When you finally receive the gospel, you can’t help talking with other people about it. The Christians in Thessalonica had this experience: “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything” (1 Thess 1:8).
So why do we find it so hard to talk with people from a Catholic background about Jesus? If we even get past the “No thanks, I’m Catholic” we hear when we first raise the issue, we often get comments like “Don’t criticize my beliefs”, or “That’s your interpretation”. The first response, “No thanks, I’m Catholic”, shows that they clearly don’t identify with us when it comes to discussions about God. The second statement, “That’s your interpretation”, shows that they don’t trust us, and the third statement, “Don’t criticize my beliefs”, shows us that we are not on the same page when it comes to discussions about God.
One thing I discovered when I moved from the Catholic Church to an evangelical church was that evangelicals talk more critically about what they believe. By critically, I don’t mean negatively, but thoughtfully. Evangelicals tend to talk more about what they believe, and what they don’t believe, and why. This is an accepted and valued part of church life. However this activity is strongly resisted amongst most Catholics—“Don’t criticize my beliefs”. I think this may be due to many Catholics being Catholic on the basis of their heritage and culture, and many evangelicals being evangelical on the basis of deciding to put their trust in the gospel. If you’ve never made a decision to become Catholic, then it’s hard to understand a criticism of Catholic teaching as anything other than a personal attack.
The penny dropped for this inept evangelist of Catholics of twenty years when I looked at the type of books Catholics write to evangelize Protestants, and the type of books evangelicals write to evangelize Catholics. One of the most published Catholics in this area, Patrick Madrid, has written a couple of books aimed at persuading Protestants to become Catholic.1 These books contain many testimonies of men and women who became Catholic and whose lives changed for the better. As an evangelical, I am not all that likely to be moved by this type of persuasion. I’m more likely to be persuaded to change by good arguments based on the Bible rather than people’s experience. As far as evangelical writers go, there are several books full of good arguments from the Bible, persuading me against the teachings of the Catholic Church.2 But when I was a Catholic, I was more likely to be persuaded by the experiences of men and women who benefited from being evangelical.
Each of us, evangelicals and Catholics, are writing more for ourselves than for the people we are trying to reach. Yet the model we have for evangelism is to meet people with the gospel in a way that makes sense to them. Jesus accommodated our humanity to present the gospel to us, and Paul became like a Jew to win the Jews and like one outside the Law to win those outside the Law (1 Cor 9:20-22). He became all things to all people so that he might save some, and Paul’s speech to the philosophers at Athens is one great example of this (Acts 17:18-34). I wrote the booklet, The Road Once Travelled, with this principle in mind. The way it’s written and how it appears may seem a bit odd to evangelical readers—if it does then I’ve achieved my purpose, because it wasn’t written for that audience; it was written for Catholics.
Let me share three ideas that might help you understand how Catholics commonly think, and provide some starting methods for outreach that your Catholic friends and colleagues might find more familiar and comfortable than a logical debate.
Everybody loves an invitation, whether to a party, a wedding, or even to join a group. An invitation tells us that we are valued; an invitation offers possibilities of new relationships and new experiences. An invitation offers the chance to belong to something bigger than ourselves.
Catholics love to belong; in fact, for many Catholics, belonging to the church is more important than what they actually believe. There are Catholic clubs, Catholic schools, Catholic charities, Catholic hospitals, and even Catholic jokes. The word ‘catholic’ means universal, and many Catholics love the fact that they are part of one big worldwide religious group. Belonging is so important to Catholics that they often prefer to talk about God in groups rather than individually.
Now let’s think for a moment about the way many of us do evangelism. Sometimes we talk to our friends individually about Jesus, and sometimes we invite them to one-off evangelistic events. Neither of these situations gives our Catholic friends the opportunity to talk about God in groups; neither of these situations gives Catholics the opportunity to feel that they belong.
Note carefully—there is a difference between belonging to a group and being a Christian, but you can give someone a chance to experience what being a Christian is like for you. You can belong to a Bible study group without being a Christian; to belong, you just need to be interested in learning what the Bible says. Our churches have many other groups that don’t require attendees to be Christians: playgroups, youth groups, community care groups, conferences, even sporting groups … The church service itself should be welcoming for non-Christians!3 So what are the groups in your church you could invite a Catholic to belong to?
If Catholics feel they belong in these groups, it will be much easier to talk with them about God. We can even do evangelism in a group setting; courses like Simply Christianity, Christianity Explored and Introducing God all use this approach. I wrote the studies The God Who Saves especially for small groups to talk with Catholics about God.4 If your church doesn’t run a suitable group you can invite your Catholic friends to, why not start one?
