Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Evangelization: Choosing Love over "Vibrant"

Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out why something bothers me as much as it does.  During the past few years, a certain buzzword has appeared in the Catholic lexicon: "Vibrant."  All of a sudden, everything is about being "vibrant."  You'd be hard pressed to find a parish bulletin whose "mission statement" doesn't begin with: "St. _____'s is a vibrant community."  We have vibrant schools, vibrant parishes, vibrant liturgies, and vibrant communities.  I sometimes feel like every time the word "vibrant" is spoken, the Church grows a little weaker!  

But, why does this word annoy me so?  Besides simply being overused, the word is often linked with evangelization.  And, I think this is what most annoys me.  Intentionally or not, this linkage suggests that the goal of evangelization is about building a more "vibrant" parish.  In other words, it feels like we are telling others, "Hey, we want you to come join us so that we can call ourselves vibrant."  But this feels somewhat sleazy to me.  It wreaks of a certain mentality that says, "We want you to join us so that we look better.  Our numbers are way down, so we want to reach out to you in order to fix that situation."  In other words, it feels like we are evangelizing because we don't want to go out of business.  

This mentality has led to a type of evangelization that feels more like the used car salesman than it does the messenger of the Gospel.  Certainly, there are many things that we can do in parishes to make ourselves more "user friendly."  But, these things have to be about helping people to encounter Christ and not about making ourselves 
more vibrant.  What's really missing in parishes is not greeters at the door.  What's really missing is love.  Greeters at the door might be a way of loving people and that is great.  But, we can have all the greeters in the world, and if they are not shaped by love, then it is all for nought.

One of the things that I love about the young people at the Newman Center is their appreciation for the challenges of evangelization and their willingness to meet those challenges.  They will say things like, "You know, our goal isn't just to bring people to our Center.  The goal is to bring them to Christ."  They want to do all of those little things that help to remove obstacles from people hearing the Gospel; things like smiling, introducing themselves, and welcoming others.  But, they see all of these little things as an expression of true friendship and not as a marketing tool.  In other words, they love the people whom they encounter and this is why they do all of the other things.

If I were to offer a course on evangelization, I would not begin with a book on marketing or on building parishes.  I'd begin with the Gospel.  After all, isn't evangelization supposed to be about the "evangelium?"  In the Gospel, we see the closeness of Jesus' friendship with others.  He ate with them, walked with them, went fishing with them, and preached to them.  They stayed with Jesus not because of his marketing skills, but because of his love.  They were moved by this love.  Sometimes, when we talk about evangelization, it sounds insincere.  It sounds as though we are trying to mimic love in order to create vibrant parishes.  But, beautiful parishes and communities grow because the people in those communities are close to one another and they love one another.

When I was a pastor, on a few occasions I recall that certain families encountered terrible tragedies.  In the midst of those tragedies, parishioners organized in order to provide those families 
with a dinner meal each night for weeks at a time.  It was a 
beautiful thing.  But, the reason that they did this was not so that we could be a "vibrant parish."  They did this because they wanted to love others.  This love is what moved others closer to the life of the parish.  We can write in a book that "a vibrant parish has families who cook meals for parishioners who are in trouble," but that can simply become another lifeless committee.  Instead, we ought to reflect upon the Gospel and see in those pages how Jesus and his disciples loved one another.  This love ought to move us to make similar gestures toward others.

Evangelization is about sharing the joy of the Gospel with others for their sake.  It is not about building vibrant parishes.  I think this is something that many evangelical protestants do better than those of us who are Catholics.  Sometimes, by the way we speak about evangelization, it sounds like we're begrudgingly agreeing to it because we might go out of business if we don't.  But, it feels like we almost hope we can get the churches filled again so that we 
won't have to keep doing all of this evangelization stuff!   

At the Newman Center, I'm grateful that there are opportunities to teach the tools for evangelizing.  There are always ways that all of us can learn how to evangelize better.  But, these tools can never replace friendship.  What's often missing in parishes and dioceses is a joyful love.  Do people who encounter us know that we love them?  Do they see that we are people who know the love of Jesus Christ and that we are people who love them with the love of Christ?  What's missing is friendship.  

The best book we could read on evangelization is the bible.  Its pages are filled with the encounters that Jesus had with the people of his day.  Its pages remind us of the passionate love that St. Paul had for his communities.  Without the Gospel, evangelization becomes an empty shell.  Without the spirit of the Gospel--the spirit of Christian friendship--evangelization becomes a dead body of 
marketing tools.  If we want strong parishes and strong dioceses, it has to begin with strong friendships.  When people see that we love one another, they are drawn to this friendship--a friendship born from the encounter with Christ.

The tools for evangelization are great if they are preceded by a profound love.  Let's stop trying so hard to make ourselves appear vibrant.  Instead, let's truly love the person in front of us and build the Church one friendship at a time.  You know, like Jesus did.

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