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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Against Wimpy Evangelization

Legion are the advocates of a “softer” style for preaching the gospel in the modern world. Sadly, a vast majority of Catholics today think we have a moral duty to evangelize with kid gloves, paranoid not to utter any words that might upset even the most unreasonably delicate sensibilities in our audience. This wimpy flavor of evangelization, far from being a moral absolute, hobbles the efficacy of preaching.

Beyond this, it is clear that wimpy evangelization is unchristian and unbiblical. For the good of the Church, we must hasten to end this militantly milquetoast dialogue. After all, if we’re called to be the “salt of the earth,” our preaching shouldn’t be nearly so bland.

What is wimpy evangelization?

Wimpy evangelization is the modern trend in ministry that places undue emphasis on the tenor with which the gospel is preached. It essentially prescribes that preaching must be inorganically positive and inclusive. At its core, wimpy evangelization is the elevation of the gospel of nice over the gospel of Christ.

Thus, for wimpy evangelists, it is preferable to omit part of the gospel than to proclaim it in a way that is too direct or “aggressive.” Wimpy evangelization has assimilated into ministry a great heresy of the postmodern world: that Jesus’ message can be distilled to “just be really, really nice to everybody.”

Wimpy evangelization, foreign as it is to authentic Christianity, did not appear the scene ex nihilo. Instead, it spawned from our lackluster response to the decline of Western culture. First, this gimmick was a tactical novelty of evangelists in response to the secularization of the world. They softened the tone of Christian preaching as an adaptation by which the faithful could continue to herald the word of God in an increasingly antagonistic world.

Second, wimpy evangelization is the product of a political correctness that saturated the Church in the latter half of the twentieth century. Evangelists simply began excluding the controversial aspects of the gospel from their preaching to avoid offending Christians and non-Christians alike.

As we can see, the first form of wimpy evangelization has to do with the feminization of the method by which the gospel is presented to the world. This is “procedural wimpy evangelization.” A second form of wimpy evangelization refers to the exclusion of certain God-breathed content from modern preaching because aspects of the gospel have been deemed too countercultural for the modern world to swallow. This conceptual atrophy is “substantive wimpy evangelization.” In the end, though, the procedural versus substantive distinction is almost entirely academic, in that recipients of both forms are offered an abridged (read: false) Christianity.

Wimpy evangelization: procedural and substantive

In procedural wimpy evangelization, hard truths of the gospel are not strictly excluded from preaching but are instead hidden among happy truisms not necessarily even specific to Christianity. Here, truth is diluted in a flood of positive verbiage and becomes indecipherable from white noise.

If there is one takeaway from modern congressional legislation, it’s that daunting masses of boilerplate readily obscure truth. Clarity is an indispensable part of any adequate presentation, yet, due to misplaced sensitivities, even eminent evangelists often suppress the appetite for Church teaching with a preemptive glut of empty calories. As any parent knows, if children fill up on junk food, they have is no appetite for the main course.

The tacit premise underlying procedural wimpy evangelization is that the gospel is too “mean” or “unrefined” to compel on its own without cosmetic enhancement from “enlightened” modern evangelists. Such an insinuation is an affront to God’s word and belittles the intrinsic attractiveness of truth. As with the other transcendentals (such as beauty and goodness), there is no need to explain the self-evident desirability of truth.

It is a counterproductive urge to hide truth in a labyrinth of pleasantries out of a false sense of charity. Evangelism does not demand complicity in obfuscation for the sake of a person’s fleeting ease of mind. Instead, it entails giving truth as medicine for the soul. As we know, medicine may taste bitter and we may complain—until it induces its promised effects. And while there is nothing wrong with adding a small amount of sugar to medicine to mitigate bitterness, if too much sugar is taken in lieu of medicine, a body remains sick.

On the other hand, in substantive wimpy evangelization, ministers who believe that we must, in practice, remove difficult doctrines from the Faith to “fill the pews” end up burying certain gospel truths. In this way, wimpy evangelists thumb their noses at Christ’s words, “Not all can accept [his] teaching.” (Matt. 19:11). Indeed, Jesus predicted that the world would reject the gospel:

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. . . . A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also (John 15:18-20, emphasis added).

Obviously, the gospel cannot be made palatable to all, regardless of preaching method.

But in their arrogance, wimpy evangelists presume to do what God himself could not: preach a gospel that will be uniformly welcomed. And so they redact the sacred word for the “benefit” of the lukewarm, who would reject the gospel if they but grasped its actual contents. The unintended consequence of this treachery is that men of good will are robbed of the privilege to accept the entirety of the gospel and be saved.

