Faith Unpacked: Our Call to Evangelization

Pope Francis smiling

Many years ago, long before I became a Catholic, I worked as a youth minister at a midsize Presbyterian congregation on the east side of Atlanta. In addition to weekly hangouts, the annual youth conference in Montreat, North Carolina, and the occasional car wash, we would also gear up every couple of years to go on a mission trip.

I went on only one of those trips during my time on staff. It was a journey that took us to a small village in central Mexico. We had flown down to Brownsville, Texas, where we were met and picked up by the leader of a small evangelical ministry, staffed by Americans who were making their home there.

The van ride seemed endless, taking us from the sandy desert near the border through a beautiful swell of low, verdant mountains. Our destination was a hamlet named Doctor Arroyo, a few hours south of Monterrey.

As we drove into the outskirts of town, the ministry leader was giving us the background of the place. I was half listening, half dozing, when something he said caught my full attention. “There are so many unchurched people down here, ” he said, looking out through the front windshield at the buildings around us.

From the back of the van, I spoke up. “I thought it was 80 to 90 percent Catholic down here, ” I said.

“That’s right, ” he replied. “None of these folks know Jesus. ”

All the Baptized

A few years later, when I went to grad school, I learned there was a term for this kind of mission work. The professors at the seminary called it “poaching. ”

That trip to Mexico came to mind when I was rereading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel ” ( “Evangelii Gaudium “). In the document, the pope tells us that “all the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization. ”

What struck me about this was the phrasing. Pope Francis does not say, “all the baptized Catholics. ” He says, “all the baptized. ”

That’s a stark contrast to the vision of the leader of the Mexico mission, isn’t it? For him, Catholics did not count as “true ” Christians. As he drove the van that day, all those years ago, the vision he could see through the windshield was limited to “all the ones baptized our way. ”

The pope is trusting the work of mission to “all the ones baptized God’s way. ”

If we look at the data from the past 15 years, we see that the number of Christians, of all varieties, has been steadily shrinking. Quite often, and troublingly, in the places where a community or congregation seems to be growing, we find that it is doing so by poaching the members of another Christian community.

This approach is not a sustainable model for growth. More importantly, by the standards set in “Evangelii Gaudium, ” it is also not true evangelization.

Reaching Out to All

In his Rule of 1221, St. Francis of Assisi reminded the brothers that “they should love one another, as the Lord says. . . . And they should show the love they have for one another by their deeds. ”

Both Pope Francis and St. Francis are calling us and indeed calling all the baptized to turn away from our arguments and toward the world.

The world is covered in sickness. Let us be healers. The world is covered in strife. Let us be peacemakers. The world exploits the poor. Let us be truth tellers and advocates for the least of those among us. We have no more time to squabble with our brothers and sisters in Christ, as if they were our adversaries.

We are the baptized, and the world awaits the Gospel.


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