Debunking Myths around Evangelization (Part IV)
This article is the last in a short series on evangelization. You can find the first article HERE . The second article can be read HERE. The third article can be read HERE. I encourage you to read or reread those before jumping in to this article.
Misconception 4: The Two Extremes
In this final article, I hope to debunk the last common misconception I hear in regard to the work of evangelization. The easiest way to summarize this misconception is to call it “the two extremes”. The work of evangelization is a joint partnership, St Paul might call it a “koinonia”, between us and the Holy Spirit. However, we may fall into the trap of seeing evangelization through the lens of one of two extremes.
The first extreme is to see evangelization as 100% the work of the Holy Spirit, in which we have no part to play. I’ve met individuals, even priests, who unknowingly espouse this misconception. This extreme would view conversion (the goal of evangelization) as a process that is completed in secret, by God, apart from any human influence or aid. I sense a connection between this misconception and the often repeated slogan, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words”. Often attributed, falsely, to St Francis of Assisi, this slogan could convince us that our words are unnecessary to help another come to faith. We may, mistakenly, believe that it’s enough to be a “good person”, and that our politeness will be a sufficient signpost to God for those who don’t believe.
We must speak! Our speaking of Jesus to others it not simply helpful, but necessary! Listen to how St Paul explains this important truth, “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach” (Romans 10:14). We’ve already debunking the myth that only “professionals” or “clergy” are called to do this “preaching” so that others may hear of Jesus.
In the work of evangelization we have a critical role to play. We cannot neglect the part we must play, in partnership with the Holy Spirit, in bringing others to faith. If we aren’t motivated by the truth that others need us to share with them the faith, we should be motivated by the truth that an obligation has been placed on us to speak of Jesus. As St Paul says in another letter, “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it” (1 Cor 9:15)!
The other extreme (the opposite of the first we’ve just discussed) is the misconception that evangelization is all up to me. I believe this particular misconception is the driving force behind much of our fear in evangelization. We know, deep down, that we do not have the power to bring another person to faith. We know, likely from experience, just how weak our attempts to evangelize can be. We will be sorely disappointed if we think our powers of persuasion or our charisma are sufficient to convince someone of the truth of Jesus.
Think about the experience of the Apostles right before Pentecost. They have had the experience of living, traveling, and praying with Jesus for 3 years. They’ve seen him resurrected! They’ve witnessed his glorified body. They’ve even seen him ascend into heaven! You would think that would be sufficient “formation or experience” to be ready to go “make disciples”. But what does Jesus tell them? He tells them to wait! In essence Jesus says, “Don’t try to evangelize yet! Don’t go out and spread the gospel yet!”. Why weren’t they ready? I think many of us might believe that if we could see Jesus, physically, in person, that would be “enough” for us to be ready to evangelize. But it wasn’t for the Apostles!
“…wait for the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:4, 8).
The Apostles are not ready to evangelize until they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Why? Because the work of evangelization is the work of the Holy Spirit. The same is true for you and I. Without the Holy Spirit actively working in us, we are incapable of participating in the work of evangelization. Pope St. Paul VI puts it beautifully in his encyclical “Evangelization in the Modern World”, “It is the Holy Spirit who, today just as at the beginning of the Church, acts in every evangelizer who allows himself to be possessed and led by Him. The Holy Spirit places on his lips the words which he could not find by himself, and at the same time the Holy Spirit predisposes the soul of the hearer to be open and receptive to the Good News and to the kingdom being proclaimed. Techniques of evangelization are good, but even the most advanced ones could not replace the gentle action of the Spirit. The most perfect preparation of the evangelizer has no effect without the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the most convincing dialectic has no power over the heart of man” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #75).
We don’t have to be afraid that we are alone in the work of sharing the faith. God has not sent us out without help. Jesus himself says, “I will not leave you orphans” (John 14:18). We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, who in us, brings the power of the gospel to bear on the hearts of those we share the faith with.
Evangelization is a partnership, a collaboration, between the Holy Spirit and you. It’s not only up to God, and it’s not only up to you!