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The power of stories (interview with Mark Gilbert)

Sam Freney: Your new book Stepping out in Faith is a compilation of stories from people who have left the Roman Catholic church as they’ve sought to follow Jesus—a journey you’ve taken yourself. What prompted you to collect stories like this?

Mark Gilbert: Evangelicals, in general, are very good at explaining the differences between Catholic and Protestant teaching. We have done a good job at this and many Catholics appreciate this. They appreciate how clearly we are able to explain the Gospel, and can usually see that what we are telling them is different to what they have been taught. There are also a number of excellent resources available to help Christians to do this even better—Ray Galea’s Nothing in my Hand I Bring and Tony Coffey’s Answers to Questions Catholics are Asking are two of the best.

However, when I looked at the sort of books Catholics write to ‘evangelize’ Protestants, I realized that the resources they produced were quite different. For example, Patrick Madrid’s Surprised By Truth series is one of the most popular books that Catholics give to Protestant friends. It’s a collection of stories from Protestants who have joined the Catholic church. This got me thinking: are we mainly writing for our own audiences? I suspect many evangelicals would be persuaded by the way Nothing in My Hand I Bring is written, and many Catholics would be persuaded by the way Surprised by Truth is written.

I wanted to produce a resource that was written in a style that was more familiar for Catholics.

SF: Ok, so they’re familiar with the format. But aren’t there big doctrinal issues with Roman Catholicism that we should be helping people understand in place of personal testimonies?

MG: When we want to explain the Gospel to someone, especially people with a religious background, we need to deal with both what they are taught about God and how they are taught about God. The apostle Paul did this well when he spoke to the Greeks in the Areopagus in Acts 17: he presented the gospel in a way that was familiar to them. This principle is motivated by love for the person we are seeking to reach. Jesus’ own ministry is full of this sort of thing: the way he relates to Zacchaeus, for example, shows this other-centred love; even how he treats the Pharisees reflects this approach. Indeed Jesus’ life, death and resurrection itself is an expression of God’s love to meet us where we are, as sinful humans, in order to bring us into a relationship with Him.

Catholics are taught to know God through their experiences—the sacraments are the most obvious example of this. Through the sacraments
Catholics are taught to literally experience God: to eat his flesh and drink his blood; to be cleansed by the water of baptism; to receive the Holy Spirit by the anointing oil at confirmation. Christians too have a genuine experience of God, but it involves living a life trusting him at his word. We call this our testimony or story, which turns out to be a great way to explain the gospel in a way that takes account of how Catholics normally think about God—through their experiences.

These days exclusive faith claims are viewed in a very negative light in pluralistic Western society. Everyone’s own personal story, on the other hand, is seen as valid. This means that while it might be difficult to have a discussion about doctrinal differences, it is much easier to share a story with someone. We need to be careful about this, because in the end we do want people to trust in God’s promises exclusively, but telling a story is a good place to start.

SF: What opportunities are there at the moment to talk with Catholic people about their relationship with God?

MG: It’s always a good time to talk with people from a Catholic background about God, however at the moment it’s even easier.

The abdication of Joseph Ratzinger and the election of Pope Francis means that Catholic matters are the topic of public conversations. It is not too hard to move from a conversation about the Pope to a question about how these things effect a Catholic’s faith. In many countries the scandals surrounding priests and brothers abusing children and the leadership’s failure to deal with this properly also invites a question about how your Catholic friend’s relationship with God is going. The statistics show that throughout the Western world many Catholics are giving up on any regular commitment to the Catholic Church. The sad thing is they tend to give up on a regular commitment to any church. Wouldn’t it be great if some of these disillusioned Catholics heard the gospel through us?

SF: What relationship does this book have to your previous one, The Road Once Travelled?

MG: I wrote The Road Once Travelled as an ex-Catholic to get alongside Catholics who were struggling in their faith with issues of guilt, frustration with the leadership, and feelings that their religion was disconnected with their daily lives. I wanted to say that the answer to all these frustrations is Jesus. I think it is important to explain the gospel first before calling Catholics to leave the Catholic church.

However leaving the Catholic Church can be a difficult thing for converted Catholics to do. I hope Stepping out in Faith is helpful in, well, taking this step. If you have a Catholic friend or family member who you think might be a Christian, give them a copy of Stepping out in Faith. If you aren’t sure, give them The Road Once Travelled first.

SF: You mention that becoming a Christian was a very lonely and isolating experience for you. Is that a common reaction?

MG: It varies, though many people in this book describe leaving the Catholic church as very difficult. For me it was hard to imagine that I and my bunch of evangelical friends could be right and the massively impressive Catholic church could be wrong. No-one in my life experience had ever done what I was thinking about doing—a book like this would have been very helpful for me.

SF: Is there any one episode of one of these stories that resonated particularly with you?

MG: Almost all these stories brought tears to my eyes as I read them. It is wonderfully encouraging to read the way God works in people’s lives: the way, for example, that God used Eddie’s guitar teacher, or the women who cared for Alex as her husband died of cancer, or that street preacher that God used to change Matt’s life—I don’t think I can single out just one.

SF: Is this a book for me to read to better understand my Catholic friends, or to give to them?

MG: A lot of people that don’t come from a Catholic background have said they have found this book helpful to understand their Catholic friends, family or neighbours better. I didn’t gather these stories together for that reason but I can see how it would be useful. By all means read it first and then give it away. It will help you to have better conversations with the people you give it to.

SF: What if I don’t know any Roman Catholics?

MG: Pray for opportunities, and get out more—they are everywhere and they desperately need what you have.

SF: In a perfect world, where your book achieved exactly what you hoped it would in a reader, what would that be?

MG: I hope this book will encourage more Protestants to talk with their Catholic friends, family and neighbours about Jesus. I hope that lots of Catholics get to read this book because lots of Protestants give it to them, and I hope the Catholics who do read this book will hear the gospel clearly, believe it, and find their way into a church that teaches the Bible clearly. It was the best thing that ever happened in my life.

Stepping Out in Faith

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