Evangelization by the Ounce

Evangelization by the Ounce
Ten small but effective ways to share your faith
Paul Thigpen

© 2002 by Paul Thigpen

When I was a child, the majestic fig tree that stood outside our dining room window had been planted and tended many years before by my grandparents. With great diligence they had labored over it so that others might enjoy a harvest. Pop had planted. Grandma had watered. Mama had gathered. And I ate the figs!

Perhaps St. Paul had a similar image in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians about how they had come to faith: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:6). Both men had engaged in evangelization. But "the Lord assigned to each" (v. 5) the particular task to be done so that neither man had performed the whole work on his own. Like my grandfather when he planted that fig tree, St. Paul had begun the process of cultivation knowing that someone else would probably see the fruit.

Pope John Paul II has reminded us that evangelization is still a task to be shared-in fact, shared by all Catholics. Preaching on World Mission Sunday in 1996, he insisted: "Incorporated into the Church by baptism, every Christian is called to be a missionary and witness. This is the Lord's explicit mandate." Yet the challenge of converting the world seems so great that most of us may feel intimidated by the prospect.

Even so, St. Paul's words about planting and watering should encourage us. Ask any Catholic convert how he or she came to believe, and you'll probably find that a series of people had something to do with it, each contributing a little seed or sprinkle of faith. God sometimes works through great missionary preachers, but more often He uses everyday Catholics-people willing to engage in what we might call "evangelization by the ounce."

Just what are those small acts that can add up to the harvest of a soul? Consider these ten kinds of little "ounces" you can offer people looking for God:

Answer a question.

The greatest obstacle to conversion can be an unanswered question. It may involve a simple misunderstanding about the faith that we can easily correct: "Don't Catholics worship Mary?" Or it may spring from a more profound concern: "If God is good and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?"

That latter question has actually provided multiple occasions for me to plant a seed in some of the university students I've taught. When they ask it, we end up talking about the nature of love and free will, about how creatures who can love and choose can also revolt against God-bringing evil into the world. The students aren't converted on the spot, but when they're satisfied with the Catholic answer, another obstacle to faith has been cleared away.

Ask a question.

Often our role in evangelization is not so much to answer a question as it is to ask one. I once knew a rather arrogant unbeliever who confessed to a Christian friend in an unguarded moment: "I guess I'm just too proud to think that I really need religion." The friend replied simply, "What exactly is it that you're so proud of?"

The question was asked gently and without reproach, but it pierced the man to the depths. He couldn't think of an answer that wouldn't seem ridiculous as soon as he said it. When he became a believer some time later, he confessed how that one little question had plowed up his heart for the seed of the gospel to be planted.

Recommend a book.

I was a teenage atheist. I began to lose my childhood faith when a junior high teacher handed me a book by a skeptic whose anti-Christian rhetoric planted doubts like weeds in my soul.

Ironically, it was a book from another teacher that helped set me back on the road to heaven: C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters. That little volume brought light into my darkness and made me hungry to read more. Within three months I'd become a Christian.

For other converts I know, the decisive book was G. K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man or St. Augustine's Confessions. If something you've read says just what you'd like to say in the way you'd like to say it to a particular non-believer, lend him the book!

Recall a meaningful experience with God.

In calling lay Catholics to evangelization, the Holy Father has noted that "people today put more trust … in experience than teaching" (Redemptoris Missio, 42). For many folks, personal anecdotes carry more weight than an abstract idea. Sometimes what a person seeking God needs most is a compelling, black-and-white insight provided by a page from your own life story.

For example, when an acquaintance questions God's existence in view of human suffering, I sometimes talk about what my loved ones and I have learned and gained from our own suffering. I recall the ways in which a childhood bone disease I contracted was used by God to shape my vocation. I describe how my father's struggle with lung cancer ultimately purified him before he died, and how Dad used the illness as an occasion to talk with visitors about what's most important in life.

