10 Tips on the Art and Craft of Evangelization

Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal

Are you interested in sharing the faith more? Are you worried that you don’t know how to answer your co-workers’ and friends’ questions? 1 Peter 3:15 calls us to “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” That’s a tall order. Here are ten tips that might help.

  • 1. Apologetics takes practice

Apologetics and evangelization are a bit like dancing. You can read all about it, you can even watch other people do it, but if you’re ever going to get good at it you’ve got to get out there and actually do it. And don’t get discouraged if you’re not great at it at first.

  • 2. Win the person, not the argument

There’s no point in “winning” the argument and being technically correct, if you’ve done so in a way that ostracizes and alienates the other person. J. Budziszewski has a series of good tips for doing this: I highly recommend this video. It changed how I talked to (and thought about) non-Catholics and non-believers.

In short, try to figure out why the person is asking the question(s) that they are. Often you can answer objection after objection, but you never get to the root reason they won’t accept the faith, Christ, etc. Only when you understand where they are coming from can you truly help them and know how to go forward with the discussion.

  • 3. Consider sources of authority.

In this same vein of knowing the person you’re trying to reach, know what the person will accept. If a daily Mass-going Catholic questions you about a particular doctrine, it might be enough simply to point them to the relevant paragraph in the Catechism, or the pertinent papal document. But if the same question is being asked by an atheist, you’re going to have to look to an authority (reason, natural law, something) that they will accept. Jesus went out of his way to answer the Sadducees only from the Torah because he knew they only would accept it.

  • 4. Charity is more important than the perfect answer

You’re inviting a person to the faith, into a relationship with Jesus: remember, you’re trying to win the person, not the argument. If you’re in it to win the argument, you’re in it for your ego, not their salvation. Given that, being a jerk and winning the argument gets you nowhere (nor does it help them).

But this has some important implications. It means that even if you’re not great at apologetics, even if you can never remember chapter and verse in the heat of the moment, even if you’re the worst debater in the world, you can still be an effective evangelist simply by being loving. Think about how successful the Mormons are. Theologically, their system doesn’t make a ton of sense, and they actively avoid theological debates, but they’re incredibly nice. They tend to be wonderful to be around. The world is filled with broken, hurting people who are hungry for healing and for God. Sometimes, your Christlike attitude towards them can show them the Answer that they’re looking for a lot more effectively than a bunch of syllogisms.

And look, this isn’t some perk: it’s an essential part of evangelization. Remember 1 Peter 3:15-16, which I quoted above? Peter tells us to evangelize “with gentleness and reverence,” and with a clear conscience. If we fail to do this, we’ve simply failed to live out the Gospel’s commands.

  • 5. Understand the other person’s position to their own satisfaction.

Fr. Andrew Strobl told me, years ago, that a bare minimum in evangelization was being able to describe the other person’s position in a way that they would agree with. Think about how little we meet that standard in daily life: how many Democrats and Republicans, for example, can describe their political opponents’ positions in a way that these opponents would agree with? How many feuding spouses? It’s a good exercise, because it often shows the kernel of truth that leads people to these positions.

So that’s the second step: if you can understand and repeat back their position, and see the truth in it, you’re in a much better position to lead them into the fullness of the truth. Validate and affirm what’s true, rather than just attacking what’s false. Blaise Pascal says it better:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

Whether it’s an atheist arguing against the existence of a “sky fairy” God, or a Protestant arguing against a Pelagian understanding of faith and works, many of the objections we encounter are true in some limited way. Obviously, Catholics don’t affirm either a “sky fairy” God or Pelagianism, so we can agree with many of these critiques. And that affirmation is psychologically helpful before we take the next step of showing a truer vision of God, or of faith and works, or whatever it is that’s at issue.

  • 6. Whenever possible, draw the truth out, rather than trying to pump it in.

This is a point that I’m stealing from both Budziszewski and Pascal. Pascal describes it this way:

People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

One of the biggest mistakes that I see Catholics (and Christians more broadly) making is asserting when we should be asking. Let’s take a concrete example. You’re talking to a Protestant about the scandal of denominationalism. You’re trying to make the point that Jesus intended for there to be one Church, and Protestantism is fractured and schismatic, and this shows that sola Scriptura doesn’t really work in practice, etc.

