Some Notes on Evangelisation

A new understanding of the New Evangelisation

Revd Gareth Leyshon, Evangelisation Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Cardiff, here reflects on lessons learnt at the recent Home Mission Forum for priests and deacons, organised by the Bishops’ Conference Home Mission Desk.

Passing on the Faith is the mission statement of the Catholic Church, yet it’s surprisingly rare that I have the opportunity to meet with other priests and deacons to reflect on the most effective way of communicating faith to those who are not already Catholic. I was very pleased to be able to attend the recent Bishops’ Conference Home Mission Forum, not only out of personal interest, but also because, in the Archdiocese of Cardiff, we’re making preparations to launch a new venture – a centre for mission – located at the heart of the city of Cardiff.

The January forum was hosted by the Sion Community for Evangelism in Brentwood, Essex. The venue was small (only 18-20 clergy could gather) but well placed to bring together highly experienced speakers, including Sion’s Michelle Moran (Member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and President of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services), Brentwood Diocese’s Mgr John Armitage, and Clare Ward from the Bishops’ Home Mission Desk in London. Each speaker brought something personal and powerful, and the delegates from the length and breadth of England and Wales brought a wealth of experience of local initiatives working well in different places.

New Evangelisation?

Currently, there is much talk about “New Evangelisation”, not least with the Vatican having set up a dicastery (department) for New Evangelisation and having held a synod (conference of bishops) on the subject. But what is this “New Evangelisation” and how does it apply specifically to our context in Wales and in England? The forum’s contributors brought together a clear synthesis of teaching and practical experience not previously available under one roof.

Good evangelisation is always a presentation of the Gospel in a way which matches the culture, background, history and language of the people receiving it. Because culture evolves, the practice of evangelising evolves along with it. And in this sense, contemporary evangelisation is no more “new” than the best practice of evangelising any previous generation.

But what is unprecedented, and therefore genuinely new in contemporary evangelisation, is the experience in Europe of  cultural transition – which some describe as the emergence of a post-Christian culture – where Christianity has not been replaced by another religion, but by a secular culture of “no religion”. In this new culture individual rights and personal autonomy seem exalted above everything else. Across Europe, democracies have been gradually rejecting Judaeo-Christian values, allowing abortion and euthanasia, and redefining the meaning of marriage.

We live in an anaesthetic society where TV or drugs distract us from asking the Big Questions, to the extent that one of the bishops at the Synod on Evangelisation declared that “the memory of God is dying in Europe”. A former vocations director has noted that many men in their 20s and 30s now approach Vocation Directors with a nagging sense that “there must be more to life than this”. In the UK now there are many people who have never seriously considered the Christian message, as well as millions who used to identify as Christians but now profess “no religion”.

From Pre-Evangelisation to Catechesis

Ideas shared at the forum ranged from those which simply prepare the ground for people of no religion to be well-disposed to the Gospel, through to resources for beginning catechesis with those who have accepted the invitation to become disciples of Jesus Christ. We were reminded that Pope Paul VI taught that the starting point for evangelisation is our way of life; we must live as Christians if our message is to be believable. But mere lifestyle is not enough – sooner or later we must speak about Jesus as our Master, Teacher and Saviour. But whatever we do, we must be clear about who we are trying to connect with, and for this reason, it is important to be clear about terminology.

Explicit evangelisation is the process of presenting the Good News about Jesus Christ to those who have not yet heard it in a way they can receive. Without explicit evangelisation, people of goodwill cannot be transformed into followers of Jesus Christ – as Romans 10:14 says, how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?

The term pre-evangelisation is used for many activities, which might also be called implicit evangelisation, which serve to prepare the ground for such a conversation. These include building up relationships through all kinds of (real world and cyberspace) social networks; charitable activities such as Foodbanks and Street Pastor initiatives; simple acts of love in everyday relationships; and campaigns like the Alpha posters challenging people to ponder the “meaning of life”. It has frequently been said that Blessed John XXIII was loved for his evident humanity more than his papal pronouncements!