When we relate such personal experiences, we help place the other person's struggles in a context of faith by drawing parallels between his or her life and our own. That person may then catch a glimpse of how life might begin to make sense in the light of Catholic truth and the reality of God's love. Another seed, another sprinkle.

Offer to pray.

Non-believers will rarely ask for prayer. Yet prayer is often what they need most. So don't hesitate to say simply, "I'll be praying for you about that," when someone tells you of a problem or a need.

One day during my struggle to come to faith in high school, a Christian friend and I stood watching helplessly as two hostile mobs of students, one white and the other black, began pressing toward each other to fight. In the days just before, our school had been torn by racial rioting, and I knew from experience that once the rage had reached that boiling point, violence was inevitable.

My friend dropped to her knees beside me and called out aloud to God to disperse the crowd. As I watched in disbelief, the young men at the front of each group suddenly dropped their clenched fists and began to laugh. In minutes the mob had melted away. Meanwhile, I had a concrete, undeniable answer to a specific prayer that was to serve as a powerful catalyst for faith.

Perform a small act of kindness.

Does a friend need a shoulder to cry on? Have her over for a cup of coffee. Does that elderly neighbor struggle with yard work? What doors might it open if you began mowing his lawn? Once our family took a used but serviceable mattress to the home of a Vietnamese refugee family to help them get settled. That "seed," watered by a few other simple acts of kindness and short conversations, eventually led them to embrace the gospel.

Live your faith without apology.

Long ago I decided that I wouldn't be pushy about sharing my faith, but that I wouldn't hide it, either. My family unashamedly blesses our food in restaurants, for example, and that small act has sometimes prompted a waitress to ask us a spiritual question.

One woman I know tells how deeply her dad was influenced by a fishing buddy who never "preached" to him, but always refused to go on a fishing trip if it meant he would have to miss Sunday Mass. The day finally came when her father asked the man why church meant so much to him, and the door was opened for a testimony of faith.

Provide an example of integrity.

People notice the colleague who leaves the room whenever the conversation turns to gossip or inappropriate jokes. They respect the person at the office party who stays sober and still has a good time. One of my good friends, a former aviation mechanic, had several conversations about his faith initiated by coworkers because they observed that he never uses foul language. Such small but visible acts of integrity born of faith often prompt curious inquiries about a believer's motivation.

Invite someone to Mass.

Many people who have never set foot in a Catholic Church are nevertheless curious about how Catholics worship. Others have visited a Catholic church before and decided they'd like to know more about the faith, but they don't feel comfortable going to Mass alone and sitting beside strangers. Still others have attended a Mass, but without someone to interpret it for them, they couldn't understand much of what was going on.

You might be surprised, then, to discover how readily a non-Catholic friend or family member might accept a personal invitation to attend Mass with you. When they come, you can lead them through the missalette as the service progresses and then answer their questions afterward.

Such an invitation provides an excellent opportunity to familiarize people with Catholic teachings and liturgy, to correct misconceptions about Catholic worship, and to introduce them to other Catholics. Better yet, some converts have reported that just being in the presence of Our Lord in the Tabernacle was enough to change their hearts!

One Catholic convert I know tells how he had never been to a Mass until he was a young adult, thinking that attendance was "for members only." When a Catholic friend invited him to come along one Sunday, he eagerly accepted the invitation. What he saw and heard during that first Mass was all it took to convince him that he was spiritually home at last, and he entered the Catholic Church soon after.

Be patient.

One of the tough challenges of "evangelization by the ounce" is cultivating the patience necessary to persevere when fruit doesn't appear right away. We have to remember God's proclamation that He "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). The eternal destination of each person we've "watered" is in His hands, and our evangelistic works, however small, are our loving attempt to fulfill His desire.

Perhaps not every one of those hearts we touch will choose to live with Him forever. But we can be encouraged to know that not even an "ounce" of evangelization was wasted if it was poured on thirsty soil.

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