The bad way to do it is to say something like, “And there are 42,000 Protestant denominations!” Or if not 42,000, maybe 33,000! Well, these numbers turn out to be false, and so all you’ve managed to do is to undermine your own credibility by making badly-researched assertions, and the whole debate ends up turning on whether the number is 42,000, or 33,000 or 1,000 or whatever. And that’s a pointless, fruitless debate. Protestantism is fractured even within denominations (there are loads of different Presbyterian and Baptists churches teaching contradictory creeds), and the exact number just isn’t the point.

A better way would simply be to ask a few open, non-leading questions, like: “How many Protestant denominations are there?” If they want to supply a specific number, fine. Otherwise, hopefully you can both agree on “a lot,” and maybe “too many to reliably count, even within the United States alone.” Then ask them how many denominations or churches that they think Jesus wanted/wants. That opens up an avenue towards a good discussion on John 17:20-23, and it might reveal the degree to which the other person is worried about denominationalism, or has even thought about it.

This way requires patience: solicit their opinion, and use fair, open-ended questions to help them expose the weak places in their belief system to themselves, which will open them to the truth you’re trying to present to them.

  • 7. Do your homework, especially on your knees.

Self-explanatory. When you get stumped or bumble an answer, do some homework to make sure that never happens again.  Research is vital, but prayer is even more essential. When you encounter someone who seems open to the faith, pray for them. When you encounter someone who seems closed off to the faith, pray for them. And pray for yourself!

  • 8. Losing the argument can sometimes help to win the person.

Let’s say somebody asks you a question that you just don’t know the answer to. The temptation is to guess. Don’t. There’s more than your personal credibility at stake. A wrong answer can do real damage.

So what should you do? I would suggest something like this:

  1. Tell them that they’ve asked a great question. (Validate)
  2. Admit that you don’t know the answer. (Humble yourself)
  3. Promise to look into it, and to get back with them. Ask for their e-mail, and then do it. Follow up with them. (Build relationship)

Odds are, whatever the question is (unless it’s something really random), the Church has addressed it somewhere. This gives you a chance to do a little more homework, and to get an e-mail conversation going. You’ve also shown them both your humility and your respect and concern for them as people.

  • 9. Know your enemy.

It’s not the other person. It’s the devil. Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The person you’re talking to not only isn’t your enemy, he or she is a soul that you’re trying to save from the clutches of Satan. Treat them with respect accordingly.

  • 10. It’s not about you.

Often times, you won’t get to plant and harvest. It’s not about you, so be patient, and don’t get discouraged if you don’t see immediate (or any) results. You might not know until Judgment Day just what the effects were of your work here on earth. As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “We’re not called to be successful, we’re called to be faithful.”

  • 11. Bonus tip: God is in control.

Trust Him. Trust Him especially when things don’t go as you want, or the person doesn’t convert. After all, there are basically three reasons things might not go well:

  1. It could have been your fault – maybe you were unprepared or uncharitable. Learn from this.
  2. It could be their fault – maybe they’re not open to it for whatever reason. Pray for them.
  3. It could be God’s “fault” – For whatever reason ,He hasn’t given that person the grace of conversion yet. Pray to Him.

Above all, be thankful to God that, although He sends us to evangelize the world, He doesn’t leave it all up to us. Some of the most amazing conversions happen in spite of us. That’s a humbling realization, but also a very liberating one. This is God’s show: He’s simply inviting us to cooperate.

13 Comments

  1. Joe,

    I do some “street evangelism” and obviously will speak to whomever I feel I have a means in which to speak to them about Jesus Christ. I wonder what you feel about the “Way of the Master” with Ray Comfort, whose “strategy” is the most popular among the Reformed.

    As for me, I am pretty much disappointed that most people you meet on the streets not only don’t care about religion, but pretty much barely know anything. I don’t run into ideological atheists, catholics, pentecostals, anyone…No one really has a serious belief system, and there are tons of superstition.

