Evangelization needs more football players.
Football, when it is played well, is a game of real strategy, skillset, and power. While you typically need all three to win, the essential need is not power and not skill, but strategy. You need to know where the goal is, how to play offense, how to work together to conquer ground, and how to adjust to circumstances without giving up the goal.
Too often, I wonder if the people God has called to make disciples of all nations have more strategic investment in the game of football than in the call to evangelize.
The truth is, almost all of us find ourselves in an apostolic age where the mission field has changed dramatically. The rise of the nones, the secular hyper-individualism, a politically torn country–and we are flat footed on the field, because we have never had evangelization personally modeled for us. It’s like we were playing a great game of soccer and all the sudden people began tackling us as they picked up the ball and ran. The rules, practice, field, and “game” of passing on the faith changed. That is, we need to learn a new common strategy for evangelization, and now.
Thankfully, the Holy Spirit leads all evangelization. And He has been at work in many people, crafting and engaging processes of sharing God’s gospel with those who have not heard of Jesus Christ other than as a curse, those who have heard of Christ but have drifted, those who hurt too much from secular woundedness to walk in the door, and those who have rejected God. The new evangelization has been busy, and has begun to bear fruit in raising up the first troops for the battle on our doorstep. Beyond these first evangelists, we now have more resources for evangelization right now than we have had in the rest of the history of Catholicism in the United States combined! This is a great help and grace. This brings hope. But it is still not a strategy.
We have two keys, traditional and emerging, to help each parish create a strategy: the discipleship path of the human soul, and the four ways of the new evangelization in our nation. The good news in this is that we can practice on this field, learn some new rules, and “run so as to win.” (1 Cor 9:24)
The discipleship path of the human soul. In our tradition, this is well known. There is a deep common spiritual path to union with God embedded in the lives of the saints, yet this path is as differently engaged as they are. Priests, religious, and an increasing number of lay people know them: the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways; or Teresa of Avila’s seven mansions; Therese de Lisieux’s “little way,” even the life practice of the twelve steps in recovery can be understood this way. Sherry Weddell (Forming Intentional Disciples, OSV 2012) gave us a great gift in illuminating the five thresholds of conversion–the common markers for someone who doesn’t know Christ to an intentional disciple. When you string these markers together–from no knowledge of God to complete union with God–there is a common path, differently engaged in each soul.
The problem we have is convincing people that this matters, and that we should expect growth toward sainthood in our parishes. How many parishes expect most of the parish to engage in adult faith formation–and provide support beyond the sacraments to do so? In my experience, not many. Until we truly embrace the universal call to holiness proclaimed in the gospel and underlined in the Second Vatican Council, we miss an essential key of the evangelizing parish. To get back to the football analogy–we’re playing with almost everyone on the bench and not realizing those in the stands are called to play too.
The four emerging ways for the new evangelization in our parishes. It can only be the work of the Holy Spirit that so many (so, so many!) new initiatives to teach, empower, and offer evangelization have emerged in the past 20 years. These initiatives have had a specific impact and often are driven by one key insight. But they almost never do everything needed to transform the subculture of a parish into a mission-oriented one.
Thankfully, these many emerging initiatives can be broken down into four categories:
- The radical hospitality/first proclamation model: initiatives that focus on joining invitation and deep welcome with a “shallow entry” introduction to Jesus Christ and history of salvation. This tends to be angled to those who do not know Jesus Christ, but can be used as an enliving refresher and community builder.
- The spiritual multiplication/small groups model: initiatives that build deeper discipleship in small support groups, and empowers people to share the invitation to deeper discipleship with others through initiating other small groups. This tends to be for the initiated, to encourage and teach the call to grow in discipleship and share it out with others.
- The organizational mission (re)focus model: initiatives that recognize that structure serves mission, and the way the parish is structured and invested has a big impact on the subculture of a parish and success in evangelization.
- The signs and wonders model: an initiative that deliberately draws attention to and even prayerfully invites the wonder of the power of God in the local community. This can look like Eucharistic adoration, witness and testimony talks, praise and worship nights, healing prayer groups or services, etc.
All of these are valuable. But the strategic catch is you need to be engaged deliberately in at least three of these models to effect subcultural change. Four is ideal, but three will work. If you join the three or four initiatives deliberately with the discipleship plan of the human soul…suddenly, the bones of a strategy emerges: first this, then that, and we need attention here.
To go back to the football analogy–You know the goal, it’s over there and you need to get the ball over it. You need a passing game. And a running game. And strong defense. And a good kicker! And each is important at different parts of the game. No team wins a game being really good at just one and ignoring the rest. If they do win–frankly, they got lucky. It’s a strategic plan to lose to just focus on one part of the game.
Evangelizing parishes can absolutely thrive in this secular, apostolic age. Indeed, we were born for this age–not for the parishes that were effective years ago. But we need to learn the strategic field of the apostolic age. Not overnight, but deliberately, and soon. Yet if Sunday afternoon strategic sessions across fields of green are any indication–we can do this.
Susan Windley-Daoust, Ph.D., is the Director of Missionary Discipleship for the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota. She is also the author of The Four Ways Forward: Becoming an Apostolic Parish in a Post-Christian World, to be published by OSV at the end of October 2022.
Cover photo: John Tarcasio, “Gridiron Victoria” (public domain)