SHREWSBURY, Mo. (RNS) On a recent rainy Saturday, about 125 Catholics packed a basement conference room, many of them older, most of them lay people. Many were representing their parishes.

They gathered here to learn how to spread the faith, a concept that is both fundamental to Christianity and nearly foreign to modern Roman Catholics.

Marty Scrima, (left) and Jim Wedick, members of the Holy Infant Catholic Church evangelization team, work the New Ballwin Estates subdivision in Ellisville on Saturday, April 20, 2013, going door to door, re-welcoming registered members to restart an active membership at the church and taking suggestions on how to make worship better. Photo by Christian Gooden / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Marty Scrima, (left) and Jim Wedick, members of the Holy Infant Catholic Church evangelization team, work the New Ballwin Estates subdivision in Ellisville on Saturday, April 20, 2013, going door to door, re-welcoming registered members to restart an active membership at the church and taking suggestions on how to make worship better. Photo by Christian Gooden / St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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For the first hour of the conference, Kenneth Livengood, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Parish in St. Ann, Mo., detailed one way — door-to-door evangelization, a missionary strategy more familiar to Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“We’ve been tricked into thinking faith is a private matter,” Livengood told the audience. “That’s a lie. Faith is meant to be public, and there are many ways to share it.”

He taught them how to form a door-to-door ministry, explained how to divide a boundary map of their parish into geographical sections, suggested useful handouts, gave safety tips, and showed videos that detailed the best way to respond to various reactions from those on the other side of the door.

“Divide up into teams of two,” Livengood said. “One of you can do the talking and the other should be a silent prayer warrior. At the next house, flip your roles.”

Evangelization is central to the Christian mission, but for the average adherent, the physical act of approaching a neighbor, work colleague or family member can be daunting.

A pamphlet produced by the Archdiocese of St. Louis called “Witnessing Christ Door-to-Door” offered a list of suggestions “since this may be a novel, perhaps, intimidating path.”

The suggestions include:

  • “Ask each person you meet if they are in need of prayer.”
  • “Early Saturday mornings may not make for the most receptive ears.”
  • “Trying to provide too many facts about the Church may cause misunderstandings.”
  • “Doing a little role-playing before going out for visits may be helpful.”
  • “Sometimes a person answering the door thinks getting back to regular Mass attendance would make their grandmothers very happy, which might present a welcoming start for conversation.”

Going door to door “is not really a Catholic practice that we’ve done often in the past,” said the Rev. Stephen Bevans, professor of mission and culture at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “There have been so many of us we haven’t had to do it.”

In the final scene of the Gospel of Matthew, the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples and tells them — in what has come to be called the “Great Commission” — to make new disciples by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Catholics are no less engaged by the Great Commission than evangelicals, but over the last century, the church has relied on evangelizing through the example of its social justice work, relieving those in the pews from having to knock on a neighbor’s door.

Some newer denominations are more accustomed to evangelization. The Rev. Cecil Robeck, an Assemblies of God minister, sees a contrast.

“In some older churches, people are not used to talking about faith in personal terms,” said Robeck, a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary.

“Over the last 25 years, the Catholic Church has said, ‘Our strong social agenda is all well and good, but we need to be vocal about our faith as well,’ ” said Robeck.

In the late 1980s, Bevans said, Pope John Paul II began referring to “the new evangelization” as a strategy of bringing lapsed Catholics in Europe back into the church.

In his book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” the pope wrote that evangelization “has never been absent” in the church. He quoted the Apostle Paul from the book of 1 Corinthians: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!”

Pope Benedict XVI made his predecessor’s “new evangelism” a central theme of his papacy, even convening a monthlong meeting of bishops from around the world last fall to discuss it.

During a speech to his fellow cardinals in Rome last year, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan called evangelization “the sacred duty,” saying in the words of St. Augustine that it is “ever ancient, ever new.”

“The how of it, the when of it, the where of it, may change,” Dolan said, “but the charge remains constant.”

Many observers have cited Pope Francis’ humble behavior as its own kind of evangelization. Or, to use a phrase attributed to his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Bevans said images of Francis stopping to bless a disabled man during his papal inauguration, or washing the feet of women during Holy Week, were especially powerful.

“There you see the face of Jesus,” Bevans said. “That’s what evangelization is about.”

Julie Bostick, executive director of the St. Louis archdiocese’s office of laity and family life, said the archdiocese would hold another “how to” conference in June, focusing on evangelizing in the family. Another in the fall will tackle evangelizing in the workplace.

“Sometimes people get a little nervous talking about their faith, but spreading the message of Jesus Christ has always been the mission of the church,” she said. “We’re just trying to refocus.”

(Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

22 Comments

  1. Catholics all over the country have been doing street evangelization with an organization called St. Paul Street Evangelization, which was featured recently on Catholic Answers:

    http://streetevangelization.com/

  2. Keith Phillips

    Jesus, and the Apostles after Him, they generally spread the Gospel, by preaching out in the open, in public places, where anyone could attend. Those who wanted to learn about Love and about Truth would go to listen. Jesus and the disciples did not seek out others, but let others come to them. It’s kind of the “if you build it, they will come” mode of evangelization, and I tend to believe that is how we are supposed to do it, not door-to-door. If we simply speak about love and speak the truth, anywhere we go, in our regular lives, then people will be drawn to listen to us. God will place the right people in the right places at the right times. I think the problem is that most Christians do NOT speak about Love or Truth in our everyday conversations. IF we all just did that, there would be sufficient evangelization to spread the Gospel like wildfire. Instead, we spend most of our daily conversations on worthless things, like news, sports, gossip, or entertainment.