    I find that when starting an evangelistic conversation, it is very important and you note to find common ground (something the Comfort system deliberately avoids.) For example, Ray Comfort wants you to answer the question, “Are you a good person?” with “Of course!” I find that people will of course answer this way, but if you ask, “Do you think you are a good person?” And they say “Yes,” I will reply, “Wow, because I sure am not.” It introduces the topic of moral perfectionism, which usually segues into some citation of the telelogical argument (in very simple terms) in how we have sense that we have a good God who made a good creation, and we are sinful and do not always abide by nautral law all our own conscience. It is amazing that pretty much anyone who has the ability to think (and I don’t mean this sarcastically, I have literally run into people which appear incapable of metacognitive thought, through no fault of their own I assume some people are born that way) will immediately recognize that there’s a God, He;s good, and they don;’t meet His standards. That does not mean all of the sudden they are now convinced of the historical reality that Christ came and made away for sinful people who are so sinful they cannot meet their own standards let alone God’s, but at least now they can see where the Christian worldview fits and makes some sort of sense.

    ALso, the way you talk changes with the audience. With white collar people or college students, when they ask me what I am doing, I might say, “We live in a society where we are busier talking about Trump’s hair then things of actual importance, I think as a society we need to start concentrating on things that actual matter.” All of the sudden, I have taken both the intellectual and moral high ground in a way John Q Public would agree with and then start listening. This way, when the person disagrees that day, at least it is something that God may use later with other things the guy runs into.

    Believe it or not, I am not overly concerned whether or not someone is a Catholic or not, or if they want to then go to the Catholic Church. I am simply there to speak with people about what I do know. If the Holy Spirit uses that to take them somwhere I am not, then so be it. I remember when I was at UCONN two weeks ago and we were speaking with a very friendly Catholic sister, and my wife and I felt that she knew the Gospel and this was no longer an evangelistic conversation (you don’t evangelize the converted, though you can certainly edify such a person or be edified by them for that matter.) My two friends with me were less convinced and confused that she can adhere to Catholic doctrines, but affirm the Gospel. It did not get combative, but it remained an evangelistic conversation with them. She kept us in conversation a long time, and she was thankful that we were going out there speaking with college students and people in Storrs about the Gospel.

    On a side note, is it just me, but everyone quotes 1 Pet 3:15 when it pertains to evangelization, but never actually cites its actual point? ! Pet 3:15 pertains to how we should respond about our hope in Christ while suffering. While having a prepared defense for the faith is a good thing regardless, I just wish more people emphasized what Peter in fact was emphasizing in 1 Pet 3:15.

    Alright, I am out of random things on the topic to say. Al is the real man to speak to here, he should be interviewed or something.

    God bless,
    Craig

    1. Not really, I usually just give the lives of saints, Catholic radio advertisement cards and Scott Hanh books to people. Then I encourage them to get on the internet and do their own study of Church History. I almost always suggest Eusebius’ Church History as a start. Otherwise, I don’t get into too much detail. And, at least they have copies of St. Bonaventure’s life of St. Francis in short bulletin sized readings to take home with them, or the Catholic radio station cards. Because I know that they’ll probably forget about anything I said in about 15 minutes…but will have Bonaventure and St. Francis to chew on for as long as the publication exists in their homes.

      Pretty simple approach. By the way, very many people are intrigued by St. Francis. People you would never suspect, such as tattooed, dreadlocked, gang banger types with pants near their knees, girls with nails in their lips…etc..all have been interested in the readings.

      One time I didn’t want to discriminate who I would approach and so I forced myself to walk up to some guys who looked like a bunch of ‘gang bangers’ standing together, and was a little concerned as to what to expect. And to my amazement one of them responded, “what a coincidence, I was just reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians this morning”! And, after that, we had a very spiritual and Christ centered conversation. And this actually happens in one way or another rather frequently. Often, I think: “In no way is this person going to be interested”. But, more often than not, it’s exactly the opposite…it is many times that strange looking person with pink hair, or pierced face, that actually stops talks and takes the readings with enthusiasm. And guys with pants to their knees, or skateboards in their hands, can also be quite interested and enthusiastic about theology. So, I need to remind myself almost continually…”do not judge, do not judge, be patient, don’t presume…just see what happens and treat everyone the same.”

