SHREWSBURY — On a rainy Saturday in March, about 125 Catholics packed the Fleur de Lis Room in the basement of the Archdiocese of St. Louis headquarters in Shrewsbury. Most of those in the room were older. Most were laypeople. Many were representing their parishes.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that they gathered here to learn how to spread the faith, a concept that is both fundamental to Christianity and nearly foreign to modern Roman Catholics.
For the first hour of the conference, Kenneth Livengood, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Parish in St. Ann, detailed one way — door-to-door evangelization, a missionary strategy more familiar to Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses.
"We've been tricked into thinking faith is a private matter," Livengood told the audience. "That's a lie. Faith is meant to be public, and there are many ways to share it."
He taught them how to form a door-to-door ministry, explained how to divide a boundary map of their parish to more easily evangelize in geographical sections, suggested useful handouts to carry, gave safety tips and showed videos that detailed the best way to respond to various reactions from those on the other side of the door.
"Divide up into teams of two," Livengood said. "One of you can do the talking, and the other should be a silent prayer warrior. At the next house, flip your roles."
Evangelization is central to the Christian mission, but for the average adherent the physical act of approaching a neighbor, work colleague or family member can be daunting.
An Archdiocese of St. Louis pamphlet called "Witnessing Christ Door-to-Door" handed out at the conference offered a list of suggestions "since this may be a novel, perhaps, intimidating path."
The suggestions include:
- "Ask each person you meet if they are in need of prayer."
- "Early Saturday mornings may not make for the most receptive ears."
- "Trying to provide too many facts about the Church may cause misunderstandings."
- "Doing a little role-playing before going out for visits may be helpful."
- "Sometimes a person answering the door thinks getting back to regular Mass attendance would make their grandmothers very happy, which might present a welcoming start for conversation."
Going door to door "is not really a Catholic practice that we've done often in the past," said the Rev. Stephen Bevans, professor of mission and culture at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. "There have been so many of us we haven't had to do it."
In the final scene of the Gospel of Matthew, the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee. He tells them — in what has come to be called the "Great Commission" — to make new disciples by "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."
It is this instruction that propels evangelicals to make converts by spreading the Gospel. The term "gospel" comes from "euaggelion," the Greek word for "good announcement," and refers to the genre or style of writing — a proclamation of "good news."
Catholics are no less engaged by the Great Commission, but over the last century, the church and its reliance on evangelizing through the example of its social justice mission (feeding the poor, building hospitals) has relieved those in the pews from having to knock on a neighbor's door.
Some newer denominations are more accustomed to evangelization. The Rev. Cecil Robeck, an Assemblies of God minister in the group of churches comprising the world's largest Pentecostal denomination, sees a contrast.
"In some older churches people are not used to talking about faith in personal terms," said Robeck, a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary.
"These conferences are probably helping them understand their own faith as much as it's helping them help others understand the Catholic church."
"Over the last 25 years, the Catholic church has said, Our strong social agenda is all well and good, but we need to be vocal about our faith as well," said Robeck.
In the late 1980s, Bevans said, Pope John Paul II began referring to "the new evangelization" as a strategy of bringing lapsed Catholics in Europe back into the church.
In his book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," the pope wrote that, in fact, evangelization "has never been absent" in the church. He quoted the apostle Paul from the book of I Corinthians: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!"
But John Paul was also concerned about stolen sheep. In a reference to the Pentecostal movement that has challenged the Catholic church's dominance of Latin America, the pope told Latin American bishops in 1992 to "feed the flock entrusted to you, and defend it from rapacious wolves."
Pope Benedict XVI made his predecessor's "new evangelism" a central theme of his papacy, even convening a month-long meeting of bishops from around the world last fall to discuss it.
During a speech to his fellow cardinals in Rome last year, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and a Ballwin native, called evangelization "the sacred duty," saying in the words of St. Augustine that it is "ever ancient, ever new."
"The how of it, the when of it, the where of it, may change, but the charge remains constant," Dolan said.
Many observers have cited Pope Francis' humble behavior since his election last month as its own kind of evangelization.
"There's a kind of simplicity in the man," said Bevans. "He's not wearing the red shoes, for instance. He washed the feet of two women on Holy Thursday. It's the little things."
He said images from when Francis stopped to bless a disabled man during the papal inauguration were especially powerful.
"There you see the face of Jesus," Bevans said. "That's what evangelization is about."
Last fall, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson published a pastoral letter on evangelization called "Go and Announce the Gospel of the Lord."
"... there is a need for a 're-evangelization', or 'new evangelization', directed now, not to far-off individuals, but to people in our own families, neighborhoods and parishes who don't know what it means to live as a disciple of Christ," Carlson wrote.
Julie Bostick, executive director of the St. Louis archdiocese's office of laity and family life, said the archdiocese would hold another "how to" conference in June, focusing on evangelizing in the family. Another in the fall will tackle evangelizing in the workplace.
A part of the archdiocese's website is dedicated to evangelization efforts, and it sends out a newsletter to those interested in the topic. One of the purposes of the evangelism conferences is for parish leaders to bring that information — and perhaps the same speakers — back to their own parishes to spread the word.
"Sometimes people get a little nervous talking about their faith, but spread the message of Jesus Christ has always been the mission of the church," Bostick said. "We're just trying to refocus."