3 Roles of the Evangelist
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
These words from Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est point us toward what is the very heart and soul of evangelization - an encounter with Jesus Christ.
We are called as Christians to "proclaim the Gospel," but I think quite often we think of this as a call to disseminate information. If the Gospel is merely information, our role becomes one of teaching, convincing, persuading - this will be the primary tool set that we employ.
If, on the other hand, we remain conscious of the encounter with Jesus Christ as the goal of evangelization, a different tool set will become necessary. To that end, here are three roles that evangelists can embrace as a means of facilitating this encounter.
Yes, there's going to have to be some information communicated, but the actual proclamation of the Gospel is really quite simple - we are estranged from God through sin, Jesus came to restore our relationship with the Father through his death and resurrection, and this reconciliation with the Father is available to you along with the abundant life Jesus promised.
But if the Gospel message is so simple, communicating that in an effective way is not. This is why we must embrace the role of translator. In human terms, a translator is someone who knows and understands two languages and is able to bridge the communication gap. So we must know the language of our faith, but we must also learn the language of those we are speaking to. We must present the Gospel message in a way that is comprehensible to the other based on their life experience.
Jesus used farming analogies. St. Paul used sports analogies. The biblical image of Jesus as bridegroom has taken on new significance to me since I got married. I am told that the story of Abraham and Isaac becomes gut-wrenching once you become a parent.
In order to be an effective translator, you have to be fluent in both languages. When I feel my evangelizing efforts are falling flat, I know that my tendency is to try to study more, perfect my message, strive for laser-precision in my language. I have to remind myself that sometimes spending less time on perfecting my message and more time understanding the person in front of me is what is needed.
I recently gave a 5-point talk on prayer to high schoolers that was meant to be an introduction on getting started with prayer. My fifth and final point was this: "The devil hates it when you pray." I was reluctant to include this in an introductory talk like this, but I felt that it was really important because they needed to be able to understand their experience correctly. If prayer is difficult, they may feel like it's not working for them, or that they must be doing it wrong. Often for new pray-ers, temptation in a certain area increases and they think, "I was better off when I wasn't praying!"
Interpretation can be the difference between discouragement and perseverance, between an unhealthy fear of God and childlike confidence in the Father. A recent graduate from our youth ministry program said she felt like, despite having a very solid prayer life, she was losing ground in virtue. The reality? God was simply revealing to her the hidden vices that had been there all along but that she had been blind to so that He could take care of them and she could be freed from them. What felt like backtracking to her was actually growth!
As evangelizers, we are called to help others develop an accurate interpretation of their experience in light of Christian truth. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of identifying God's hand already present and active in their lives. I love it when St. Paul says, "It is God who works in you any measure of desire or achievement" (Phil 2:13). In other words, if you desire to grow in your relationship with God, that is already evidence that God is at work in you - you couldn't even desire Him if He didn't place that desire in you!
Last, but definitely not least, is the role of matchmaker. In the end, the roles of translator and interpreter are both simply the lead-ins to the most critical role in evangelization - the role of matchmaker. Being Christian is the result of the encounter with an event, a person. It means coming face-to-face with the reality of a Living God, with Jesus Christ who is alive and active this very day, not as a living memory or a noble ideal, but really and truly alive.
And so the most critical moment in evangelization is the one that is completely out of our hands, save for setting up the encounter. It is like setting someone up for a blind date. You can describe the other person, describe their character and personality. You can tell them about common interests, even coach them for having a conversation. But you can't have the date for them, and you can't make the magic happen.
Much of the work of evangelization involves preparatory conversations, but at some point we must invite them to turn their attention to Jesus himself, to engage with him personally, relationally. (For FID fanatics, this "some point" is within the Seeking phase.) There are many ways that we might present the opportunity for that encounter to take place. It could be encouraging them to seek it in reading Scripture, or in personal prayer. It could be inviting them to attend a communal prayer event, be it Mass or a praise & worship night. It could be praying over them and asking God to reveal Himself in a personal way. In any event, it is an invitation for your friend to turn their eyes to Jesus, to take a risk and to "come and see" if maybe this Jesus could be the Messiah.