Those who have already heard the message of Jesus and show at least a tentative interest in becoming his followers receive Christian formation, which includes catechesis – this is not merely the passing on of information but seeks to present the teaching of Jesus, make connections with the recipient’s lived experience of God’s presence, and challenges the disciple to reach conclusions about the way they should live their life in future. Formation can also include guidance in ways of praying, and in becoming a rounded human personality. There are many excellent catechetical video resources available from CaFE (CAtholic Faith Exploration), including their new 4-part series on the Sacraments, and many parishes are also finding the American 10-part Catholicism videos by Revd Robert Barron a very useful tool.

There is also a very important sphere of activity in reaching out to those who were once active members of the Catholic Church but are now said to be lapsed or resting Catholics. It may well be the case that some, even many, of these souls were initiated into the rituals of the Church but never fully took hold of the basic Gospel message. To that extent, these souls also need to be evangelised. However, this audience will also have stories to tell of disappointment or rejection. Programmes for engaging with these Catholics need to provide opportunities for such hurts to be dealt with. Connecting with non-Churchgoing Catholics is the theme of the Home Mission Desk’s Crossing the Threshold programme, but was not the focus of this Home Mission Forum.

Participants in the Forum also noted that the current generation of young adult Catholics often ask for “apologetics training” because they lack answers when confronted by evangelical Christians. But this might not indicate a hunger for “old fashioned apologetics” (focused on refuting Protestant views), but rather that these young people were not delivered effective catechesis at the time in their spiritual growth when they were ready to ask the questions.

Effective Mission

How, then, can we effectively proclaim the Gospel in 21st Century Britain? Experience has shown time and time again that evangelistic initiatives work best when carried out by a small group of keen members who are seriously committed to being disciples of Jesus Christ. The witness of a group is much more powerful than an individual – I experienced this first hand last year while celebrating an open-air Mass for confirmandi. Passers-by stopped to listen because a vested priest was clearly being listened to by an attentive group of teenagers, and I found myself having to adapt my sermon on the fly so it would say something to unchurched listeners as well as newly-confirmed youth. Another powerful example of a crowd of witnesses in a public space can be seen on YouTube where a flashmob gathered for Eucharistic Adoration in Preston.

A community of believers is most effective at bearing witness when the members share a common lifestyle and focus on the basic Gospel message. Such groups will devote some of their time to missionary activities, and some time deepening their understanding of the call of Christ to be disciples. Such groups can easily fall into the trap of dithering about what to do or claiming “we need more formation” before engaging in mission, when the best course of action is usually to take action. But it is also important for keen activists to take time to pause and reflect. Striking an appropriate balance is essential!

Whatever initiative we engage in, we need to invest time and effort in building a team. This inevitably takes time, but pays dividends long term. In general, as a church, we are utterly dreadful at affirming one another. Mutual support must be an integral part of our teamwork!

The Gospel says Jesus “knew what his listeners were thinking”. We must answer the questions our neighbours are pondering (but perhaps not explicitly asking), and to do this we ourselves must be part of the culture: heart speaks unto heart, as Blessed John Henry Newman said. We must also choose the language we use carefully: church jargon will not connect with many unchurched listeners in ways they can understand! Part of contemporary reality is that God often seems silent until patiently discovered, and a useful book exploring this theme is Patience with God by Tomas Halik – using the Gospel story of Zaccheus as an example of dialogue with humanism and atheism.

The agenda for the contemporary Church is set out clearly in the Vatican documents Novo Millennio Inuente and In Verbo Tuo. Above all, we are called to be holy; both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have challenged young people to be the saints of the new millennium. But we must not underestimate how intimidating it sounds to the average Catholic to be presented with this message!

Three Bishops from England & Wales contributed to the Vatican Synod on “New Evangelisation”. Archbishop Longley of Birmingham was a Synod Father (a member of the Council that organised the Synod) and Bishops Conry (Chair of the Bishops’ Conference Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis) and Bishop Campbell of Lancaster, represented England & Wales. There were also two lay representatives, Dr Petroc Willey and Dr Caroline Farey, both from Maryvale Institute in Birmingham – I am now mindful to take note of them as people who can speak at events to relay the experience of the Synod.

