Tuesday, October 18, 2016
What We Need to Know About Evangelizing Catholics
With Reformation Day fast approaching and people starting to gear up for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I thought I would share some insights I have about sharing the gospel with Catholics. I'm no one in particular or of note, but I had the privilege of helping to organize an evangelistic outreach in Philadelphia last year (2015) at the World Meeting of Families and later during the pope's visit to Philadelphia.
I believe my experiences during this evangelistic campaign gave me a little bit of insight for those of us who believe that Rome does not have the gospel and that Catholics need to hear and believe the gospel. I hope in this post to impart what I think is worth sharing for those who would like to spread the gospel to Catholics. I'm just drawing on my experience and from what I heard from my fellow laborers.
First, a little bit about the people I interacted with. From Monday to Friday, we were in Philadelphia's Center City area at the conference. On the weekend, we were in the transportation centers, largely in the suburbs. So we definitely got a mix of Catholics. During the conference, we had more time to talk with a crowd that could safely be said to be religious and on the more conservative end of the spectrum of Catholicism. On the weekend, less talking and more Catholics who were there just to see the pope. But they were still, as far as I personally could tell, more religious than your average suburban Catholic.
On top of that there were quite a number of Spanish-speaking Catholics I was unable to interact with. Our literature was bilingual, but we were not.
1) Many Christians are most likely not on board or don't think differences on justification matter.
Unfortunately, even in relatively conservative or even conservative Reformed circles, you will run into people who do not believe that Rome's doctrines of adding works to faith for justification destroys grace and the gospel. This is just the reality.
One other thing we ran into consistently are churches and people who fear street evangelism (i.e., the public proclamation of the gospel). This is true of many churches that agree with us on the need of Catholics to believe the gospel.
That could be a whole series of blog posts, but for the purposes of this one there is one takeaway. People fear non-personal evangelism will rock the boat and burn bridges in the community. So be aware of this if you wish to organize an outreach for the 500th anniversary. If you do want to go down that road (and I fully encourage you), pray. And I mean pray and keep praying. And then pray some more.
2) Majority of even religious Catholics have no idea there is an issue regarding justification.
The reactions here ran the gamut, but I remember some typical responses. Things like "we believe the same things." Lots of appeals to that joint declaration between the liberal Lutheran body and some Catholics. (For a good response please see here.) Some think the Reformers and the Catholics were just talking past each other.
I met literally no Catholic who thought I was in spiritual trouble, at least none who told me so. I met a handful that thought we had a disagreement on justification.
3) Of the few that did think we were wrong on justification, the most I got out of them was a passing remark about James. (Sometimes in street evangelism the people you are reaching don't want to stop and talk, but you do what you can.)
My advice here is that you absolutely have to be prepared to harmonize Paul and James if you want to talk to Catholics. For some of them, it will absolutely come up. Also be able to talk about Matthew 25 and the judgement that is according to works in that passage.
When it does, I found flipping the problem works. Don't just know James well. Know Paul well. I told a few people passing by "I can harmonize Paul & James. Can you?" They have an interpretation of James. Make them work through Romans and Galatians.
Use God's law. Ask them if they ever love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and their neighbor as themself. Ask them how they plan to stand before a holy God?
I also go to Galatians 3:10 to show that there are no half-measures. "For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.'"
I suggest this approach with everyone, not just Catholics who quote James 2.
4) Directly telling someone they are wrong actually helps.
We prepared four main tracts, all were written with Catholics in mind. All had justification by faith alone as a theme. You can find them here. Two of them did not specifically mention that Rome had erred in its teaching on justification.
At the World Meeting of Families we began the week with the two tracts that didn't specifically mention Rome. A few Catholics put two and two together, but not that many as far as I could tell.
Once we introduced a tract that specifically stated we had a disagreement with Rome, we got a much bigger reaction. There were so many more conversations. People were came to us.
Let's remember who the audience largely was at the World Meeting of Families. The vast majority were rather religious Catholics.
When we gave them a tract that told them that trusting in their own works was futile and only faith alone could save provoked a small reaction. Telling this same audience that the same message plus that Rome tells them the opposite got a big reaction.
Maybe having a presence that wasn't directly confrontational in the beginning of the week helped us later in the week. (And by "confrontational" I do not mean angry or yelling or anything like that. Just letting them directly know that Rome has a problem.) But telling them their church was wrong had an impact.
The lesson I learned here is that we can't assume everything is completely clear in even the Catholic with above average commitment levels. Trying to avoid differences can also be a way of avoiding clarity. That doesn't mean that you have to be a jerk when you are discussing your differences. But not bringing up substantive differences is, in my estimation, a bad idea.
5) Sometimes you have to be really, really patient and persistent.
Let me give just one anecdote here. I had a long conversation with a priest. I was explaining my position on the gospel and justification. He kept telling me that Rome believed the same things. However, at one point he stopped and told me something like "You mean you can believe and sin and still be saved." (It's over a year later, this is a paraphrase.)
I became so happy. "You know what you just did? You gave me Paul's anticipated objection from Romans 6:1. This means I gave you the message of Romans 1-5 and you understood it!"
It may take a while for some Catholics (even a priest) to grasp that Rome does indeed teach differently on justification, why relying on any works destroys grace, and what the seriousness of that is.
6) Catholics I talked to were essentially an "unreached people group".
From all of these experiences, including talking to Catholics apart from the World Meeting of Families, I'm convinced many Catholics are an "unreached people group" living in our own backyards.
They don't necessarily know they have to trust in Christ apart from any goodness that resides in them. They aren't aware of what their church is teaching.
When I was growing up Catholic, the impression I got that if you are "in the system" you are OK. Yes, we were told to go to confession, etc. But for many Catholics I believe they exist in a place where it is like a heavy fog is residing. Things aren't clear. By the Lord's mercy, I believe some are trusting in Christ alone.
But I came up with an analogy for that as well. If you knew a bar existed that was poisoning the drinks, would you comfort yourself that some customers weren't imbibing? Or would you do your utmost to get them out of there?
I know this critique is not unique to Catholics. Many Protestants of all stripes belong to churches where the gospel isn't clearly preached.
This poses a problem. We have people in churches who don't know they are Christians. They have some Christianity which makes it harder to get the message across. They don't know they have a need.
7) Why do we want to reach Catholics?
Let's visit the real possibility that Pope Francis and the more theologically liberal elements of Catholicism are gaining control of that church. What happens if Rome retracts (for all practical purposes) the anathemas of Trent?
Are we evangelizing Catholics because they need the gospel or because they put us under an anathema?
I hope that we are evangelizing because they need the gospel. If they remove the anathemas that doesn't automatically mean they have the gospel.