    • Paul and the first Christians DID GO HOUSE TO HOUSE. God’s word the Bible states at (Acts 20:17-20): 17 However, from Mi·le′tus he sent to Eph′e·sus and called for the older men of the congregation. 18 When they got to him he said to them: “YOU well know how from the first day that I stepped into the [district of] Asia I was with you the whole time, 19 slaving for the Lord with the greatest lowliness of mind and tears and trials that befell me by the plots of the Jews; 20 while I did not hold back from telling YOU any of the things that were profitable nor from teaching YOU publicly and from house to house.

  3. Legion of Mary, a Catholic lay organization, has been doing door-to-door evangelization for the last 90 years. So sorry, but the premise is simply not true..

    • Correct. The Legion of Mary has used this method for years. The premiss of this article is wrong. And that priest seems a little ignorant of how the Church has done door to door evangelism. This is wonderful. I hope it catches on again.

      Frank Sheed also used to preach in Hyde Park, too.

    • I agree about the Legion of Mary. I am seeing first hand how they work as most of my friends are members here in my parish. BUT they do door to door mostly for those who are already Catholics like giving Holy COmmunion to those in the nursing homes or bringing our Blessed Mother to the homes of other Catholics and rarely to lapsed Catholics What the article wants to emphasized is a full out effort to reach beyond our comfortable borders. Really making it our primordial mission in our mind and hearts when we wake up first thing in the mornings.

  4. It’s fine to try to pass our Catholic faith on to others, but I think we need to evangelize our own first. Many Catholics are sitting in church on Sunday, merely because it is a”duty” to, or they want to be sure they will get to Heaven. Evangelization is about sharing with others how to seek a relationship with Jesus for all time, not just when we want a favor or need something from Him.

  5. True !! The Legion of Mary has been going door to door for 90 years..So, if you would like to practice your faith and led others to the Blessed Mother and her son Jesus, then join or ask your parish to hold Legion meetings. Its very rewarding when you work of the Blessed Mother..

  6. Phyllis Poole

    I don’t think the Mormons or Jehovah witnesses have left a good impression on people either, by interrupting people at home and trying to push their religion on others.
    The best way to evangelize is to talk to everyone you contact, in shopping, or any other contact when you’re away from home, about the “times”. Everyone is upset about what’s happening. Mention prayer. Also mention that many things said against the catholic faith is wrong. Mention that our faith came straight from God through Moses and Christ didn’t change much except He took the place of the lamb. Get people thinking and asking questions that they want answered. Get them asking questions!
    PLEASE GOD ENLIGHTEN YOUR “SHEEP”!

    • AMEN! GET PEOPLE ASKING QUESTIONS…. Then, SHOW the answer in the BIBLE. Show them the Trinity in the Bible (it’s not from the Bible). Show them where the Bible says we should worship saints or Mary or pray to them (it’s NOT from the Bible). Show them where the soul is immortal and if you’re condemned by God you’ll burn in eternal hellfire (that’s not in there either). So what exactly are you going to tell the people you meet? What if they ask about all the child molesters and scandals that have come to light? What will you say to explain that away? I’m just wondering…. I was raised Catholic and have been away from the church for over 30 years. What would you say to someone like me?

      • I would understand your leaving, because the education that many of us got as Catholics wasn’t very good. But as an adult I learned that Bible alone is not in the bible. And that the Pillar and foundation of truth, the church is in the bible. In Maccebes, a book removed from protestant bibles mentions praying to the dead, or for the dead. We are taught that WE are one body, and just because one passes from this life to the next doesn’t seperate them from the body of Christ. So we seek their prayers or pray for them. Also, the scandals are horrible not to be played down. The gates of Hell will always TRY to prevail against the church . There are many holy Catholics, but the church really is a hospital for sinners, and not a hotel for saints. I would never encourage someone who has been traumatized by abuse from a priest as a child to come back to the church. I know that special soul must be nurtured by a healing God in a way that feels safest to them. I hope this helps.

    • Oh, one more question: You say, “the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have left a bad impression….trying to ‘push’ their religion on others”. Do you consider the Apostles as “pushing their religion on others”? Or were the Apostles following Jesus command to find the people who were hungering and thirsting for truth and tell them the “good news”? If this is a command from Jesus to ALL his followers would you say Jesus was “pushy”? People don’t have to listen nor even open the door if they don’t want to be bothered. It’s a free country….

  7. To CM.
    When a Baptist asked me if the scandals and child molesters shaked my faith in the catholic church I responded that it shook me but not my faith. I said my faith is in Jesus Christ and the church he founded because I know what the church teaches. If we are christian because our faith rests upon the faith of others we are christian for the wrong reason.

    Come back -study what the the church teaches -live by faith in Jesus.

  8. Francis had no authority to wash the fee of women. Jesus did it to his 12 apostles, who were to be the first priests. Although Jesus had many women followers, it is men he chose to appoint as priests. Jesus could have chosen women as priests, but HE did not.

    It is a novelty introduced by this new pope , whois defying traidtion in the church. Men and women are equal, but have different roles. Francis is trying to please men, not God. As a Catholic, I already see red flags

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