      This actually makes evangelization in public spots quite fun.

      1. “One time I didn’t want to discriminate who I would approach and so I forced myself to walk up to some guys who looked like a bunch of ‘gang bangers’ standing together, and was a little concerned as to what to expect. And to my amazement one of them responded, “what a coincidence, I was just reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians this morning”! ”

        🙂 I love that! I have found that you can find the biggest, scariest looking guy and approach him and they will be surprised and talk to you. The best I can figure, other than in providential occurrences such as the above, is that they are not used to people approaching them.

        Tell me if you have any tricks for rich people. They tend to be the absolutely most difficult audience to reach.

        God bless,
        Craig

        1. The trick is to repeat like I do…”do not judge, be patient…etc.” Because if you prejudge and are wrong, you won’t be able to talk to them with the necessary charity. But if you are patient, you might be surprised by their faith, and this will give you an extra boost in talking to them. So, ideally, rich and poor, ugly or beautiful, nerd or punk, should all be treated the same. Though again, it isn’t always easy. Sometimes if I screw up on this, it throws me off for the rest of the day, as it affects my conscience in a bad way. It is charity, I think, that is most attractive to these people, and then the religious material and faith comes next.

          Joe really gets it right on all of his points, above.

    2. KO - Son of Odin, the Lord of the Worlds, Smasher of Worlds, Lord of Asgard, the Old, the Wise Worshipper of Sacred Trees and Stones says:

      “It is amazing that pretty much anyone who has the ability to think .. will immediately recognize that there’s a God, He’s good, and they don’t meet His standards.”

      There are cultures who have no “gods”. There are cultures who have no “gods” in the Western (even pagan) sense of the word. Your prejudgment about the ability to think of people in other cultures reveals much about your own culture, but nothing about other peoples’ cultures. You should do your own homework and realize that.

      There could be something better than that holier-than-thou attitude (even if you don’t share with them what you shared here with us). I once saw you write something like “there is no one who seeks God”. [Of course you didn’t interpret it as a hyperbole, which of course it is…] I disagreed [because factually it’s inaccurate; it’s just a hyperbole, a figure of speech], I gave you examples of people who “seek God”, and your answer was: “were they sinless?” That is lame. You used a hyperbole to make a claim about facts, and then jumped from one baseless affirmation (no one seeks God) to something like “we’re all depraved and mired in sin”. Debasing your interlocutors is not a way to engage in dialogue.

      “We live in a society where we are busier talking about Trump’s hair then [sic] things of actual importance, I think as a society we need to start concentrating on things that actual[ly] matter.”

      I mean, actually matter to whom? To the Navajos? The Apaches? The Tibetans? The Tamils? The voodoo believers? The Trump voters? The CERN scientists?

      Interest is culturally determined. Interest in God, too. God and gods are culturally determined: you tell me what God is, and I tell you where you come from. Easy as that.

  2. Any chance of Awlms providing info on the Catholic radio advertising cards, and the St. Bonaventure book on St. Francis, the short bulletin size item? Thanks in advance, it’s appreciated.

    Cotton

    1. I can e-mail you PDF copies of the St. Francis selections from St. Bonaventures ‘Life’. You can then have them printed on a laser printer if you want to hand them out. I print them on a small press own, but am not currently planning on selling them. It’s too much trouble shipping, etc…The radio cards are for Immaculate Heart Radio in the SF Bay Area. When I was the Treasurer for the Legion of Mary I bought about a million cards, and still have about 300,000 left. But they’re only good for the 1260 AM broadcasting area. If you live near San Francisco I can supply you with plenty of them free of charge.

      Just e-mail [email protected]: [email protected]. Others, are welcome also if they would like the PDF’s. They work really well as an opener for conversation outside supermarkets, farmers markets, festivals, college campuses…etc.. They’re 11×17 and 2 color. I gave out 40 copies in 2 hrs. just yesterday with my wife, 30 feet from a Safeway entrance (with permission). Great conversations included. You can get 10,000 copies printed at FED EX for about $1050.00, on coated stock.

