Although evangelization is a core activity of the Catholic life, a lot of Catholics today don’t understand what it entails. Having been involved in Catholic evangelization for a quarter of a century, I’ve encountered many evangelization-related myths. There’s seven common ones you should definitely know, and how to bust them, too.
Myth 1: Evangelization is Unnecessary Because Everyone is Going to Heaven
A common belief among many people today—including many Catholics—is that most, if not all, people are going to heaven. As long as you’re not Hitler, you’ll be fine in the afterlife. The growing prevalence of this belief over the past few decades as coincided with a decreased impulse to evangelize. This isn’t a coincidence. After all, why go to the trouble of trying to get someone to become Catholic if they already have the best benefit of being Catholic—a path to heaven?
However, Catholic teaching in this regard is clear: “[T]he Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire’" (CCC 1035). The rejection of this fundamental teaching has emasculated the driving force behind evangelization and missionary work. Yet we bear responsibility for the souls around us, and because of this we have a duty to keep them from the clutches of the devil. Eternal life is no game: we need to stop treating it like one.
Myth 2: We Can’t Change Other People’s Minds, Especially About Religion
Someone might say “Why do you keep talking about your religion to everyone? You’re not going to change anyone’s mind." If you’ve ever been told this after sharing your thoughts about your faith, you understand the implication: you’re just wasting time and energy and annoying everyone around you for nothing. Well, it’s possible that you will annoy people, but it’s not true that you can’t change others’ minds about their beliefs. Otherwise, why would corporations spend billions to change people’s minds about their products? Do you really think anyone would eat at McDonald’s if they hadn’t been masterfully persuaded?
What’s more is that evangelization is more than marketing: it has the Holy Spirit behind it, and the Holy Spirit can do anything! I’ve seen this in my own life: I was a convinced Protestant when some of my Catholic friends began to evangelize me. My sister was worried I might convert, but I assured her vehemently that I would never become Catholic. A month later, I converted. Let’s not make this myth an excuse to keep us from telling others about the Faith. If we don’t tell them, who will?
Myth 3: We’re Not Supposed to Proselytize
We often hear, even from the highest levels of the Church, that Catholics are not supposed to “proselytize." Many have taken that to mean that we are not supposed to evangelize. However, since Christ himself commanded his followers to evangelize (Matt. 28:19-20), then either those who say we are not to proselytize mean something other than evangelization, or they are simply wrong.
The word “proselytization" used to be synonymous with evangelization. In recent years however, its meaning has evolved. Today some understand proselytization as trying to bring someone to the Faith through improper, perhaps even coercive, means. For example, to threaten someone’s livelihood or even life if they don’t convert would be a form of proselytization. This, of course, should be condemned and is not proper for the Catholic. But evangelization is never improper for the Catholic, and is in fact required. While we respect the free will and autonomy of others, we should always work for the conversion of non-Catholics to the Church.
Myth 4: We Don’t Have to Talk About Our Faith; Living It is Enough
The most misused—and misattributed—quote in Catholicism today must be this one commonly attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words." A few problems with this quote present themselves. First, there is no evidence that St. Francis said it. It wasn’t attributed to him until hundreds of years after his death, and it flies in the face of the historical record of his life. St. Francis spent most of his life preaching the Gospel (in words) wherever he went. This is the man who preached to birds when people wouldn’t listen, so yes, he seemed to think words were pretty important.
The more significant problem with the myth is that it’s often used to excuse our hesitation in spreading the Faith to others. We’re afraid that if we tell others about Jesus and his Church, they will mock or reject us. So we just tell ourselves that our actions are all that matter. Somehow our “lifestyle" will magically make converts.
If you look at the history of the Church, however, you’ll see that the greatest evangelists, well, evangelized. They told others, with words, about the beauty and truth of Catholicism. Whether it was St. Patrick or St. Francis Xavier, each boldly proclaimed the truths of Catholicism. And as St. Paul says, “how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" (Rom 10:14). So let’s get talking.
Myth 5: To attract people we must be nice, and careful not to offend
A priest friend of mine, who grew up in the 1970’s, told me that his years of youth catechesis could be summed up in two commands: “Be nice and don’t do drugs." That first command has become for many people the end-all-be-all of evangelization. The idea is that if we are just nice to people, then surely they will join our club, the Church. Often, the underlying thought is that we must avoid proclaiming any “hard teachings" that might offend people. However, if you study the Gospels closely, you’ll find Jesus—our model for evangelization (and for everything) —isn’t really “nice" by modern standards. He doesn’t mince words. And he isn’t afraid to preach the hard teachings and call people to repentance.
When I was an evangelical, what initially attracted me to Catholicism was its strong teaching against abortion. I understood that a Church which stayed true to even its hardest teachings in the face of cultural opposition was less likely to be simply a human institution. In other words, the “hard teachings" attracted me. Often today the surrounding culture (especially the media) claims that if the Church would just remove its hard teachings, many would flock to it. But we have proof this isn’t the case; it’s called the Episcopal Church. The real reason people want the Church to soften its teachings is to assuage their guilt for rejecting those teachings in their own lives. If we abandon the hard teachings we’re like a doctor who refuses to do surgery on a critical patient because it will be painful.
Myth 6: Evangelization is a job for parishes and professionals
Over the past decade or so there has been a proliferation of parish programs to assist in evangelization. It’s a great trend, but it’s led some Catholics to conclude that evangelization is primarily a parish activity to be conducted by professionals, not an individual activity for everyone.
In the early Church, there were no professional programs. Instead, Catholics simply lived their faith and told those around them about it. Though they were persecuted, the early Christians eventually transformed the greatest empire on earth! Evangelization, at its heart, is one-on-one encounters. Any evangelization parish program worth its salt will assist parishioners in engaging in that one-on-one process.
Myth 7: Evangelization is only for extroverts
“Sure, you can evangelize—you like talking to people! But I’m an introvert, I could never do that." I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m an introvert. Yet I’ve been evangelizing for more than 25 years. The problem is that when we hear “evangelization" we think of someone like Billy Graham and believe we could never live up to that model. However, evangelization isn’t about talking to crowds or giving presentations: it’s about telling those around you of the joy and peace you have in Jesus Christ. After all, even the most introverted will talk to his friends about the things he loves. In other words, if you have friends, you can evangelize. (If you don’t have friends, perhaps think about becoming a hermit!)
Not a Myth: We are all called to make disciples of all nations
Evangelization is a duty of all Catholics, no matter their personality, state in life, or abilities. Let’s reject these modern myths about evangelization and follow the command of Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20).
By Eric Sammons
Eric Sammons is the author of the new book “The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did" from Catholic Answers Press. You can buy the book now at Shop.Catholic.com and listen to his recent guest appearance on Catholic Answers Live.