“Moses then summoned Joshua and, in the presence of all Israel, said to him, ‘Be strong, stand firm; you will be the one to go with this people into the country which Yahweh has sworn to their ancestors that he would give them” [Deuteronomy 31; 7]
As Catholic Christians involved in our faith communities we will be aware of the call of Church leaders to the “new evangelization”. Of course, the call to evangelization is not new. We need only look to chapter 16 of Mark’s gospel as a reminder that Jesus himself called us to “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the gospel to all creation” [Mark 16: 17.]
What is new is the emphasis placed on the role of each of us in sharing the good news with those around us. In the past many of us have been content to allow “missionaries” to undertake the task of reaching out to people about Jesus assuming that they were better trained and equipped to handle that task. Of course, to some extent we have always been missionaries at least in terms of passing on the “faith” to our children and grandchildren. The new emphasis on evangelization within our faith communities today starts with the assumption that the duty to evangelize comes with our Baptism. We are all charged with this task. It’s really only a question of how our giftedness directs how we contribute to the task rather than whether we contribute to it.
So how do we go about the task of evangelization? The first step in the process is to rely on the Holy Spirit to direct us. Many of us are uncomfortable approaching people with an invitation to get to know Jesus. The Holy Spirit will guide us knowing our gifts and will help us to deal with our fears. The primary step, of course, is seeking to grow spiritually that others will see in our lives something to emulate. We may be called to engage primarily in intercessory prayer in support of the efforts of other members of the community who are actively involved in processes that connect the “seeker” with the person of Jesus. We may be called to hospitality in programs such as “Alpha”. We may be called to participate in scripture study programs that include “seekers”. We’re all called to build healthy relationships with those around us, many of whom may not know Jesus. In the end, we are likely to be most effective in sharing the good news with those with whom we already have a good relationship. Beware of “timing” however. It is the Holy Spirit who is really doing the evangelizing. We are simply facilitating the process and people have a habit of turning to Jesus often many years after they have been introduced to Him. Our duty is to engage the issue with people and leave it up to the Holy Spirit to “close the deal” if I can use a commercial analogy. It may be that our own personal involvement is one step in the process and others [perhaps many others over an extended period of time] will, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, pick up where we have left off. If we don’t approach the task with this attitude, we run the risk of experiencing disappointment and we can lose confidence. Helen and I have been involved as small group leaders in Alpha groups over the last decade and a half and I can tell you from experience that the following two things invariably happen:
- Many of those specifically invited to attend the course don’t show up but others who weren’t specifically invited do.
- People you thought were ready to choose a relationship with Jesus are, for whatever reason, not ready at that time but others immediately respond and there is no way of knowing why.
Helen and I organized one Alpha course for young people based upon the request of a young woman who was about to marry and was interested in Christianity primarily because her fiancé was a Christian. We recommended to her that both she and her fiancé attend together. She did a marvelous job of marketing the course for us and many of her friends attended and were deeply touched by it but she and her fiancé did not attend. Were we disappointed? Yes we were but on reflection we understood that the Holy Spirit orchestrated this particular course to reach out to others who were not on our radar at the time the course was scheduled.
As we reflect on the call that each of us has to share Jesus with others, we need to know in the depth of our hearts that the joy that comes with this ministry is the fuel the Holy Spirit gives us to persevere. When our pilgrimage here is ended and we experience eternal life with Jesus we will have the privilege of knowing in detail how our efforts here have helped others to find their way home. In the meantime, in addition to our involvement in this ministry we need to help equip others to carry on the work of evangelization when our work is done by passing on the baton.