A few months ago I wrote of the emphasis many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, give to “having a relationship with Jesus.” My point was that overemphasizing one aspect of Christian discipleship to the neglect of other important aspects can lead to a warped view of Jesus. We can end up seeing Christ more as a buddy than as the Lord of the Universe.
This overemphasis can also have a detrimental impact on our evangelization efforts. Why? In the Protestant world, having a relationship with Jesus is often the end-all, be-all of Christian evangelization. Once someone has committed to this relationship, the thinking goes, the work of evangelization is over. Some Catholics have also embraced this form of evangelization. In homilies, talks, and conversations, they are laser-focused on the importance of relationship above all else.
Now, to be clear, it is important to have a relationship with Christ. And it’s an important aspect of evangelization to urge people to begin and to foster such a relationship. But it’s not the only aspect of evangelization, and often it’s less important than many other aspects. Like a basketball player who drives only to his left, we’ve let “have a relationship with Jesus” become our one go-to move. But in many situations, a different emphasis could be much more effective.
Every person is unique in his desires, personal history, and culture. What’s appealing to one person might be distasteful to another. That’s why there can never be just one way to evangelize. How to evangelize always depends on many factors, such as the specific person being evangelized and his current life situation, or the relationship you have with the person. An overarching insistence on the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus ignores those nuances. But recognizing personal nuances is often what makes evangelization successful.
Let’s look at one broad example: the difference between men and women. In general, men tend to be inspired by calls to sacrifice and bravery. They respond to someone who is willing to lead them into battle for a greater cause. Women are often inspired by calls to relationships. They focus on personal interaction and the emotional commitments that come out of them. Thus, women can be more likely than men to respond favorably to building a relationship with Jesus.
We can see this in survey data related to religious participation by men and women. According to a 2014 Pew Forum study, only forty-six percent of self-identified Catholics are men. Evangelical Protestants—who typically emphasize a relationship with Christ—are forty-five percent men. Jehovah Witnesses—who even more so emphasize relationships—are only thrity-five percent men.
On the other hand, Orthodox Christians—who tend to emphasize a structured liturgy and strict ascetical practices—are fifty-six percent men. An even more extreme example is Islam. As a religion that would consider it heresy for a mere mortal to have a “relationship” with the utterly transcendent and unapproachable God (other than a servant-to-master relationship), a whopping sixty-five percent of its members are men. (Also, Hindus, whose concept of divinity precludes the idea of a divine-human personal relationship, are sixty-two percent male.)
So does this mean that Catholics should emulate the Orthodox and Muslims in how we present our faith? No—as I have already noted, what is most important in evangelization is flexibility. We evangelize based on individual situations, not with a one-size-fits-all mentality. As St. Paul wrote:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
Paul demonstrated this flexibility in his own evangelization work. When the apostle was preaching in a synagogue, he would emphasize the history of salvation through the Jewish people, culminating in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 13:16-41). However, when he was in front of the pagans in the Areopagus, he led them to see that the one true God was not a pagan idol, but the Supreme Being who sent his Son to the world for the resurrection of the dead (cf. Acts 17:22-31). This great evangelist did not have just one “go-to” move when it came to evangelization. He understood his various audiences and adjusted his message accordingly.
This situational preaching is found throughout the history of Catholic evangelization. St. Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:14-36) included a direct condemnation of his hearers for crucifying Christ. St. Boniface cut down a sacred tree of the pagans he was evangelizing. St. Leonard of Port Maurice—a great evangelist of the eighteenth century—converted many sinners by emphasizing how few people will be saved from eternal damnation. In each case, these harsh-appearing tactics worked miracles and brought about many conversions. In none of these situations did the preacher solely emphasize “having a relationship with Christ.”
As we engage in the work of evangelization, we must examine our own methods. Do we only emphasize one aspect of Christian discipleship, or do we look at the person and determine what most needs to be said? If we are talking to a young man with dreams of greatness, do we show him how service to the King of Kings will bring about that greatness? When speaking to a hardened sinner, do we urge repentance else he loses his eternal soul? One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to evangelization. Let’s broaden our approach so that we can reach out to a wider audience for Christ.