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Today, we continue our series about “How to evangelize.” Often when we think of an evangelist, we think of a travelling preacher, like Billy Graham – someone who speaks to large crowds, converts many people and then moves to another town.
In our Gospel, we see something different. The Gospel says that the good shepherd ‘knows his sheep,” and that the sheep recognize his voice. In the gospel of Luke, the good shepherd goes out looking for ONE lost sheep. While it is true that Jesus spoke to large crowds, afterwards they bring their sick to him – he deals with them one by one. Lives are truly changed one by one – Levi, Peter, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacheus. This is how evangelization TRULY works – one person at a time.
We evangelize one person at a time, because as Patrick Sullivan says – each person is different. Each person is hurting in a different way, each has different questions, fears, prejudices. We must come to understand each person’s unique situation and offer them the spiritual help they need. Evangelization happens one on one because the process of conversion and spiritual growth takes time. The travelling preacher may touch hearts, but often, people don’t change overnight. They may need to think about it, ask questions and be encouraged. They may take a few steps forward and then a few steps back. Evangelization requires a relationship someone who knows the person and takes the time to accompany them along their journey, however long that journey may take.
A good evangelist is not much more than a good friend. St. Josemaria Escriva spoke often of the Apostolate of Friendship. We must be good friends to others and through our friendship, lead them closer to God. It is with their friends that people open up about their problems and challenges. They know that we care about them and for that reason become interested in what we have to say. “Nativity of our Lord” parish in Baltimore has experienced enormous growth over the last decade. Their strategy is simple: “Invest and Invite” They encourage their parishioners to invest time and energy in others – to really get to know people and to help them out. Then once the friendship has reached a certain stage – invite them to come to church.
So, how can we be good friends?
FIRST – Spend time with people. Our time is precious, spending time with someone shows that we care, that we like being around them. How many friends do we have with whom we have said “We need to get together” but it never happens? Take the initiative. A relationship cannot grow unless we invest in it.
SECOND – Listen. St. Francis says “It is better to understand than to be understood” In the work of evangelization we are sometimes too quick to want to make sure someone understands why it is important to go to Mass, or why this or that activity is a sin, yet we do not take time to listen to them, to understand their concerns, their worries and their fears. Listening helps us to understand why they are the way they are, and thus explain the faith in a way that they will understand. Above all, listening is a sign of respect. If someone feels respected, they are more likely to listen to what we have to say.
LASTLY – Be honest. The mark of a true friendship is that you can be yourself with each other. Yet how many of us have friends with whom we never speak about religion? Can we be called real friends if we are hiding a part of ourselves? If we truly love Jesus, we cannot fail to share this with our friends – who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how we personally have experienced his salvation. We might not talk about these things right away when we meet someone, but as the relationship develops it should naturally come up. Otherwise we are being dishonest – and that cannot be called true friendship.
Evangelization happens one person at a time. That is why everyone should play a part. If we leave evangelization to the priest, we will have very little evangelical fruits – I cannot be a friend to many people at the same time. Our parish mission statement indicates that we are a place of participation – evangelization is everyone’s job. Patrick invites each of us to pray and consider – who is the person God is calling me to evangelize? If every parishioner at St. Michael invested in only one friendship and tried to help that person come closer to God, think of the fruits we might see. Even if only one in ten were effective, that would be a hundred new parishioners. If you know how to be a good friend, you already know how to evangelize.