Husband & Wife Articles


The Common Man Evangelist

You can spread the faith with a simple ‘relational’ approach

By John Keating

On a recent cross-country trip with my family, we stopped over with friends who are lifelong Protestants and attend a local Baptist church. Over dinner, I said something to this effect: “Jill, 20 years I’ve known you and I’m not sure we’ve ever had a discussion about religion. What’s the one thing about Catholics that you’ve always wanted to know but never asked?”

She responded, “I don’t get the Mary stuff and how you pray to her.”

Keating Family

Rather than citing doctrine, I decided to draw from personal experience. Turning to her teenage daughter at table, I said: “Ally, have you ever wanted something from your dad but were afraid to ask him, thinking maybe that he might say no?” “Yes.” “And what did you do?” Ally pointed to her mom, saying, “I ask her to say something to him first.” That produced goose bumps for Jill, according to her own words. Something that Jill had not been able to relate to – Catholic reverence for the Blessed Mother and our appeal to her intercessory powers – was made instantly clear.

There are many ways to evangelize but our efforts usually fall into two categories. The first is evangelization using Church history, Scripture and theology. The second is relational evangelization or personalism. The latter explains Church teaching using everyday events and experiences that people, especially non-Catholics, can relate to. In the case at hand, the relational approach clearly produced fruit and greater understanding between this Catholic and his long-time Baptist friend.

I think that on the whole, the relational approach may be more effective for our times. I don’t suggest that the theological approach is ineffective; it has its place in discussions with a person who has a good understanding of Christian history, or who is a regular reader of the Bible, or is used to debating non-Catholics based on Scripture. But for everyone else, the relational method may be better, at least initially. Try this yourself. Imagine that my friend had expressed confusion about the Catholic practice of confessing sins to a priest as opposed to God directly. What relational response would you use? Here’s one possible response among many: “Jill, think of your most embarrassing sin. Now confess it to God and ask him directly for forgiveness. Finished? Now tomorrow at work, pull a coworker aside and whisper that same sin and ask that person to pray for you. Does the very idea make you cringe? Would you do it?” From this relational scenario I could explain to Jill that pride (more so than privacy) sometimes hinders us from being fully repentant and making amends, and that one of the truest tests of sincere repentance is the exposition of your sins to another human being. It might be “easier” to confess to God directly, but serious courage and sincerity is needed to go to the next step of confessing to another person.

The relational approach is obviously an appetizer and a way to engage. It is an introductory step. It is evangelization lite. Such conversations should move into a richer dialogue about Church history, apostolic succession and theological development.

Ultimately then, a two-fold approach to conversational evangelization is ideal (theological-historical plus relational), though depending on whom one is addressing, one approach may at first be better than the other.

There is another reason why I believe that the relational approach may be more effective in this day and age. We live in a sound-bite, social media age of short attention spans. We are scanners and highlighters. We absorb more content but at shallower levels and are conditioned to forming opinions quickly. So the reality is that we have mere seconds to be effective in an evangelical conversation. The relational approach is suitable to this situation because it requires far less explanation. I think that the Church recognizes that it does not have the undivided attention of the masses each time it speaks and that the same holds true for faithful Catholics. We're called to evangelize using newer ways that reflect historical changes, including the need to be concise. Consider that the pope has a Twitter account and the Vatican has a website. The Church offers centuries of rich theological, philosophical and moral reflection, but first she must get a person’s attention amid the noise of our so-called information age.

If you've ever thought to have that conversation around the office water cooler with a non-Catholic or a Catholic struggling with the faith, I offer you encouragement and a prayer. I encourage you to solicit the help of the Holy Spirit before such conversations but to also do your part to prepare. Decide on a simple opening statement, such as, “We've never talked religion and I know you probably don’t have time right now, but what's that thing that Catholics do that makes no sense to you?” Prepare in advance a relational response. It may give them goose bumps. It may open the door to a deeper dialogue and, ultimately, the search for truth.

John Keating is married to Toni and is the father of four children under age 10. Formerly a pro soccer player in South Africa, he is currently the Men's Head Coach at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina.