It is never easy to share our faith with others, but it is the call that Jesus gave every Christian in the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
We are not left to do this on our own. The Holy Spirit empowers us with boldness and fills us with wisdom – when we ask! Before, during, and after these important conversations, we urge you to pray. Pray for yourself as well as for the heart, ears, and mind of the person that you are speaking to.
Today we highlight some mistakes that are frequently made when evangelizing. Read them over and try to avoid these common errors.
Ever find yourself in conversation with someone about some topic of faith, but you disagree completely? Ok then! That is precisely the principle of the apostolate: to try to bring the Church to people who are far away from God.
How? As Pope St. John Paul II put it: faith is a proposition, not an imposition. However, sometimes it is very easy, by a misplaced apostolic zeal, to fall into an emotional response, to allow ourselves to be carried away by overly exuberant responses, even signs of anger, gestures of impatience or frustration, etc. Unfortunately, a failure to moderate or temper our mode of communication can end up pushing people away rather than bringing them to God.
Do not be discouraged! This is a very common mistake, and it’s borne of good intentions. Jacques Phillippe, in his book Inner Peace, tells us that often, as we intend something good, even something desired by God, we grow impatient and upset if we’re not immediately successful. “We intend good things, in accordance with the will of God, but we still want them in a way that is not ‘God mode’, i.e., that of the Holy Spirit, who is sweet, peaceful and patient, but to the human way: tense, anxious, and disappointed if you cannot immediately achieve your goal.”
Many times it will touch us correct and teach, but it must be done in an atmosphere of understanding, of love, of peace. Another thing that adds the author of Christian spirituality is that “have to reason thus: If the Lord has not yet transformed to that person, has not removed her such or which imperfection, is that it supports it as it is!” Waiting patiently the opportune moment (…) to be more demanding and more abrupt than God?“
They say about Saint Francis de Sales, the “saint of sweetness,” that when he was young he had a very bad temper and fought all his life to correct himself in this area. To do so, he followed the next plan of life: every morning was a “test forecast” (he’d consider what tasks, what people and which activities he would encounter throughout the day ahead, and would plan out his behavior ahead of time), at noon, it was a “special review” (he’d examine any key failings in losing his temper, which for 19 years had been his inclination, and whether he had, in the moment, acted with the opposite virtue) all day was a time of prayer throughout the day sought to have God’s presence, among other practices.
Another thing that can help us, and much is to not blurt out an answer right away, but to pause and think about what we’re saying and if we are saying it in the appropriate tone. For this, we can take a deep breath and wait a few seconds before we speak.
St. Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Is important that we investigate and we strive to have sufficient knowledge of the Catholic catechism, because it is what will give us the arguments necessary to evangelize. Many Catholics believe, but do not know why or how to defend their belief. They have faith, but they don’t know how to express it. This can be problematic especially when speaking with a non-Catholic Christian who really knows the Bible (but disputes the Catholic interpretation), or for an ardent non-believer who has never heard a Catholic defend the beautiful and intellectual Reason proclaimed by the Church.
It is not necessary to learn from memory the Bible, the Catechism, the Social doctrine of the Church and all texts of the Magisterium, but we should be equipped with compelling reasons we believe, in order to transmit and defend the faith. At least, you have to know these resources exist, so you can point people to them for their own research.
Another common mistake is to assume we already know the position of the other person, before actually listening to him or her.
When we presume to put people into categories of knowledge and belief, even if they use a certain label to define themselves, we risk missing out on a lot about the individual person. If we do not learn to listen, we fall into the mistake of being defensive or offensive (or both) on matters that might not be of immediate concern, or might not be the first priority for that particular person.
In such cases, the other person loses interest in the conversation, since they can sense our presuppositions or misunderstandings, and they don’t feel we’re meeting them halfway. Some people believe that a good approach is to go on offense, aiming straight at our “opponent’s” biggest weakness and attacking him, or ridiculing his positions. It is a trap that we can easily fall into, consciously or unconsciously.
Interestingly, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches just the opposite: that it is much more effective to search out our opponent’s best argument, to analyze it, and actually to turn it into our best argument. In order to do this, we must first know and understand others’ beliefs, and then to share ours.
When this is difficult, we can remember that the other person is also a son or daughter of God, and try to imitate the patience with which He would listen to him or her. To learn how to listen, we must learn to love and respect the other, in simplicity and humility, because many times it is our hidden pride which leads us to not listen, because we want to show off, or to “win” an argument. Remember – we are trying to win souls!
This is even a risk when we are well-equipped and well-formed in our faith; but, even so, there are times when we come up blank or are stumped by a certain question, nuance or argument posed by the friend we’re trying to evangelize. If this occurs, the best reaction is to admit, humbly but also confidently, “I don’t know, but I will find out for you!” It is much better than sheepishly changing the subject or faking your way through an answer in uncertainty.
As we said before, we should have some foundational knowledge to be properly equipped to evangelize. But to pretend to know it all would be a demonstration of pride: we do not know everything and must continue forming ourselves throughout our lives as intentional Catholics.
Did you ever think that “stories” were only to explain the catechism to children? They are valid for people of all ages, not just for the catechesis of little ones! Many times, we have the facts and fundamentals loaded and ready to fire, and we believe that if our listener could only hear one more proof, or one more philosophical argument, we’d win them over. But often we underestimate the importance of the personal testimony as a means to communicate Christ.
People don’t want to hear lectures, but stories. Think of the Gospels, themselves! When we see Jesus teaching by way of parables, He was teaching the most profound truths in story form, appealing to the heart and imagination, instead of in a rule book or an bulleted list of facts.
Of course it should be doctrinal justification! But our message should also come via stories and individual experiences that help us not only to explain our position in more simple way, but also to create a personal connection and a stronger impression on our listener.
Recognizing that we fall into any of these errors should not discourage us; it is entirely normal to slip up in these ways! Many times throughout our lives, we are prone to stumbling (even if we have already spent years working to improve on any of these points).
The most important thing is to keep our focus, above all, on charity. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that “any work of love, carried out with all the heart, will always draw people to God“; If others can perceive our love, patience and humility, they will feel more touched and better disposed to reflect on what we say.
But if we err in our zeal – as is inevitable – we can continue to practice, to pray, and to better prepare ourselves for the next opportunity… nothing is wasted! Remember, we have the help of the Holy Spirit, and as God is more interested in that we make a powerful and effective apostolate, we can count on His help when we do our part in full sincerity and charity.