Wimpy evangelizers, who refuse to preach against vices for fear of inducing listener dyspepsia, essentially propose a cross-less Christianity. Yes, it is a burden to subjugate our concupiscent desires out of obedience to God. But this is exactly what Christ commands of us when he says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16: 24).

Wimpy evangelists conjure Peter imploring Christ to flee the fate of Calvary. Here, we must only echo Christ’s retort: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16: 23). If we are not crucified with Christ, we will not rise with him. Hiding truth to circumvent resistance and garner false assent is asinine. Less outward resistance does not equal more internal compliance.

Is wimpy evangelization scriptural?

Before going any further, take note that wimpy evangelization is neither Christian nor biblical. Any attempt to canonize wimpy evangelization impugns Christ, as it was Christ who often forcefully preached and rebuked. Luke records Christ strongly condemning a Pharisee for hypocrisy:          

Now you . . . cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! . . . But woe to you, Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others (Luke 11:37-44).

Likewise, in Matthew, Jesus denounces the spurious righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, telling them that they are hypocritical “child[ren] of hell” who “shut the kingdom of heaven against men” (Matt. 23:13-15).

Clearly, if there exists a moral imperative to tickle the ears of one’s audience by dissolving a grain of truth into a sea of “affirmation,” Christ is unaware of it. In the passages above, Christ bluntly admonishes, without concession or remorse. Why should evangelists fear to do the same?

Christ exhorts his followers, “He who believes in me will do the same works that I do” (John 14:12). In Acts, we see the disciples preaching after his model: directly and, when necessary, acerbically. When St. Steven is dragged before the Jewish leaders to be interrogated, he delivers an invective:          

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? (Acts 7: 51-53)

Later, in Acts, when St. Paul encounters a false prophet hindering the spread of the Christian Faith, Paul (“filled with the Holy Spirit”) excoriates him: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” (Acts 13: 6-10). One wonders, if a modern minister echoed St. Paul’s diction but directed it at, say, a Planned Parenthood executive, whose side would the wimpy evangelist take?

Authentic charity consists chiefly in caring for the destination of another’s soul. It is hateful to commend a man wanting for reproach. Hence, in our age of euthanasia, abortion, feminism, divorce, gay “marriage,” pornography, and drug-use, it’s schizophrenic to evangelize like a gushing teenager, raving about how “great” everything is while neglecting to fiercely denounce the moral perversities that flourish in the culture.

Failure is an option

In assessing an evangelist’s work, we must consider whether he is willing to yield his efforts to the consequences of his labor. This is easily the quickest “tell” for wimpy evangelization. In other words, will he defer to his audience’s free will, and does he accept the possible failure of his own preaching? If unwilling to do so, he embraces a utopian view of the stakes upon which his preaching is based.

Christ furnished us with inarguable evidence that success in evangelization is not defined by a high batting average: “Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:14).

We are speaking here about demographic realism in the context of the world’s most momentous sales pitch: folks wind up in hell. If any actual argument exists between the wimpy evangelists and us, the reality of hell seems to be the focal point. The evangelist who fails to accept this hard truth tends to be precisely the sort with the wimpy message and delivery.

To deny the real possibility of failure is to dabble in compromise: common sense and even examples from partisan politics demonstrate that those expecting unanimity of assent to their words will automatically feel pressure to “soft pedal” the message, whereas those willing to accept a “smaller tent” tend toward unity and purity of message. A young Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once predicted that the twenty-first-century Church would for this reason “return to a mustard seed” (Church in 2000). A smaller Church is a sounder Church.

Christ’s admonition—just down the page in Matthew’s Gospel—strongly favors the interpretation that his messengers should not doubt the possibility of their failure: “Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet” (Matt. 10:14).

In other words, bring your A-game. Leave it all on the floor of the Areopagus, like St. Paul, and then it’s out of your hands. Wimpier evangelists tend to be both pushier and more wishy-washy—a lose-lose.

Before the era of wimpy evangelization, Pope St. Pius X assured his bishops that “the primary duty of charity does not lie in the toleration of false ideas . . . nor in the theoretical or practical indifference towards the errors and vices in which we see our brethren plunged” (Notre Charge Apostolique to the French Bishops, Aug. 15, 1910). If we doubt the relevance of these words to our own day, the Pope saint drops a few more clues: “Further, whilst Jesus was kind to sinners and to those who went astray, he did not respect their false ideas, however sincere they might have appeared. He loved them all, but he instructed them in order to convert them and save them.” If unconverted—for whatever reason—the hearers would not be saved. Don’t blame the messenger.

