Recently some university students and I attended a Christian praise and worship concert together. The band was born from a Pentecostal church and travels extensively. The concert was held in a large arena that was filled with--mostly--young people. With the exception of the Christian lyrics, the concert itself was what one would expect to see at a contemporary concert: lasers, loud music, large screens, smoke and fog etc.
For me, what was most striking about the concert was not the music or--what I'd call--the gimmicks. It was the occasional words spoken by the performers. In between songs, they would preach the Gospel. Their bottom line message was this: "God sent his Son into the world because He loves you. He loves you already. No matter what you've done, He loves you. Jesus died for your sins. Jesus wants you to know that there is nothing you could ever do that would make Him stop loving you. He wants to fill your heart with his joy and his love." That basically was the message. The only thing I wished they had added was, "Jesus offers you a way to turn away from sin and to live a new life." But, perhaps they get to that point later down the road.
All of this really struck me because no matter how times change or how technology advances, that is the Gospel. In our efforts to share the Gospel, we sometimes become obsessed with the externals. At a moment when the Pope is urging Catholics on to a more missionary posture, we have to be careful not to be so caught up in the externals, that we forget the Gospel. The young people who were attending that concert weren't there simply because of lasers and electric guitars. They were there because of the Gospel. They were there because they want to hear the good news that Jesus loves them and can bring them the forgiveness of their sins.
It seems particularly critical to me at this moment in time for Catholics not to conflate evangelization with the tools of evangelization. Evangelization is not the same as pastoral planning. Evangelization is not Facebook or Twitter. Evangelization is not lasers, committees for evangelization, parish bazaars, or having ample parking and bathrooms in our parishes. Evangelization is not greeters at the doors or cushions on the pews. Those things are all fine and can be helpful. But, in my opinion, the reason why churches are emptying is because the fundamental Gospel has not been preached. St Paul says in the Tenth Chapter of the Book of Romans that "everyone who calls upon the Lord will be saved." But then he asks, "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)?"
These questions are still valid and applicable today. I think that Pope Francis is urging all of us to return to a greater familiarity and proclamation of the fundamental Gospel. There is a fear about speaking this good news. I remember when I was younger, it dawned on me that I felt very comfortable speaking about "God," but very uncomfortable speaking about "Jesus Christ." Part of that was that "God" was something I could say and it sounded more like an abstract idea. When you say "Christ," you are not speaking about anything abstract. You are speaking about a fact; a fact who had a mother; a fact who died on a Cross and rose from the dead.
This temptation towards an idolatry of secondary things never disappears. There are those who worship the cassock and there are those who worship being against the cassock. There are those who worship Latin and those who worship mocking Latin. There are those who worship technologies, planning, and bureaucracies and those who worship being against all such things. There are those who worship particular forms of music and those who worship particular methods of teaching. There are those worship particular forms of living the Catholic life. There are those who worship an idealized past and those who worship an imaginary future.
It is fine to have preferences and even legitimate debates about such things. But sometimes the focus on these things seems to reveal a profound problem: We are not preaching the Gospel. The secondary things are always safer because they are things that we control. The Kerygma, however, is not something that falls under our power. The Word of God cannot be chained. When we speak it, it has the power to save. But, we do not give it this power. We are simply its instruments. Preaching Christ is inherently humbling because what it accomplishes far exceeds our own capacity. In the desert, the Hebrews worshipped the golden calf--something that they themselves made. In contrast, Moses comes down from the mountain carrying something that was given by God.
It would be a colossal waste of time and energy if we attempt to replace the old secondary idols with new secondary idols. And for all of us, this seems to be a perpetual temptation. The people who have not heard the Gospel or who have not accepted the Gospel don't need new idols on top of their old idols! They already have idols. They need to encounter the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ. This is what needs to be preached.
Talk about rebuilding parishes and dioceses is fine, but it really will be talking about nothing unless we are first talking about Jesus Christ. One of the things that I enjoy about the Catholic young people whom I serve at the Newman House is that they are not attached to or particularly interested in devoting much time to talking about secondary things. They simply want to share the joy of the Gospel.
None of this is to say that secondary things are not important. It is just that we have to make certain that the secondary things are at the service of what is primary. Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved! As Catholics, we need to spend less time making idols and more time proclaiming the Gospel of Joy: the Word who has come down from Heaven, who has been made flesh, and who dwells among us.