What Can We Do?

Concrete ideas shared at the forum included the following:

  • Capitalise on cultural opportunities

The Christian Churches had a significant presence at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. There may be similar ways to engage with local cultural activities – see your local authority’s timetable of major events – or national occasions such as the centenary of the First World War.

  • Use visual symbols as conversation starters

In one northern diocese, Catholics have been encouraged to wear a lapel cross, a pin or, in Lent, a purple coloured ribbon in the hope that other people ask about what they represent. When parishioners were handed the ribbon, they were also given a small card with ideas for how to respond to such questions.

  • Give seasonal gifts with a message

In the same diocese, Christmas baubles have been blessed and given to parishioners to pass on to friends for their Christmas trees; each bauble is accompanied by a short note about the meaning of Christmas.

  • Create a space where people can be listened to

In today’s busy world, many people may find that no-one takes time to listen to them – and this might be especially true of teenagers. Part of the genius of the Alpha course is creating a space at table where people can speak without fear of being contradicted. Evangelists must also be skilled at Listening – and such skills can be learned, for example through the Acorn Christian Listening approach.

  • Make good use of the Church Building

A locked church building is a poor witness. When our churches are open on Sundays, they usually draw significant congregations. A large crowd in a church can be intimidating to a first-time visitor but can also provide safe anonymity. City-centre churches are having some success with the Nightfever model where Christians invite any passer-by who wishes, to come in and light a candle in church during late-night prayer sessions. We might also ask: “What witness do we give by the way we celebrate Mass, or the way the priest himself is seen to pray in church before, or after?”

  • Co-operate Ecumenically

At the Synod, Archbishop Longley has pointed to the importance of working ecumenically – we can work with other Christians to understand the culture we now inhabit and to give a common witness. Working with other Christians for active evangelisation requires a great deal of mutual trust, but is not impossible.

International Catholic speaker, Charles Whitehead, often recalls his role chairing an ecumenical town mission in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, where the Catholic parish was a full partner with other churches. It took two years to prepare for the mission – one year for church leaders to meet together monthly to build up trust and dispel misconceptions, and another year to train volunteers. The actual Mission involved leading figures from participating denominations speaking in a marquee on the village green each evening. If audience members came forward in response to the message, there was an agreed protocol about how they would be connected with a local church: in order of preference, the interested party would be referred to (1) the church with which they had a previous connection, if any; (2) the church of the friend or family member who had brought them to the mission event; (3) a local church in which they might have a particular interest; (4) if none of the above generated a relevant connection, then the church of one of the volunteer engaging the responder in conversation. Cardinal Hume, who was one of the evening speakers, commented that this protocol was very practical and reasonable; and more than twenty years on from the mission, the churches in Gerrards Cross maintain a close working relationship, running one joint event celebrating the 2012 Olympics which drew a crowd of 7,000!

  • Engage with the quest for purpose in life – a sense of vocation

We now live in a mass-produced culture where everyone consumes the same designer labels and listens to the same music on their personal players. Yet human beings also seek their individual identity, their unique purpose in life. Cardinal Newman’s saying about being created for “some definite purpose” is much quoted at the present time; offering people the chance to explore God’s unique calling for them as an individual could be a fruitful approach. A new ecumenical resource being piloted called Connect4Life offers ways to tap into this.

Overall at the Forum I was struck by the truth that the New Evangelisation isn’t complicated. It’s predominantly about doing simple things and doing them well, rooted in Christ, ever-ready to use opportunities as they present themselves. Having a Forum of this kind was a very valuable opportunity; all of those present were seeking to discern their next steps in service of Home Mission and were not disappointed in what they received. Together with the parallel Forum for lay people a few days later, I am hopeful that this Year of Faith will offer a new impetus for the Catholic Church in Wales and in England to return to the heart of its mission – offering the Good News of Jesus Christ to millions of people who have either lost the memory of God, or are still waiting for their first introduction!