A mean between extremes

After all, each must work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. Jesus accepts the choices of his audience for Him or against Him. Moreover, the laudable salesman’s ethic, the “unwillingness to take no for an answer,” cannot in matters of soteriology do anything but diminish the preaching’s quality, savoring it of conciliatory desperation. And the two above passages of Matthew’s gospel resound clearly: deliver the unmitigated gospel, then let your hearers decide for themselves. The beauty of the gospel needs not our flattery or embellishment.

 Anything but forthrightness socializes the gospel we bring, giving it diabolically wide appeal. Catholics are neither “soft” universalists—holding that somehow everyone will go to heaven, no matter what they choose—nor “hard” universalists—holding, like Islam, that forcible conversion is merited. We Catholics reject universalism. Deliver the gospel with verity, charity, dexterity, and—above all—clarity . . . then beat it.

As always, the Catholic way is an Aristotelian mean between extremes: no, there isn’t reasonable hope that all go to heaven; and, yes, we must therefore suffer patiently the unhappy election by some of our hearers against the gospel. It is sad but inevitable. And it is a prominent part of what we believe.

As Gregory the Great once famously wrote to Virgilius, the proper method of making conversions is through “sweetness of preaching.” Gregory implicated neither pushiness nor rhetorical mitigation of the thornier doctrines. He meant that “conversions” to a forced, false, or facile gospel are illusory.

Gregory urged neither the saccharin nor the bitter but the sweet: “For, when anyone is brought to the font of baptism not by sweetness of preaching but by compulsion, he returns to his former superstition and dies the worse from having been born again.” Nor, for that matter, would he urge a watered-down gospel deemed by its messenger “too important to fail.” In a manner highly prescient of the postconciliar world, Gregory admonishes the importance of safeguarding doctrinal purity against admixture with the audience’s semi-paganism.

The sweetness he urges is not wimpiness—as long as one accentuates the blissful possibility of life in Christ through the Church, without denying the real possibility of condemnation. In other words, as long as you’re honest about the negative possibilities of bringing the gospel to free moral agents, there’s nothing wimpy about sweetening the rhetoric.

The true “New Evangelization”

Our position represents a vindication of Pope St. John Paul II’s “New Evangelization,” guidelines not for the evangelist’s procedure or substance but rather for his intended media and audience. Critics of the New Evangelization have panned it over the past two decades on the overbroad but understandable basis of one of its accidental but seemingly ubiquitous properties: its wimpy tone.

What is rightly being criticized is not the essence of the New Evangelization but rather its frequently oblique “approach” and self-conscious handwringing. Thus, faithful critics, together with reasonable advocates, of the New Evangelization agree: the world needs the sublime, hard edges of the gospel more than ever.

Proponents of the New Evangelization should seize upon this time in history to square with more erstwhile proponents of the gospel. That is, they should be mindful not to over-defend against such critics on the opportune yet glib basis that the wimpiness being targeted is merely an accidental property. Instead, they should heed what is true in the criticism while noting that all the essential aspects of the New Evangelization are—and always have been—salutary. In fact, by embracing rather than repudiating the fair criticism of wimpiness, New Evangelists redouble their effort and sharpen their message.

As with all accidental but ubiquitous properties of this workaday world—e.g., the yellowness of school buses—such properties may be abandoned without disruption to the main idea. Red buses would get just as many children safely to school.

Similarly, the New Evangelization would meet its founder’s mandate by continuing to explore, in this Catholic-reversion-starved West, all the emergent channels of tech-media while returning to a manly, prophetic vox clamantis in deserto. We can now broadcast good news from the deserts to the cities, after all.

If the New Evangelization is presently synonymous with wimpiness, it is because tender footed, shushing sensitivity-buccaneers have shanghaied it. Their narrative has gone like this: “The present need for en masse Christian reversion represents a historic novelty, and lapsed Christians must be reverted ever so gently.”

There is nothing new—if not remade by Christ—under the sun. To the incredulous, consider the danger that first- and second-century evangelists attached to the immutability of the deposit of Faith: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast; hold the traditions which you have learned” (2 Thess. 2:14); also, “Jesus Christ, yesterday and today, and the same forever: be not led away with various and strange doctrines.” (Heb. 13:8).

History repeats itself in approximate ways: age to age, truth is ever in danger of mitigation by shushing do-gooders. In this way, the New Evangelization lacks actual novelty but bears the only thing in the world worth fighting for: a deposit of Christian Faith remaining the same in season and out of season.

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