An Approach to Evangelization

jesus preaching to 12I recently had coffee with an old friend who leads a local chapter of a nationwide Catholic evangelization group. They are a lay organization working mostly with college students, but some of the ideas they’ve developed over the years seem to me like they could work well in many contexts. I have seen good fruit from this organization. Perhaps there are ways you can put these ideas into practice in your community.

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A first principle is what they call 80/20: they tell their missionaries to spend 80% of their time with the top 20% of their contacts.

Another way to put this is, preach to the choir.

My friend made the point that the best way to reach a lot of people is to focus on a few. Their organization can do the most good by growing. If I want to bring a lot of people to Christ, the best thing I can do is nurture other people who will bring others to Christ.

Too often, perhaps, we turn this proportion on its head, and spend 80% (or more) of our time on the weakest 80% of our contacts. At first, this seems generous and anti-elitist. All people matter. We shouldn’t just worry about the best Catholics! That is true – and we should reserve 20% of our evangelization time for the other 80% of the people.

But the thing is, 80/80 ends up being a bit arrogant – as if I am the only person who can reach those others. To the contrary, the best way to reach the 80% might be through strengthening and sending the 20%.

In a parish, for example, rather than trying to gear events, or preaching, or liturgical preferences, to the majority, it might be better if the priest focused on helping the strongest to grow – so that they can go out and evangelize the others.

(That said, in a parish, there are good reasons for not going too far. Since the priest really is essential – since Mass is the lifeline for the weak as well as for the strong – the priest needs to be available to everyone in a way that a lay evangelizer does not. Make sure you keep 20 for the 80! Nonetheless, priests might consider how the 80/20 strategy could apply to them.)

Perhaps it need not be said: I write this blog for the 20% (or less).

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A second aspect of this strategy is an emphasis on formation. For most of our conversation, we discussed how hard it is to form college students in our current culture. Everything they see tells them to act in ways contrary to the faith.

Teaching young people healthy (non-)dating behaviors, for example, is hard work in a culture that does not take marriage seriously. But this is true also of cultivating a life of prayer, of beauty, of helpful speech, careful use of the media, etc.

A first consequence of this insight is that we need to give a lot of time to formation. A Sunday Gospel message isn’t going to do a lot of good if we don’t have missionaries, of one sort or another, walking beside people, encouraging them to live a converted life. And because it takes a lot of time, we need to realize that the 20% do need 80% of our best missionaries’ time.

A second consequence is the importance of good examples. The hardest thing about formation is that people have no good examples. If we want to evangelize the 80%, we need to have a 20% who can serve as witnesses of what a converted life looks like – whether it’s possible, and how joyful it can be.

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Finally, my friend shared the strategy “Reach, Call, Form, Send.” I think this is beautifully balanced.

“Reach” means first we have to reach out to people, befriend them. For his group, this means purely social activities, good plain fun. For us in our parishes, it might mean taking the time to chit-chat.

“Call” means calling them to Christ (and inviting them to events that will call them deeper). Call comes after Reach. You don’t begin by telling them to convert; first you make friends, then you are able to make a serious, personal call.

“Form” comes next. We can’t stop at calling people to Christ. Once they have found him, we need to draw them deeper. (See above, on formation.) And yet, we can’t invite people immediately to formation: we have to reach them and make sure they’ve heard the call first.

Last comes “Send.” As Pope Francis says, the Church must never become self-referential. True evangelization creates evangelizers, not members of a club. Real formation points people outward. On the other hand, we can only send those whom we have formed – send must be part of the formula, but it comes last.

These seem like helpful insights for every kind of evangelizer. I urged my friend to write a book. For now, I’ll just share them with you here.

Who are your 20%? How could you give them 80%? Whom could you reach, call, form, or send? And how would you envision an organization that did these things where you are?

eric.m.johnston

2 Comments

  1. Was this an SPO employee? I’ve been reading your blog for some time now, and reading your description I found out you’re in Newark, NJ. What a small world! My wife was a missionary for them before we got married.

    • Jonathan, I lived with Saint Paul’s Outreach through college and their emphasis on formation shaped my whole worldview. I suppose my emphasis on the Holy Spirit, grace, community, fidelity to the Church, and Scripture are all things nurtured in me by SPO, too. Glad to know we’re making connections!

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