People have a natural tendency to tell others about things that improve their lives. If a new book gives tips to help you get organized, readers tell their friends about it. If a TV show is really funny, fans promote the show and the joy it brings them.
I do this as much as the next person. Inspired by Catholic Answers’ own Jimmy Akin, I’ve been practicing Intermittent Fasting (IF), and I’ve seen great benefits from the practice. So I’ve been telling people about how it has improved my health.
But the response I’ve received has been unlike the typical response when I discuss other interests of mine. When I broach a topic like Catholicism or politics or baseball, I usually get polite but unenthusiastic responses. Occasionally someone asks for more particulars, but most of the time I just hear, “That’s nice, I’m glad you like that.” But people seem to be genuinely interested in IF, with people peppering me with follow-up questions and some telling me that they too have started practicing it themselves.
Why the different reaction? Am I just a better salesman for IF than other things? Although losing thirty pounds in three months is a strong selling point, I don’t think it’s my sales pitch that’s different. It’s the topic, or more specifically, the type of problem it addresses. When hearing about IF, people immediately recognize that it might solve a problem they recognize in their own lives. When someone is physically unhealthy, he knows it, and when he hears about something that might help, he reaches for it like a drowning man who’s thrown a life-preserver.
Now contrast this with the biggest barrier to Catholic evangelization: many people don’t “feel” anything is wrong spiritually. They are content to say a few prayers now and then, but mostly they keep their focus on this world instead of on the next. If they think about the next world at all, they assume they’ll end up in “the Good Place” with all their friends and family. In other words, there is no problem, so why should they look for a solution?
In sales, it’s a common maxim that “you don’t sell toothpaste, you sell whiter teeth.” But what if people already believe they have white teeth? Most people can’t sell ice to an Eskimo.
Herein lies the reason most evangelization efforts fail: the apparent lack of a problem to solve. Of course Catholicism does offer the solution to the most important problem in existence—our alienation from God—but too many people in the modern world don’t recognize that as an actual problem. If someone thinks he is guaranteed heaven, or doesn’t think heaven exists, or doesn’t care either way, then he won’t be a receptive audience; he will see the Faith as nothing more than a nice hobby.
This points to a basic rule of evangelization that we often forget: we can't preach the Good News until people accept the bad news. What is the bad news? That this world, and each one of us, is broken. So broken, in fact, that we have no way to repair the damage on our own. We need God to step in and fix what we broke. Fortunately, he has done that through his Son, Jesus Christ, and we can be “repaired” by following his Son in the Catholic Church. But we must recognize the disease, and wish to be healed, before we will seek the cure.
In a culture of “I’m okay, you’re okay” and the exaltation of self-esteem above all else, getting people to realize their brokenness can be difficult. But it’s not impossible. Even people today can recognize that something is wrong in the world, and that something is wrong with them. They can know, deep down, that they are broken, although they might hide from their brokenness through busyness or entertainment or drugs. Before we say a word about Jesus, our task as evangelists may be to help people uncover their brokenness so that they might truly seek to repair it through Christ.
Does this mean we need to return to preaching hellfire and brimstone? In our day only mockery greets such a suggestion. We’re told that we’re only supposed to speak of “mercy” now. Yet historically, from St. Paul to the middle of the twentieth century, Catholic evangelization has included a healthy dose of warnings about the dangers of eternal separation from God. What’s the purpose of mercy if there is nothing for it to save?
So, yes, we need to talk about hell more. But most people have no conception of hell other than a comic-book idea of fire and a man in red pajamas with horns coming out of his head, so just telling people they might be bound for hell is unlikely to be effective in most situations.
We can, however, focus on the emptiness of the world’s promises. The things the world idolizes—sex, power, money—give no lasting happiness or peace. Only in Christ can we find the contentment and joy we all search for. As Catholics, we have been given a better way to live, but we need to unmask the failings of the false ways so many people embrace today.
In practical terms, this means challenging those instead to seek things that are truly lasting and fulfilling. Yes, some might be taken aback when we “judge” their choices, but if they don’t know there’s something better available, how will they ever choose it? If they think this world is the best they can do, they’ll never live for the next. And if we don’t tell them that they can do better, who will?