The Word Among Us

January 2011 Issue

The Gospel and the Church

Building an Evangelistic Environment

The Gospel and the Church: Building an Evangelistic Environment

“Two thousand years ago, twelve Apostles gave their lives to make Christ known and loved. . . .

Throughout the centuries since then, the Gospel has continued to spread by means of men and women inspired by that same missionary fervor. Today, there is a need for disciples of Christ who give unstintingly of their time and energy to serve the Gospel. There is a need for young people who will allow God’s love to burn within them and who will respond generously to his urgent call. . . . I assure you that the Spirit of Jesus today is inviting you young people to be bearers of the good news of Jesus to your contemporaries. . . . Each one of you must have the courage to promise the Holy Spirit that you will bring one young person to Jesus Christ in the way you consider best.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Letter in Preparation for World Youth Day 2008)

While the Holy Father addressed this call to evangelize to young people, his words apply to all of us. Benedict asked the young people to evangelize one person to Christ. We are not sure if he meant one person before the 2008 World Youth Day, one person each year, or just one person in their lifetime. But we can be sure that he would agree with St. Paul that we should all become all things to all people in the hope of bringing some of them to the Lord (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Our previous article pointed out some strategies that can help open the door to the gospel—developing a prayer list, heartfelt listening, words of encouragement, and acts of compassion and generosity. In this article, we want to look at the gospel message itself and talk about how powerful an environment of faith can be in helping people embrace this message.

What Is the Gospel? The word “gospel” comes from the Old English word god, which means “good,” and spel, which means &##8220;news” or “story.” In the New Testament, the Greek word is euangelion, which again means “good news” or “good message.” And what is the good news of the gospel? Very simply, it is that God has sent his only Son to us to set us free from sin and to open the gates of heaven to us. The gospel is the story of a loving Father who longs to draw all of his children to his side. It’s the story of God’s Son, who was willing to endure even the cross in order to bring us back to the Father. It’s the story of the Holy Spirit longing to transform every human heart through an outpouring of divine love and grace.

But the gospel message isn’t just a story about something that happened two thousand years ago. In fact, it isn’t just a story at all. It is also an invitation. In the Book of Acts, every time someone preaches the gospel, the story concludes with a call to respond. It’s a call to repentance and deeper conversion. It’s a call to turn away from sin and self-centered thinking and to embrace Jesus and his promise of the Holy Spirit. In essence, the gospel message is the story of God reaching out to us and of the great privilege we have to reach out to God and know his love and his salvation.

A Culture of Love. It’s not hard to find people who limit the gospel message, saying that “faith in JesusR#8221; is the only thing we need for salvation. In one sense this is true. We must believe that we are saved by the blood of Christ, and there is no substitute for this kind of faith. As Paul said: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

But Scripture doesn’t speak only about this initial coming to faith. It speaks about a whole way of life. It speaks about a culture founded on Jesus and his teachings. And what is at the center of this culture? The call to love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13:34). Jesus redeemed us from sin so that we could work out our lives together and become more and more like him—as a body. His deepest desire is that all of us—his church—will grow more and more each day into the beautiful bride described in the Bible (Ephesians 5:25-27; Revelation 21:2).

At the first Pentecost, those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized, “and about three thousand persons were added that day” (Acts 2:41). The church was born that day, and it has been growing ever since. How did it grow? What was the prevailing culture in the church that allowed it to thrive where so many other sects and groups failed? It was a culture of mutual love and commitment to each other. These new believers gathered regularly to learn and study the teachings of the apostles. They celebrated the Eucharist together and prayed for one another. They took care of each other’s needs, and they reached out to the poor and helpless around them (2:44-45).

As the first believers built this culture of love for Jesus and love for each other, God blessed them abundantly, to the point that many signs and wonders were performed in their midst. They attracted other people as well—a stream of new converts who joined them in their common life. In other words, evangelization flowed out of their common experience of Jesus and their love for each other (Acts 2:47).

The Parish Culture. This glimpse into the early church shows us how critical the culture of a parish is when it comes to effective evangelization. It seems that everyone considered evangelization to be an integral part of their Christian lives. Even when they were threatened with imprisonment and beatings, the disciples continued to preach the gospel: “All day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Messiah, Jesus” (Acts 5:42). The result? “Many of those who heard the word came to believe and the number of men grew to about five thousand” (4:4). Even when the persecution intensified and as some were being put to death and others fled Jerusalem for safer cities, they still “went about preaching the word” (8:4).

So the gospel spread, and the church grew because of the passion and dedication of the first disciples. You can just imagine Peter urging the people to keep on praying, to live as Jesus taught them to live, and to keep on spreading the gospel. And you can just imagine the people responding wholeheartedly, committing themselves to sharing the good news and building up the church.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus wants us to be as excited about the gospel as the first believers were. He wants our parishes to be welcoming, loving, and prayerful. We should never reduce our parish to a place where the sacraments are distributed with little regard to the people receiving them. Our parish is meant to be our extended family. The people in the pews next to us are our brothers and sisters, and we should treat them with the same care we have for our immediate family. Not only is this part of what it means to be members of the body of Christ, it is also critical to the work of evangelization. It is hard to overstate how attractive a vibrant, involved parish family can be in the eyes of those who are seeking the Lord and a spiritual home. Our union with each other is probably the most important element to our becoming an evangelizing parish.

A Commitment to Evangelization. The gospel has incredible power. St. Paul once called the gospel “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Clearly, this is more than just a message or a story. It is a way of life that God asks us to practice on a daily basis. It is a way of life that God wants us to experience as a parish community. And it is a way of life that God calls us to share with those who have not yet experienced its power. In line with all his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly prayed for a “New Evangelization” to come forth from the church. He continues to ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us all to live out the gospel and to go into the world and witness to Jesus in a new and vibrant way.

This is not an impossible task. It’s not overwhelming. We just need to do our part. So let’s put together our list of five people. Let’s commit to praying for them every day. Let’s make an effort to reach out to them in love and generosity. Of course we all need preparation, but let’s be clear: Our love and our prayer are far more important than our words.

So as we begin this new year, let’s make it our goal to bring one person to Jesus this year. We really can help people come to know Jesus as their own Lord, Savior, and best friend!