Rules of Engagement

In discussing the Kerygma as the first component of Evangelization, it was mentioned that we should all have a somewhat “canned” presentation of it in our evangelization tool belt.  This was in order to help us simply and succinctly present the Good News as it truly is.  While this is certainly the first step, it is not the only.  We must also be prepared to engage the difficulties in the hearts of others that arise as a result of this encounter with the Gospel.  Today, I would like to mention some other tools that are essential in doing this.

First, I would like to address two things that often arise around any discussion like this.  The first is that “it is the Holy Spirit who converts, not us.”  The second is like it and centers around a quotation mistakenly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi—“preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.”  While both of these principles have some truth to them, they ultimately lead to what I call “evangelical mimes” who attempt to passively evangelize others and not active preachers of the Gospel.  This happens because we tend to treat these rules in an absolute sense rather than in the spirit they are intended.

It is the Holy Spirit that converts men, but He does not act directly and in a vacuum.  Instead He acts in and through us.  If it is the Holy Spirit alone then why does He use a Church?  Could He do it without us?  Yes.  Will He?  No.  Our job is to make ourselves as sharp of instruments as humanly possible.  Grace perfects and elevates nature and so the Holy Spirit will use these already sharpened human instruments to save souls.  It is both incredibly humbling and incredibly scary that He entrusts us with souls whose salvation may hinge upon our actions.  It also means that our salvation might depend upon theirs.  As I tell my wife and kids regularly, if you all don’t get to heaven, then I am probably not going to either.  If we reflect on this long enough, we will never approach someone haphazardly again or simply dismiss them as “lost.”

The second principle, “preach the Gospel and use words when necessary,” also has some merit but we fail to live it properly when we treat it as absolute.  The truth is that words are always necessary.  Besides, and maybe this is more of a self-indictment than anything else, for most of us our witness of life is lacking the Gospel clarity that St. Francis had.  That principle may have worked for St. Francis, but for the rest of us we will need to use words as well.

The first pope in his first encyclical also stressed the need for preaching in words when he exhorted the faithful to, “[A]lways be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame” (1 Pt 3:15).  He thought that once they witnessed through their faith and hope-filled suffering, they ought to be ready to explain why they acted like they did.  “Being ready” meant that they had given it some prior thought and planning as to how they would explain it all.  He also recognized that winning the battle for souls occurs on two fronts, the head (“a reason for your hope”) and the heart (“with gentleness and reverence”).  With this in mind we can develop some simple rules of engagement that will help us serve as more effective agents of evangelization.


In engaging the head we can begin by looking three acts of the mind—understanding, judgment and reasoning.  The first act, understanding, is perhaps the least recognized when we engage others.  It consists in making sure that we understand the terms we are using and that anything that might be ambiguous we define clearly.  All too often we jump to judgment and reasoning too quickly and so end up arguing past each other.  This happens because the two parties will be using the same terms in very different ways and end up missing each other completely.  In order to avoid this, every time I engage an atheist I begin by asking them what their definition of God is.  I want to know the God they are rejecting.  Not surprisingly, I find that it is not anything resembling the Christian conception of God and I begin by telling them I do not believe in that God either.

The other important aspect of this step is to check the assumptions that are being made.  Very often we will make no progress until we challenge incorrect assumptions.  For example, we are often confronted with non-Catholic Christians who will say “Where is X in the Bible?” and we will respond by trying to argue from the Bible.  It is important to be able to point to the basis of our beliefs in Sacred Scripture, but we ultimately want to lead them to the totality of God’s Revelation so that they will know Him more fully.  In order to do this, rather than pointing out where X is in the Bible, we should challenge the assumption that everything we believe must appear explicitly in the Bible.  Where do we find this principle in the Bible?  Instead we can lead them to the Catholic principle that Revelation has two fonts—Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and that, while not everything we believe is found explicitly in Scripture, nothing in Scripture can contradict our beliefs either.

The second manner in which we engage the head is to take the approach that God does with man—“God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.” (Pope Benedict, Verbum Domini, 42).  This progressive revelation or “plan of divine pedagogy” as St. Thomas calls it, consists in God giving His spiritually immature children knowledge of Himself that is perfectly adapted to their needs and their ability to receive it.  For example, He allows Israel to persist in henotheism or monolatry.  This belief system acknowledges the existence of multiple gods with one that is supreme and worthy of worship until He fully reveals Himself in Christ.  To give them the Trinity from the get-go would only have served to confuse them since they were surrounded by polytheists on all sides.

We call this principle gradualism.  For example, all too often we go to the hard teachings first and end up losing them.  To try and get someone to understand the Church’s teachings on contraception when the whole world is doing it is difficult enough.  But if they have not yet understood the self-giving love of Christ on the Cross or even a proper understanding of marriage then it will seem completely crazy.  It doesn’t mean we ignore the hard teachings or encourage them to live against them, but that we might simply avoid discussing them directly until the foundations are properly laid.  We may have to consistently back them up to the real sticking point before trying to progress.  As most of us can attest, once some of these preliminaries fall into place, the hard teachings come rather easily.

To engage the heart, I have likewise found two principles that are particularly helpful.  With respect to the gentleness that St. Peter commends, we must always remember what the purpose is.  The purpose is not to win an argument but a heart.  This means charity trumps all and our goal must be to show them the beauty of the truth.  Once I forget this and I make it about being right or winning an argument, I have always failed.  When I make it about the other person coming into a fuller understanding of reality for their own good, then I can be a docile instrument.  We must seek to build trust, especially since people only believe something as true if they trust the source.  We have to show that we have their best interest at heart.  Pope St. John Paul II captured this necessity of trust in receiving the truth well in Fides et Ratio, “[I]n believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person’s capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.” (Fides et Ratio, 32).

Treating the other with reverence involves a respect for human psychology.  One of the largest obstacles to the truth in our lives is that we are naturally jealous of our own ideas.  When we find ourselves challenged we begin to go into defensive mode and shut ourselves off from the truth.  The best way to disarm this defense mechanism is through the Socratic Method.

Personally, I have found that the Socratic dialogues serve as excellent resources for evangelization techniques (Euthyphro might be the best).  Socrates never actually tells them anything directly, instead he asks questions and gently leads them to the truth.  Sure they are leading questions, but his interlocutor always is left with the impression that he came to the realization on his own.  This method of asking questions also fulfills the second important psychological aspect—to sense that you have been understood.  Very often once someone thinks they have been understood their defenses come down.  Understanding of the other person, even when they are wrong, is a fruit of reverence and absolutely vital to getting them to trust and understand Christ.

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