, he should welcome the opportunity to explore the answers together with any sincere non-believer who is genuinely seeking to know more. Similarly, questions will arise which touch on moral struggle. An evangelizer should freely admit that he too participates in this struggle, that the struggle is in no way shameful, and that one of the blessings of the Christian life is to provide mutual assistance toward the goal of greater union with God.It takes humility to open ourselves to others in these ways, but humility is the mark of personal authenticity. It cannot be faked, and it is always attractive. Far better to be willing to engage another in the Christ life on terms of equal need than either to hide our light or be correctly perceived as a self-righteous know-it-all.
Hospitality: Another outgrowth of humility, when combined with the charity to which humility opens the way, is a willingness to invite others into our “space”. As we begin to see whatever gifts we possess as gifts for others, our all too human desire to be left alone diminishes. Hospitality in the formal sense of welcoming others into our homes and treating them as family has always been considered a Christian virtue. It is also a vital means of establishing contact with those non-believers whom we are most called to influence: relatives, friends and associates who are open to our invitations despite not sharing our faith. But the hospitality I am referring to here goes a little deeper than the formal commitments of social gatherings or holiday get-togethers, as valuable as these are. What must lie at the core of our relationships with others is a radical openness to allowing them in. Each person is a brother or sister wholly deserving of our attention—not an interruption or a distraction, and still less a nuisance. Obviously we must make prudent judgments concerning time and energy, especially in light of our primary responsibilities to immediate family and to the work for which we are compensated. But even in terms of evangelization, potential effectiveness will be dramatically increased insofar as others sense that we think them important, that they are more than welcome to share our joy.This constant projection of authentic personal hospitality, this heartfelt ability to provide a welcome, is another essential component of evangelization.
- Trust in God: As I suggested under the heading of humility, a Christian would be very foolish to achieve only the worldly half of humility, which is a sense of inadequacy so profound as to send us running for cover, never to attempt any good for the remainder of our worthless lives. To the contrary, the Christian realization of humility is a realization not that we are worthless but that we depend on God because God loves us. Our weakness is the key to our greatness, because God wants us to fulfill the aspirations of our nature through union with Himself.Since this is the case, we must depend on God in everything, constantly asking him to make up for what we lack, to use us as His instruments for whatever good He wishes to accomplish through us. Prayer, then, will be as constant a part of our program of evangelization as it is of our program of spiritual growth. If it has been given to us to be “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:20) to certain souls, then we must ask God for the grace to “shine like lights in the world” (Phil 2:15) so that these souls may be “saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2). Faith remains a gift, and we remain but instruments of that gift. The giver is God alone. In all efforts at evangelization, we must be confident not in ourselves as instruments, but in God as giver. Our job is to trust that He will use us if we allow ourselves to be used. We do not insist on obvious success, for it is not the instrument which appraises success but the One who uses the instrument. And surely we must know that one may sow while another reaps (Jn 4:37)! But there is only one Lord of the harvest (Mt 9:38), and He alone is wholly good (Mk 10:18).
Speaking of ourselves in the wearisome course of human life, hesitation and uncertainty are normal. Indeed, if we did not experience our own inadequacy, we would have no hope at all. But we are right to have confidence in the One who is good, the only One who was ever wholly right to say, “Don’t worry! Be happy!”—the One who could and did say, “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
This article appeared November 27 of catholicculture.org