Can you have evangelists without first having disciples?

Filed in Catholic by on May 3, 2014 5 Comments

I came across this video earlier this week. Obviously, it comes from a Protestant context (so their concept of worship is not ours), but essentially, it is saying exactly the same thing that we Catholics have been hearing time and time again recently. Here are just a couple of examples from Evangelii Gaudium (that we by now know pretty well):

I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. (EV, 27)

We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented. (EV, 28)

However, this video raises some questions for me. The experience of a typical English parish is precisely not an overload of programmes or events. If only! From my experience of average parishes, you’d be lucky to turn up on a given evening and find anything going on. (Recently, I heard of a man (not a Catholic) who contacted the local parish of a town he was staying in overnight with business. He wanted to know if there was a prayer meeting, or something else he could attend in the church that evening. The response he received from the parish secretary? “Sorry, nothing’s going on.” How sad! What a missed opportunity.)

It only makes sense to send out disciples to evangelise. After all, “A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody” (EV, 266).

So the call of this video (and to some extent, Pope Francis’s call, too) seems only to make sense to a parish community which already has disciples –  which provides formation, has a sense of purpose and mission among even a small percentage of its parishioners.

Earlier in the week, a post from an evangelical Christian friend of mine appeared on my newsfeed. He spoke about how his church has grown over the last two years: they have built a community projects building which houses projects such as a food bank, money advice, child bereavement support, and youth and children’s ministry. He finished by saying how his church is reaching 600 members on a Sunday. 600! This is what they have achieved with up to 600 disciples. Sadly, how many Catholic parishes of 1000+ parishioners could claim anything like this?

The reality of most parishes is that we’re at ground-zero, and you’d be fortunate to find your church even open during the day, let alone to stumble across a core group of disciples. It’s not possible to send out Mass-going Catholics who are not disciples to proclaim the Gospel. What will they be calling people to? To be a part of a cultural ‘club’, rather than a life-giving relationship with Jesus? Unless we are disciples “in love” with the Lord, we will evangelise no one.

My response to this video, then, is that, for a first step at least, there’s a need to concentrate on programmes and events, of awakening within the baptised their call to holiness and evangelisation, before it is possible for people to be sent, to “go out”.

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About the Author ()

Hannah Vaughan-Spruce is an experienced catechist and youth worker, who now works for the Diocese of Portsmouth. Some of her Jericho Tree articles were first posted at her personal catechetical blog Transformed in Christ. They are used here with permission. See

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  1. Fr Stephen Wang says:

    I agree with your theology and passion, but I think your judgment about the average Catholic parish is too harsh. Many Catholic parishes are open for prayer all day, full of programmes, and offering social outreach projects like food banks, bereavement support and youth ministry; and many of them are evangelising quietly but effectively (witness the Rite of Election in our Cathedrals this Lent with all the parishes represented there). But perhaps I speak defensively as a diocesan priest!

    • Fr Stephen, I agree the “ground-zero” comment was an exaggeration. But most parishes are not “full of programmes”. I think perhaps the “average London parish” is different from the “average parish” in other parts of the country, especially rural areas. I would also add that even though the sacraments are celebrated regularly in parishes (Masses, Baptisms, etc) this does not translate automatically into fruitfulness in people’s lives, and therefore, a parish that is bursting with life. I am constantly meeting Catholics who struggle on in their parishes, who are under-nourished, or who supplement their parishes with evangelical churches.

  2. Tonia says:

    No, you can’t have evangelists without first having disciples. That would be like trying to light a candle with an unlit match!

    In Sydney there seems to be a few parishes that have all the programmes and talks (they’re often run by religious orders) and many that have nothing, or just social activities. The result is that people travel to the parishes with the programmes and events. This means the talks etc are well attended, but it can leave other parishes being little more than a venue for sacraments.

  3. Paul Rodden says:

    I work very closely with Evangelicals in our town and have been invited to lead groups in the past.
    Unsurprisingly, I’ve been invited to lead more groups by Evangelicals than Catholics. :)

    Evangelicals want to learn. Groups are far better attended, and the participants more engaged and enthusiastic, even though they know I’m Catholic! (Being ex-Evangelical, helps me be sensitive to them and their worldview – although I do gently challenge (tease), when appropriate, but always in good humour.)

