An article entitled "Education & Evangelization" recently appeared in the Knights of Columbus Columbia magazine and does a great job of identifying some of the initial tasks of evangelization. Most people will not be receptive to an invitation to faith when we first encounter them, and so before evangelization proper can take place there is a need for what is called pre-evangelization. Here's how Stratford Caldecott, the article's author, describes the importance of this stage.
If a person does not feel drawn toward Christ and does not appreciate the need of salvation, he or she can hardly be expected to listen to the Church’s teaching with real attention — just as an academic subject that appears to have no connection with one’s own life will always seem boring. We have to find ways of presenting that call of Christ and nurturing interest into a desire to follow him.
The author goes on to explain that there are many ways that this desire can be nurtured, and he gives some excellent examples as illustrations:
Sometimes a longing for the joy and happiness that only God can give can be aroused through a work of fiction — the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis would be a good example (in fact, the author said that they were written partly with this intention in mind). Lewis himself felt that inner joy and discovered a way to communicate it to others. Likewise, works of art, music, song, poetry and biography are all vitally important in opening our hearts to the call of God. This is sometimes called the “way of beauty.”
The witness of individuals who have lived their faith in difficult circumstances, or who worked in the service of the poor and sick and found joy in doing so, is also a powerful means of making audible the call of Christ. Personally meeting such a witness can sometimes be a life-changing experience. And it goes almost without saying that an exemplary parent or teacher, one with a living faith and real integrity, may have the most powerful and lasting effect of all.
PRE-EVANGELIZATION AS CONNECTION
These illustrations reminded me of a conversation that I was having with one of our alumni recently. He is currently a college freshman and is very active with the Catholic student ministry on his campus. He was describing to me some of the difficulties that he encountered in trying to reach out to some of his floormates in his dorm. In one particular case, as he looked back, he realized he had come on "too strong" with a particular floormate by offering intellectual arguments for this and that. While his arguments were sound, the effect of them was to push this friend a little further away and make him put his guard up a little bit.
This conversation prompted me to think of the goal of pre-evangelization as keeping the other person close enough to be able to establish credibility with them. It is maintaining your connection with them, because without that connection there is no chance of issuing an invitation to faith. If we maintain that connection, then as Caldecott points out in his article, there are many ways of nurturing interest, and these will tend to be different for different people. For some, it will be the way that a Christian loves and cares for them, or the way they love and serve another. Others will need you to be intellectually persuasive, for their reason and intellect is their "gatekeeper" for whether they are willing to accept a particular belief and incorporate it into their lives.
In the course of my conversation with this student, I began to form a sort of mental picture for how all the pieces of evangelization fit together.
Even though the image may look like a bicycle horn with stuff coming out of it, it's meant to be read from left-to-right. On the far left, you have the various means of establishing credibility. Any one of these could be sufficient as a vehicle for guiding someone to the next stage. For some it's intellectual reasoning, for others the witness of moral goodness, and for others it's beauty that intrigues and entices.
Once sufficient credibility is established, it is usually a personal testimony that advances them to the next level. One friend related to me that on multiple occasions her co-workers have asked her why she was so joyful all the time. This has given her the opportunity to talk about her own experience of conversion and the difference that God had made in her life. After many conversations with a particular student about whether God's existence could be proved with reason, I finally had an opportunity not simply to give the reasoned argument, but to share with him the personal reasons why I believed. The testimony is a powerful tool for opening someone up to faith, but we must earn the right to share our testimony.
Just beyond testimony is the invitation stage. This is really the hand-off stage, the part where we stop acting as God's messenger and say, "Well, the only way you'll know for sure is to talk to the Man yourself." It is an invitation to open oneself up to the possibility of an encounter with Christ, which is the only way that genuine faith can be born. It is the "come and see" moment, the kerygma which Pope John Paul II defines as "the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith" (Catachesi Tradendae 25).
As you look back on your faith journey, who were the ones that helped lead you to faith or to a deeper faith? Do you see any parallels between these stages and your own experience? What did "pre-evangelization" look like for you? What nurtured your desire to give faith in Jesus a chance?