So think about the Catholics you want to talk about Jesus with, think of a suitable group they could join, and just invite them … you never know where it will lead.
Don’t you love a good story? Our city is full of people sharing their stories, in cafés, at dinner parties and sporting events, not to mention all the emails and social networking that goes on. Life provides us with lots of experiences that we love to share with each other.
What about our experience of God in this world?
For many Catholics, their experience of God is a very physical thing. According to their faith, they eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus at Mass, they receive blessings when they anoint themselves with holy water as they enter a church, they breathe in the purifying scent of incense, and they receive blessings as priests and other holy people touch them. Many Catholic experiences of God at ceremonies such as Baptism, Confirmation and First Holy Communion are filled with a rich variety of tastes, touches, sounds and smells. Even World Youth Day was a profound experience for many Catholics.
How do we experience God in this world?
Well in one sense, every experience we have in this world is an experience of God, because God created this world and is active in each and every one of its processes.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
he puts the deeps in storehouses. (Ps 33:6-8)
So in one sense we can call any experience we have an experience of God.
However there is a special experience that only Christians have in this world—this is the experience of trusting God by trusting his word.
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth (Col 1:3-6)
Trusting Jesus affects every experience we have on earth. So when we talk with Catholics, who often place a great emphasis on their experiences as a way of knowing God, we can share with them our special experience—that of trusting God by trusting his word. We can share our testimony, our story, which is really the story of God causing us to trust him. We can share how we are certain where we will spend eternity, what you love about following Jesus, what you find hard, why you’re still a Christian. We can also share the way God keeps us trusting him through his word, how the Bible gives us the clear and certain answers we need, how we are encouraged by his people who share this word with us when we meet at church, in small groups and one-to-one, and how we love them. We can share how his word impacts our daily lives. Now that would be a great thing to chat about over coffee!
Give a person a fish, and they will eat for today. Show someone how to fish, and they will eat for a lifetime. This Chinese proverb has been around for centuries, but is still widely used today to encourage managers to train their staff rather than just giving them jobs to do.
Growing up as a Roman Catholic, most of the things I learnt about God were taught to me as rules from a priest. I realized this when I started university and met some Christians who weren’t Catholic. They asked me what I believed—I told them, almost parrot fashion. Then they asked me why I believed these things. I’d never been asked that question before! I said, “Because the priest told me” … but my answer didn’t seem very good for a first year university student. When I asked them why they believed the things they did, they opened up their Bibles and showed me. Someone had taught these students how to understand the Bible for themselves, rather than just rely on what a priest said.
Trust is a very important component in how Catholics learn and know about God. They are encouraged to trust their priests unquestioningly. However, with the sexual abuse scandals and other criticisms made against Catholic priests, there is a crisis of faith amongst many Roman Catholics. Many are not sure they can trust their priests any more. But the sad thing is, they don’t have anyone else to trust either, and they may not trust you when you tell them the gospel.
God’s word offers the trustworthy guidance many Catholics crave, but most don’t know how to read it. After I met those Christians at university, I was challenged to read the Bible for myself. I joined their Bible study group. Finally, I had somewhere else to place my trust. For me, leaving Catholicism ended up being a process of growing in my trust of God’s word and losing my trust in the Catholic Church.
Rather than just telling our Catholic friends the gospel, one of the most helpful things we can do is show them how to find it for themselves in the Bible. There is a great Bible study method to help you do this called the Swedish Method,5 and a network called Biblegroups are using it across Sydney.6 There are lots of Catholics wanting to know how to read the Bible, so rather than just telling them what the Bible says, why not show them how to read it for themselves? You might help them for more than a lifetime. You might help them for eternity.
So Catholics tend to know God through belonging to the church, experiencing the Sacraments and trusting the hierarchy. These starting points are important to recognise because evangelism involves bringing the gospel to people in a way they relate to and understand. To make it as easy as we humanly can, we need to understand how they think, and then apply the gospel thoughtfully, so they can begin to engage with the truth of salvation.
Give it a try—invite Catholics to belong, share your Christian experience with them and show them how to read the Bible for themselves so they can trust a different authority: the true high priest who saves.
2 Tony Coffey, Once a Catholic, Harvest House Publishers, Oregon, 1993, and Answers to Questions Catholics Are Asking, Harvest House Publishers, Oregon, 2006. These are great books, lovingly written, that I have given to many Catholics.
3 Some Catholics may find it hard to come to a Sunday service because Sunday Mass is the way they identify themselves as Catholic. Going to another church on Sunday can be like saying “I’m not Catholic anymore”. Give it a go and see what they say.
4 Available from http://www.matthiasmedia.com.
5 You can find out more about this in this post on the Swedish method.