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Counting heads isn’t key to lasting evangelization


Evangelization seems to be a buzzword these days in certain ecclesial circles. Frankly, the word makes me squirm: I envision a Bible thumper on a street corner or a TV screen. Prim church ladies rendering disapproval with raised eyebrows. Worse yet, members of the corporate church who believe they have a corner on how and where the Holy Spirit enters the lives of the faithful, as if by controlling the nature of religious experience they can guarantee uniform behavior and outcomes.

Evangelization could be construed as a numbers game: How many thousands of young people can we fit into a stadium for a rally? How many on the waiting list at the local parochial school? How many charitable dollars can we cough up for the latest archdiocesan operation center or suburban Catholic high school? Conversion, on the other hand, is a process that can’t be quantified. Though evangelization can precede conversion, there’s no axiomatic relationship between the two.

During my college years, I spent a couple of summers in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a summer vacation spot popular on the mid-Atlantic corridor. In fact, so many Washington residents flock there on weekends that a sign on the way into town proclaims it “The nation’s summer capital.” (I revel in the irony that Rehoboth may be translated as “room for one more sinner.” As I recall from the couple of summers I spent there as a young adult, working at restaurants and bars by night, enjoying beach life by day, it’s a pretty family-friendly place, though there is an underbelly of night life that lends credence to its name.

Every Sunday morning in Rehoboth, a lone evangelist would stride the boardwalk with a simple message. “REEEE-PENT!” he’d cry out like a concessionaire selling cold beer at a baseball game, his mantra calling all the hungover and guilty to higher consciousness. Well, to consciousness, anyway.

Maybe it was his way of keeping the Sabbath and inviting the rest of us to ponder what we might be missing. Maybe, I mused, he had taken on this personal mission as a lifelong penance for some real or perceived sin of his own. I’ll never know if this voice in the wilderness ever succeeded in converting a soul from the evil of one too many “Bahama Mamas” (a concoction of dark rum and orange juice) or from the temptation of the local after-hours hot tub establishment -- and from whatever sins those gateway vices might lead to.

For me and many others, the classic Catholic school education worked pretty well as a means of evangelization: I learned my three r’s in a safe environment where just about everybody was pretty much like me, and I absorbed the richness of faith traditions and practices. My conversion, however, didn’t -- indeed, couldn’t -- begin until I had more experience of the world outside my Catholic cradle. Unfortunately, today so much energy of the institutional church seems invested in self-preservation and insulation, in fostering a sense of Catholic tribalism as an antidote to the evils of secularism.

We’re generally more subtle than that Rehoboth preacher, with his determined gait and sweaty forehead. But I worry that we compartmentalize faith as he does: Being a good Catholic too often means attending Mass and making sure the kids are baptized. I deplore the prospect of watering down faith to a “Judeo-Christian lite” sort of alliance, with churchgoing as a social grace -- the equivalent of, say, eating with the correct fork.

I wish for my children to experience the strong sense of belonging to community, an environment saturated with justice consciousness, and the opportunity to grow in personal grace nurtured by a sacramental sensibility -- all fostered in the best parishes. But I wonder, does the institution really understand that millennial Catholics are not docile sheep who can’t find their way back to the pasture; that our leaders do not need to be shepherds focused on keeping the herd together? Our religious identity must be forged not in the well-managed fold but in the wilds of wider culture.

The institution and the spirit can coexist: Some of the crustiest nuns who taught me in my classic Catholic grade school had the most enlightened message. I remember one nun telling us that wisdom and divine inspiration may come from unlikely sources, television, for example, or novels -- and hey, who knows? even an itinerant preacher -- so it is best to keep an open mind. And as I think we all know, it’s a good idea to pay attention to Sister.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998