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:
- Tell them that they’ve asked a great question. (Validate)
- Admit that you don’t know the answer. (Humble yourself)
- 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:
- It could have been your fault – maybe you were unprepared or uncharitable. Learn from this.
- It could be their fault – maybe they’re not open to it for whatever reason. Pray for them.
- 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.