    However, in the Catholic discussion groups, they nearly always end up going around the same old moral and canonical red-herrings, urban-legends, and hot-button issues, however hard one tries to keep on topic and express the truth, the positive, and hopeful. It’s very legalistic and wearing.

    But this is what we’ve inherited/created ‘since Vatican II’. Catholics have an ‘OCD’ Evangelicals simply don’t have. (“I don’t want to come to any group because I might find find out something else I am not doing, that I should be’, as one battered soul in our Church put it.)

    That said, I believe that unless one’s objective is to surround oneself with a coterie of like-minds as a catechist, then one’s bound to encounter the ‘men in white dresses at the Vatican’ conspiracy at every turn, in a normal congregation, and maybe even from our priest. Our job is to deal with it winsomely and realise our work’s cut out, or go somewhere else where people agree with us.

    That said, I’d argue Evangelical congregations might not be all they seem either, once one begins to scratch the surface and really get involved. In fact, some Evangelical congregations can be pretty toxic and controlling environments internally, whilst engaging and smiling sweetly at the newcomer or potential convert.

    My experience would lead me to suggest we have to be very careful to discern the difference between genuine Evangelisation and Proselytism (which objectifies persons), and the motives behind the ‘good works’.

    Are the motives ones of charity or Church Growth? Catholics who have not been Evangelicals will not appreciate just how high Church Growth is on the agenda of many Evangelical congregations, and how ‘anything that works’ is used to get converts – appeals to the emotions (‘charismatic’) or offering help to the vulnerable (suggestible) to get access to potential converts. It can be pretty utilitarian and pragmatic, and therefore quite ugly, really. For many Evangelical congregations, numbers are simply a sign of blessing and affirmation of the truth of one’s denominational (or non-denominational) perspective. (Dr David Anders highlights this problem with Calvinist-based believers during his interview with Marcus Grodi on the EWTN ‘Journey Home’ programme.)

    For me, the teaching of St John Paul II against the objectification of persons is very clear and central to my approach. I would argue that ‘objectification’ is something to which ‘Evangelism’ (Catholic or Protestant) can fall foul. But what’s more, I’d argue books like ‘Forming Intentional Disciples’, and other catechetical frameworks are sometimes being used to label or as a straight-jacket, and thereby objectify our congregations too, treating congregants as the objects of spurious criteria, or our catechetical processes and programmes.

    Too often, my experience of Catechists is that they’re stand-offish, or ‘professionalised’, and don’t really mix with the ‘hoi polloi’ in the pews, apart from through their role. It’s like a lay equivalent of clericalism. (Here I would suggest reading the work of Dr David Smail on why Psychotherapy fails to work in most cases, for concrete insights.)

    Maybe we need to step back from Evangelisation and Catechesis as ‘professional’ (clericalised?) roles, with methodologies and programmes, and start to love our congregations into life by not objectifying and constantly trying to measure them, and see where that takes us instead?

    Maybe we should try to be be Witnesses first until the time comes for us to be Catechists or Evangelists, being ‘always prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have? (1 Pet 3.15)

  4. Paul Rodden says:

    From an academic perspective, many (‘old school’) Evangelicals (Confessional/Reformed) are very concerned about the theological foundations behind this video and other new expressions of this, now ubiquitous, antinomian, anti-Ecclesiological, ‘Neo-Evangelicalism’ which, they’d argue, seems to have more in common with Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher, than the Gospel.

    The movement behind it is what’s broadly called the ‘Emergent’ or ‘Emerging Church’. It’s founder is Brian McLaren, but it’s spread like wildfire. It has a strong emphasis on a ‘Social Gospel’, dumbs-down doctrine, and has a strong de-emphasis on Church membership and thus being ‘non-denominational’. It is highly relativistic/pluralistic (‘ecumenical’), focussed on the New media, and it’s behind the ‘Internet Churches’ (watching ‘services’ on websites = ‘church’ too). ‘Church’ is anything you want it to be, or anywhere – ‘where two or three are gathered’ (as long as you’re quorate!) – as they’d argue. The priority is on ‘being relational’.

    In Michael Voris’ sense, most Evangelicals one meets in Britain today are now the Evangelical equivalent of our Catholic ‘Church of Nice’, except they use soothing Christian jargon and bible verses rather than psychobabble.

    From my experience, the ‘commitment’ of modern British Evangelicals is nearly always one of it ‘meeting my need’, as my friends put it. In other words, if they move to a new area or their pastor changes to one they don’t like, they look for a new ‘church’ which most fits their own worldview or makes them feel just as ‘nice’ and cozy.

