The Word Among Us

February 2009 Issue

Responding to the Call

We can all learn how to evangelize.

Responding to the Call: We can all learn how to evangelize.

The gospel really does have the power to save and redeem. It’s something that each of us can experience. And it’s something that each of us is called to proclaim.

As we try to respond to the Lord’s call to go out into all the world, it’s important for us to see how much our Father in heaven and our brother Jesus want us to evangelize.

On the one hand, we should not presume that everyone is already converted and on the path to heaven. But on the other hand, we should also guard against assuming that anyone is too far gone, that anyone is past the point of being open to the gospel. And that’s why we all need to evangelize. Jesus made it clear that some people will reject him, but he also said that he wants every person to come to him. So as you read this article, ask the Holy Spirit to show you God’s perspective on evangelization. Then ask for the courage and the desire to evangelize.

Our Father’s Perspective. A long time ago, God gave the prophet Ezekiel a vision of a valley filled with dry bones. In the vision, he commanded Ezekiel to proclaim the word of the Lord to these bones, so that they could come to life again. Ezekiel did as the Lord told him, and the bones came together, but they remained lifeless. God then gave Ezekiel a second message, telling him to call on the Spirit of God to enter them. This time the bones came to life and became a vast army (Ezekiel 37:1-10).

God’s words to Ezekiel is a message to us as well. Like Israel, our church is also the people of God, yet so many in our church are like these dry bones, seeking life where there is only death. Still, the Holy Spirit is determined to reach out to these dry bones, to give them life, and to draw them home to his church.

If we want to evangelize, we have to know how valuable evangelization is to the Lord. He wants everyone to believe in him, and to that end, he is willing to pour out unlimited grace. And he chooses to do it through people like Ezekiel—and through people like us.

Jesus’ Perspective. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells three consecutive stories about evangelization—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (Luke 15). All three stories point to the same conclusion: Jesus wants the lost to be found. At one point in the chapter, Jesus says that he would “leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it” (Luke 15:4). At another point, he says the prodigal son decided to come home, but “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him” (15:20).

It’s easy to see the similarities between Jesus’ perspective and his Father’s. Jesus tells us that he would put the whole church at risk, leaving them unprotected for the sake of one lost soul. Of course he treasures the ninety-nine, but he suffers over the thought that even one of us might be lost. And that is why he is more happy when one person comes home than he is when those who are already home grow closer to him. Every day Jesus looks out on the world, and when he sees someone coming back to him, he runs to that person. And this gives us a glimpse of the great joy we bring to Jesus when we become his instruments in bringing someone home.

The “Isaiah Experience.” About two hundred years before Ezekiel, another prophet, Isaiah, was praying in the Temple when he saw a vision. In his vision, Isaiah saw God in all his holiness—and he saw his own sinfulness when compared to God. “I am doomed!” he cried out, acknowledging his sins. But God had mercy on Isaiah and cleansed him. As a result, Isaiah was filled with joy, and when God asked, “Whom shall I send” to preach to Israel, Isaiah eagerly answered, “Here I am, send me!” (Isaiah 6:1-8).

God wants to give us the same experience he gave Isaiah. As was said earlier, Jesus died on the cross for our sins. In Confession he now washes us clean. The sacrament does for us what God did for Isaiah. It reveals his holiness and makes us right with him. And this reconciliation with God moves us beyond our own worries and inspires us to go out and evangelize. The sacrament naturally moves us to focus a bit less on our desires and a bit more on God’s desires.

God wants to give us visions and insights, just as he spoke to his prophets. He wants to put on our hearts the same concerns that are on his heart. He wants us to share in his concern for the lost. He wants to move us out into the world to evangelize. And this means that we have to prepare ourselves. Whether it was Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones or Isaiah’s encounter with God in the Temple or Jesus’ words when he sent out the seventy-two disciples, the foundational point for evangelization rests upon our understanding God’s great love and his desire to reach the lost.

The First Key: Prayer. Assuming that we have a desire to evangelize welling up in our hearts, we should ask, “How can I prepare myself practically?” We’d like to offer a few suggestions. The first step is to begin to pray for people. Every one of us can put together a list of five people and pray for them each day. That list can include our children, relatives, friends, coworkers, and people we know who are hurting in some way.

Every day, try to spend five minutes praying for these people. Ask God to fill them with grace and to give you an opportunity to share your faith with them. Ask for the right words to say. Some people who have prayed this way have actually seen people on their list come to them and initiate conversations about the Lord. So don’t underestimate the place prayer holds in our efforts to evangelize.

The Second Key: Care. Jesus said: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). In a world where love has become so self-oriented, our expressions of love and concern will stand out. So many people feel alone and uncared for. We can be that listening ear. We can be that comforting smile of reassurance. We can be the ones to seek out people after Mass while the parish enjoys refreshments. All it takes is a little initiative—a desire to listen well and try our best to speak the right words at the right time with the right disposition.

The catalyst may be as simple as assuring someone about God’s love. It may be a promise to pray for someone or an offer to pray with someone. You may plant a seed of hope in a person’s heart by recalling some truth of the gospel that helped you at a difficult time. Perhaps you can share some words of encouragement, saying that God really does have a plan or that Jesus has the answers if we just ask him. Maybe all you need to say is, “Jesus died on the cross to set you free.” We may not always know what to say, but as unlikely as it sounds, the Holy Spirit will help us say the right words.

Most people like to receive invitations—even in this busy world. Parishes hold functions. Neighborhoods hold parties. When you look at your list of five people, think about what they might like to do for fun and relaxation. Have a nice time and try to find the right opportunity to turn the conversation toward God.

Another strategy might be to invite one or two people into our homes for a cup of tea or an evening dessert. It is in quiet, more personal settings like a home where conversations can develop that lead to a deeper sharing of our hopes and dreams, of our fears and concerns. And it is in the midst of these conversations that we may feel moved by the Spirit to talk about how much our relationship with Jesus means to us.

People Are Hungry. On the surface, so many people look secure. They appear to have little or no need for Jesus. But this is often not the case. Once conversations are initiated and some trust is built up, problems, loneliness, and uncertainty begin to come out. Many people are lost, and God wants us to go find them.

Every one of us has the potential to draw one person each year—or even one person every other year—into the church. We really can evangelize if we put our minds and hearts into it. If we are persistent and patient, if we are prayerful and prepared, and if we are encountering God like Ezekiel and Isaiah, we will see our confidence increase. We will see doors open. We will see ourselves taking the gospel to others. And when we go out to evangelize, we will find Jesus with us, giving us the words to say because he wants to draw every human being home.