How to evangelize in a post-Christian world
It was the beginning of February 2019 and my team was running a retreat for a group of students of Calgary. We’d had a pretty good day up to that point. Our meet, greet, and mingle time was less awkward than usual, we’d formed some good relationships in small groups and students were starting to open up about some pretty raw parts of their lives. It was cold outside (it was Calgary in February) and it was time for us to walk across the street to the little church that stood there for prayer ministry. As we packed the 80 some students into the church and made our rounds to pray with each of our small group members, the time approached that all of us looked forward to on every retreat day.
“The Commit” as we called it was a new retreat element that involved an explicit proclamation of the Gospel and an invitation for the students to respond by standing up in the pew and accepting Jesus into their hearts. It was pretty exciting and as the dramatic music played behind a perfectly crafted message we watched as the vast majority of the students stood up and prayed a prayer to give their lives to Christ. My teammates walked around the room taking note of which students stood so they could follow up in small group. It was a beautiful moment.
What could be wrong with that? Seems pretty harmless right? We thought so too, until the principal of the school, who was also a NET Alumni, shared something with us that changed how we approached ministry. He sat down with us and told us that he loved the idea behind The Commit and how practical it was but warned us about our presentation. I very clearly remember him saying “The moment when a young person encounters God is totally organic and mysterious. Don’t mess with it.” Was it possible that our dramatic music and brilliantly designed emotional moment was actually interfering with genuine encounter?
I think that while what we did that day may not have been absolutely horrible or ruining someone’s concept of God but I do think that it strayed away from something that NET has become very good at. Relational ministry has become somewhat of a buzzword in the Catholic Church and many of us will slap it onto the ministry we do because it involves evangelizing in the context of conversation.
More than catechesis, more than theology lessons, more than a brilliantly programmed Life Night, the world today is looking for deep and authentic relationships. We’ve noticed this in young people but we’ve also found it to be more and more true of the entire global population. Relational ministry is not about knowing the most or being the smartest, it’s about being able to connect with people on a deep level and through that connection, reveal to them what a deep relationship with God looks and feels like.
Something important to note about relational ministry is that it is not methodical. Many have asked NET to produce high quality resources to use in youth ministry but through our 25 years of ministering to young people we have discovered that our strength is not in resources and content, it is in building up high quality missionaries. A friend of mine shared with me that he has a daughter in a school where one of our Discipleship Ministry teams operates. He shared with me that she’s always talking about “the NET team” but not sharing about the talk that they gave or the event that they ran, she’s talking about the intentional time that a missionary spent with her. We’ve realized that while our missionaries might go on the road without knowing how to give a perfect talk, we’ve sent out incredible young adults who, through just their presence, can be a vessel for the person of Jesus to a young person who may not know Him.
I read an article a while back called “The Early Church Never ‘Shared the Gospel’ and Neither Should We.” I was very struck by this controversial title and as I read I found myself agreeing with the author’s point. He didn’t excuse people from preaching and proclaiming (like the infamous misquote allegedly attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi “preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words). He pointed out that the early Church simply sowed the seed by simply proclaiming the Gospel without fear and inviting people to respond. They didn’t feel the need to convince people to believe, they simply invited.
This is the heart of relational ministry. Invitation. It’s not about sharing the perfect message, it’s not about spending years trying to convince someone that they need Jesus; it’s about genuinely loving them, building relationships with them, and ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT JESUS. If you are truly friends with someone and you are honestly and earnestly seeking out a relationship with God in your own life, it would actually be manipulative to not proclaim the Gospel! If Jesus is truly a deep and important part of your life, of course He should be coming up in conversation!
The reason why relational ministry works is because it is relationship building without agenda. We aren’t befriending someone for the sole purpose of converting them. Ultimately conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, not us! All we are doing is loving our brothers and sisters with the genuine love Jesus intended for us and seeking out God in our lives. If these two things are present, the only thing we need to do is get over that hurdle of fear and talk about Jesus!!! All we have to do is be totally unafraid and unashamed to invite someone into a relationship with God.
When your life comes to an end and you find yourself before the throne room of God, I promise you that you will not regret having proclaimed the Gospel in your deepest relationships. If we are not timid in proclaiming Jesus in our lives, He will not say to the Father “I do not know you.” Let us not be like Peter in the courtyard during Jesus’ trial, denying his relationship with the Saviour of the world. Let us instead be bold and unafraid with the people we love and start the conversation. There is no greater gift we can give than the proclamation of the Gospel. Let’s begin!
James Pereira, NET Alumni