    This is what Dr Bryan Cross (of calls ‘Ecclesial Relativism’ and ‘Ecclesial Consumerism’. Their commitment is more one of sentiment, than truth. So they, like some Catholic Traditionalists, rather than support their local parish, will commute miles to a congregation, or where they can get their feel-good (‘charismatic’) fix.

    Watch this humourous parody of what takes place at the trendy Evangelical (Emergent) ‘Churches’ and conferences (Spring Harvest) I know and have attended often:

    The critics would argue (correctly) we have to be very wary of modern Evangelicalism, especially of the ‘Emergent’ type. The Emergent type will use things that look like sacramentals, for example (water, ‘rituals’, and ‘holding crosses’), but it’s just part of their ‘Cafeteria Evangelicalism’: ‘whatever works to make me feel more “spiritual” or in touch with “the Force” ‘, and they love to tell Catholics how ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘non-judgemental’ Evangelicalism is now.

    These criticisms of Evangelicalism – from within Evangelicalism itself – should not be ignored, as they are to warn people to be cautious when approaching them. That is, most Evangelicals, although calling themselves ‘Evangelicals’ (in its traditional sense), are really Emergents – in our ‘Catholic In Name Only’ sense – except they are more active and use the ‘Christian’ and Bible lingo I mentioned.

    If one reads the critiques, one discovers that most Evangelicalism – e.g., ‘Fresh Expressions’ in Anglicanism – is just entering where Catholics were just after Vatican II. ‘Emergentism’ is promoting the ‘Spirit’ of the Gospel, sexual ‘moral constraints’ are ‘old hat’, and ‘the Church’ needs to be ‘relevant’ for a change. It is an Evangelical equivalent of the Modernist ‘aggiornamento’ with all it’s negative connotations. It is an archetypal Postmodernist ‘Gospel’.

    Suggested authors:
    Kevin deYoung:
    ‘Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be’, and ‘Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion’

    Dr Michael Horton:
    ‘Christless Christianity’

    DA Carson:
    ‘Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications’

    Anything by Christian Smith on ‘church’, ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’, and especially his latest book since he was received into full communion with the Church:
    ‘Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church’
    This was published in January by OUP. A brilliant, although depressing, read.

    As an aside, if any Evangelicals show any interest in Catholicism, a great book, also by Christian Smith, is: ‘How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps’. Incredibly sensitive, yet challenging of the erroneous paradigms within Evangelicalism.

    Lastly, this is a classic Emergent Evangelical Christian video (although I imagine most Catholics have seen it as it ‘went viral’ and created such a furore):

    And here’s Fr Pontifex’s (Fr Claude Burns) response:

    Bethke is very persuasive and incredibly convincing. But isn’t he simply tying Christian slogans together to justify his own, PoMo, ‘church’, based on two sets of unjustified presuppositions?: His Emergent ‘Marcionist’ reading of Scripture (which separates ‘Jesus’ from his Jewish roots) and Ecclesial Urban Legends and selected extreme examples. The friendly Neo-Evangelicals we might meet might not be as abrasive, but their ‘Spiritual not Religion’ mindset is pervasive.

    That is the face of modern Evangelicalism.
    It is having Evangelists without first having Disciples (what we’d mean by the term).

    I believe we have a real message to bring to Evangelicalism – not the other way round!

    With their desire to learn and grow, I’ve found Evangelicals far more receptive to the Catholic way of doing things when they’re willing to be open (and we’re sensitive about it), because they realise we’ve still got what they’ve been gradually losing for the past 30 years.

    My boss (an Evangelical Clergyman) tells me he finds himself having more in common with me than his fellow Evangelical pastors, and Popes Benedict/Francis, than Justin Welby. Also, I’m currently meeting with another minister monthly because he wants to find out more about Catholicism and how it has concrete answers for the ‘crisis’ in Evangelicalism. These came about through friendship rather than any specific desire to Evangelise, and I’ve come to believe God puts people in our path if we’re open, rather than having to ‘look them out’.

    I don’t say that to boast, but to point out that Evangelicalism is mission territory, and although it might not seem like it, we’ve got more to offer them than they have to offer us in the current climate of Evangelicalism. Catholicism is the fulness of the Faith, after all.

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