  3. Good article but you missed the most vital part in evangelization: personal holiness.
    I will share two principles from The Soul of the Apostolate by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard O.C.S.O.- available on amazon (should be required reading for all Catholics but especially Priests);
    1. Do not plunge headlong into Catholic action from the mere natural zest for activity, but consult God and make sure you are doing what you do under the inspiration of grace, and with the morally certain guarantee that it is His will.

    2. For your own profit and for the profit of others, it is ESSENTIAL that you develop your interior life before all else. The busier you are,the more you need the interior life.

    A good way to know if you are ready for the apostolate of evangelization is to ask:
    1. Do I set aside at least a half hour for mental prayer/contemplation in the morning and NEVER miss it? St. Theresa said, “The person who is fully determined to make a half hour’s mental prayer every morning, cost what it may, has already travelled half his journey”. Without mental prayer, the day will almost unavoidably be a tepid one.
    2. Do I mortify myself many times a day (interior mortification of the will) especially acts of humility?
    3. Do I know the natural virtues that I must comply with in order to put myself in the disposition of being receptive to grace?
    4. Do I make a general and particular examen every night in order to recognize my failings, confess them and resolve to overcome them?

    There is a wonderful mp3/cd set at Catholic Productions called “Spiritual Theology”. It is very helpful at instructing practically how to establish the practice of Christian perfection-which is the requisite to any successful apostolate.

    Nothing will move the heart of the sinner more definitively than a witness of grace, truth and obedience. You can not be successful in spiritual battle without the armor of holiness. Once you are “dressed” then you can take Mr. Heschmeyer’s good advice into the field.

  4. Here is a big part of the problem: Leaders in the Church. My wife and I were received into the Catholic Church earlier this year (2016). We are in the Diocese of Bathurst, NSW, Australia. Since joining we have seen much that is not Orthodox Catholic teaching but for the most part have been able to learn much from more traditional Catholic resources.

    However, one particular view put forward by a Fr Paul Devitt has greatly upset me and concerned me. Recently after Mass Fr Devitt told me that “Christ did not form a Church” and that the word “Church” “was just put in by the Apostles”! Not only does this undermine his own position in the Church but undermines faith in the Church as a whole. Also he is passing on these views to other poor souls.

    Could you please give me your opinion regarding this?

    1. Why wait for others to teach the true faith when you can do it yourself? Read your canon law, and the encyclical ‘Redemptionis Sacramentum’ and realize that the laity has tremendous powers in the Church to teach the faith to others. This is what the ‘New Evangelization’ is all about.

      Do you know how many Bishops pressured Mother Angelica of EWTN to change her orthodox Catholic programming in favor of their more liberal or heterodox teachings when she first started her station? She was under enormous pressure and even received threats, as was related by Ray Arroyo, who helped her in the early days. But this did not stop her. And look at EWTN now!

      So, go out and buy a cheap printing press and spread the ‘Lives of the Saints’ all over Australia. These accounts of St. Francis, St. John Bosco, St.John Vianey, St. Theresa of Liseaux, St. Patricks autobiography, St. Anthony Claret, St. Damien of Molokai, St. Francis Xavier, St. Dominic, St. Anthony Claret…etc.. are as irresistible as are the accounts of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, Elijah, etc..etc…
      Should Jesus’ Kingdom on Earth of the last 2000 years be less inspirational than the pre-Christian saints of the Old Testament?

      So, every Catholic should give out as many ‘lives of the saints’ as possible, and especially to youth. If others don’t like it…even though they be priests, don’t worry about it. If it has an imprimatur on it, print it up and give it away everywhere, even door to door. If more laity would do this we would’t even need to think about liberal minded/hetrodox Catholics. The world would be flooded with the examples of true faith. And isn’t that why the Church canonizes saints in the first place…so that the world might learn and be inspired by them? It’s just that too few Catholics are willing to ‘labor’ for the faith, even as Jesus said: “The harvest is great but the laborers are few.”

        1. If you want, scroll back a few comments and e-mail me…and I’ll e’mail you back some Pdf’s of St. Francis, in a 4 part Series. I also have some Desert Fathers, one on St. Alphonsus Liguori, and 4 on Early Church Martyrs from Book VIII of Eusebius’ Church History. Little by little I should have a good collection…maybe in about a year or two.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *