In the Church throughout the world today, we are more focused on evangelization — and rightly so. A huge conference is planned next week in Orlando on the topic. Yes, it is “job one,” and Jesus could not have been clearer: Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:18-20).
However, even as we become more serious and practical about effective evangelization, we must also remember the paradox and the mysteries that underlie the growth of the Kingdom. We can and should strive to learn “best practices,” what makes for dynamic parishes and effective outreach, but even when many of these things are in place (e.g., good liturgy, dynamic preaching, Eucharistic adoration, welcoming parish), growth does not always come; sometimes numbers may even continue to decrease. Conversely, even in parishes where the liturgy is perfunctory, preaching is weak, and devotions are hurried, there may be significant growth. I know parishes that should be growing, but are not; I also know parishes that are growing almost in spite of themselves.
There are mysterious aspects to the growth or decline of the Church. Jesus said,
This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mark 4:26-29).
Thus the Lord teaches that much of the growth in the Kingdom of God is mysterious and works “we know not how.”
Only one thing is clear: we must sow the seed. That’s “job one.” Indeed, we must work ardently to “scatter seed.” By extension, we should do our best to prepare the soil well, and after sowing the seed, cultivate. But much that is mysterious lies beyond our knowledge or control.
Perhaps with this and other things in mind, St. Paul further developed the paradox of God’s ways of reaching the world. What we tend to think is good or bad marketing does not seem to impress God. He delivers to the world a message that is not popular, but because it is of God, wins the day. Consider this passage:
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:20ff).
Yes, this passage is certainly a paradox! Consider some of the paradoxical and countercultural ways in which St. Paul says we engage the world:
- The cross, not comfort – Many today say that we should speak more tenderly in this tender age. We should be more positive, less demanding, more merciful, more known for what we are for than what we are against. Sugar and honey attract more than do vinegar and gall. But St. Paul and the Holy Spirit didn’t get this memo, for we are exhorted to preach “Christ crucified,” even though this is an absurdity to the world. Let us not forget to manifest our joy, but even in doing so, let us not neglect to embrace the paradox of the cross.
- Fools more so than formally educated – Studying and learning have their place. Learn your faith well and be prepared to defend it with patience and love. Parishes need to do a better job of teaching the faith to those who would spread it. But in this, we must not simply equate learning with Godly Wisdom. As St. Paul notes, the early Church did not draw foremost from the educated classes, but rather from the humble, the poor, the ignoble, and the uneducated. They won the ancient world not merely by learning, but also by joy, faith, courageous martyrdom, and simple virtue.
- Apologetics but not apologies – Notice that St. Paul accepts that many in the world call us foolish. Apologetics has its place (so that we can reach the reasonable of this world by explaining and setting forth the reasonableness of faith), but as any good apologist knows, apologetics is explaining and defending the faith, not making apologies for it. We run the risk of trying to make the faith too agreeable to others. We can end up subtly watering down truths that challenge or forever delaying the “hard” truths. Jesus started with the hard things. “Repent!” was his opening word. Whatever prudential methods we choose, we cannot through endless prudence forever postpone proclaiming the whole counsel of God, in season and out of season. Some will scoff and say, “This is a hard saying who can endure it?” (John 6:60) A true apologist has not necessarily lost when someone scoffs; he has only lost when he fails to proclaim the whole faith. Scoffers may reconsider; those who reject the truth may repent; but truth unspoken, distorted, or watered down is a total victory for Satan.
- Pure more than palatable – Faith that is made too “palatable” is almost certainly not the faith at all. Now this may be in violation of “Marketing 101,” but God is not in receipt of the world’s memos. True evangelization is often paradoxical because it does not fit easily into the tidy categories of marketers and sociologists, who are often horrified at how “off-message” the faith can seem to the modern world. Even in the Church, many demand that the faith be conformed to what the majority of people think. Remember, God has been at this work just a little longer than marketers and publicity folks. His paradoxes have a way of winning the day when the ephemeral and fickle views of the world fade away.
Should we continue to do everything we can to spread the faith in the usual manner using various media, training, and the widest possible exposure? Sure! Today at least, this is how we prepare the soil, sow the seed, and help to cultivate.
However, in humility and serenity, we must also accept that there are mysteries as to what works and what does not. Growth sometimes comes out of nowhere for no discernible reason. God often surprises us with sudden growth spurts that are hard to explain. Meanwhile, we work as best as we can and do what seems wisest.
How about a little humility that allows paradoxical things to work (paradoxical because they do not conform to the rules of the world)? How about a little humility that is willing to listen to God? We are always asking God to bless what we do. Why not (at least occasionally) find out what God is already blessing and do that?
Paradox and mystery may well have a lot more to do with effective evangelization than all our grand plans and glossy marketing.
Lord, we seek a miraculous catch of fish in our day and we are open to surprises. Keep us faithful to your teachings, which are “out of season” today. Help us to cast your nets faithfully and be willing, like Peter, to cast them where you say, often in tension with our own instincts. And, like Peter, may we experience the astonishing miracle of a great catch that will make us fall to our knees in wonderment and humility at the mystery and paradox of your work. Have mercy on us, Lord, and work, often in spite of us, to enrich your kingdom in ways “we know not how.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Is Jesus exhibiting good evangelization here? You decide.