Stop Evangelizing: Part I

Not that we were, anyway.

“The New Evangelization” is an oft-used and oft-misunderstood phrase in the Catholic world, with corollaries throughout the rest of Christianity. In its original context, in Latin America, the phrase meant that the Church must reach out to all people, rather than being a Church for the rich. It was a corrective move away from the association between the Church and the ruling classes left over from the colonial era. The phrase became popularized by Pope Saint John Paul II as he discussed the Church’s response to Communist Poland and the expansion of the competing Cold War hegemons, emphasizing again that the Church must be for all people, not for one side or another or just for the ruling or non-ruling classes. This line of teaching is especially evident in the writing of Pope Francis on universal brotherhood, and a Church for all, in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti and elsewhere.

In popular meaning, though, this phrase has come to mean a specific type of evangelizing, specifically online. In the ideal situation, this means things like what Bishop Robert Barron does with his Reddit AMAs, or other people putting out good, helpful, informative explanations of Christian doctrine. The idea in play is lowering the barrier for entry into conversation, making “willingness to cooperate with the Holy Spirit working in their heart” the only obstacle to conversion or deeper conversion.

This is not what most of us do, though.

The vast majority of our efforts in “evangelism” are, in fact, the exact opposite.

What I mean is that we (and I am in no way exempt from this) typically make no effort to reach out to all (or any) people in our “evangelism”. In fact, we don’t do anything that could be properly called “evangelism”. Instead, we post self-congratulatory memes about how stupid our opponents are, or share our “foolproof” arguments against straw men.

Imagine how effective the Apostles could have been if they had memes.

Now, this is not a particularly new insight. There is plentiful work that has been done on the subject of “echo chambers” on the internet, where people are slowly more and more radicalized by speaking only to the members of their ideological in-group. That is partially what I am describing here. The other issue, though, is that such chambers effectively remove us from the real world. This is easier to see in some instances than others. The person, for example, who spends all of their time playing a certain video game or discussing it in an online “community”, not only lacks real community, but will slowly be removed by their own choices from the real world. We see this very often in the political world, when one gets so obsessed over a particular political conflict that they are no longer able to discuss anything else. So too, for us as Christians, who get so wrapped up in “apologetics” (read: privately dunking on those who disagree with us) that we are no longer able to engage in any other manner.

A case study: the following meme came across my Facebook timeline a while back, shared by a (certainly well-intentioned) friend.

This is, of course, fairly innocuous, and also true. We do need the action of God to effectively root out the deeply ingrained sin of racism. The problem, though, is twofold. First, by crossing out “all of us” and replacing it with “Jesus”, the implication is that we can all wash our hands of the matter and hope God does something absent human action. This is, of course, pretty much never how God has worked. It bears noticing that the greatest act of divine agency involved his becoming human for our salvation. God generally works through his people, hence all the commands to feed the hungry etc.

The second issue follows from the first, being that this message has the effect of comforting its audience. “Don’t worry” it says, “all you can or should do is pray”, and we all breathe a sigh of relief. (We do need to pray of course, but faith without works and what not.) This, like the rest of our “evangelism”, is an act of isolating ourselves and encouraging ourselves that we are the good guys, who already have all the answers and are doing all we can. Perhaps I’m reading too much into a (again, completely well-intentioned) meme, but this is just one example of thousands.

This “evangelization” reveals much more about us than it does about God, of course. It reveals us as people who believe the faith to be made up primarily of asserting facts, and apologetics to be a debate we can win. Finally, it shows that we believe that the truth exists to reassure us of our righteousness, if not superiority, not to disturb, challenge, “separate son from father”, and ultimately lead us into a life like Christ’s, which is to say, hard, messy, and full of sacrifice for the unbeliever we meet and among whom we live.

So, stop evangelizing. We’re doing more harm than good.

(Coming Soon, Part II: Start Evangelizing)

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Andy Brandt

Andy Brandt

Not Everything is Content. This, However, is Content