Evangelization - we can't opt out

Posted on July 13, 2015 in: Articles

There are a few things in life where we really don't have any choice.

One is communications. We cannot choose to "not communicate" and think that's the end of our interaction with someone. When we shut up, people ascribe meaning to our silence. As my wife told me once, "You're giving me the silent treatment." And yes, I guess I was.

Another is leadership. It's not a task that we can pick up or put down when we choose. Intentional leadership occurs whenever anyone influences anyone else. But unintentional leadership occurs all the time too -- and sometimes it is more powerful than our conscious attempts to lead. Some examples:

  • When he was a National Basketball Association star, Charles Barkley claimed, "I ain't no role model." People scoffed, as well they should have. Kids bought and wore his jersey and shoes. They tried to walk and talk like him. They struggled and sweated to play like him. He may not have wanted to be role model -- or as we would say, a leader -- but it wasn't his choice.
  • When parents are sent to prison, they might think they're no longer serving as leaders of their children. But statistics tell us otherwise. According to a report released in 2003 by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, children of prisoners are seven times more likely to go to jail than children whose moms or dads have not served time behind bars. In fact, these children are more likely to go to jail than to graduate from high school. Inmates who are prisoners don't intentionally lead their children to jail, but it happens - and frequently so -- nonetheless. 
  • On the other hand, a study published in 2000 of parents' influence in Switzerland, where 46 percent of the population is Catholic, showed that if a father does not go to church, no matter how faithful his wife's devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If, however, a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers on a regular or irregular basis.

No doubt many fathers who regularly attend church do so at least in part with the hope of influencing their children -- intentionally leading them. But no matter what their intentions, it's what they do rather than what they say that shapes the behavior of their children.

The example of parents' influence on their children's life-long worship practices points to a third thing we don't have a choice about: evangelization.

Inevitably, once people know we identify with a faith tradition, our words and deeds shape their opinions about our faith tradition, faith in general and, in many cases, even their views about the existence of God. If our lives draw people closer to Christ, we are effective evangelizers. If our lives turn people away from a life of Christian faith fully lived, we are ineffective -- even counterproductive -- evangelizers.

If your experience of Catholicism runs parallel to mine, evangelization is not something you've heard very much about. Quite likely, you associate it with TV or street corner evangelists -- and are pretty sure it's not anything you want anything to do with.

However, just now at the Vatican many church leaders are meeting for an International Synod of Bishops devoted to the topic of the "new evangelization." It's a term that speaks of something very old and very novel. The point is to discover ways for us to be effective evangelizers in the modern world -- gifted, as it is, by all manner of new media but weighted down by overblown individualism and materialism.

At the synod, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington said, "We already know our difficulties, the tensions, our restlessness, our faults and our human weakness." Nonetheless, God calls all members of his church to proclaim salvation in Christ to the world.

He noted that after more than 230 participants had spoken at the synod, it was clear that everyone agreed that the duty to proclaim the Gospel "is not just the responsibility of clergy and religious." Laypeople share the obligation. It falls to church ministers to prepare, educate and support them better in the process, the cardinal said.

On behalf of that work he offered the observation that the "two great pillars of evangelization" are a commitment to know and proclaim the truth of Christ -- and to do so with love.

No doubt some will struggle more with one pillar than the other.

But all of us who are Catholic are already evangelizing -- either effectively or counterproductively -- just as we all are leading, either effectively or ineffectively.

Certainly not all of us are called to preach from pulpits, street corners, TV studios or on internet blogs. But all of us shape people's perceptions about Christ, Christianity and Catholicism in everything we do -- or fail to do.

In this Year of Faith, that's something to contemplate as we strive to be Jesus-like S3 Leaders at home, at work and in our communities. 

Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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