From Explainers to Evangelizers: Beyond Formation Programs

Can you change a culture with a program? I run into a lot of folks involved in parish social ministry who seem to believe so, yet at the same time lament that few people attend their many workshops and presentations. We need to reassess the role that programs play in the formation of evangelizing communities. Some programs serve simply to prepare a small number of passionate actors to enliven their communities in mission. Other programs help people come to a deeper understanding only once a spark has been ignited through a powerful conversion experience. In any case, most of our fellow parishioners will not go through a formal program, and all of us require something deeper in order to grow closer to the Christ of the poor.

We need to stop seeing ourselves so much as explainers and start seeing ourselves as evanglizers. Explainers scold others with the Principles of Catholic Social Teaching; evangelizers share a deep and profound sense of joy that encourages a passion for justice. Explainers tell people what they should care about; evangelizers accompany people on a journey of growing compassion. Explainers rely on arguments and writings to give people "a kick in the pants"; evangelizers appeal to the authority and attraction of love to invite others to greater meaning.

We can look to Jesus and the Early Church for wisdom in this. We may often feel beat down by a culture that seems to reject many of the Gospel principles that we hold dear - compassionate justice, self-giving, communal responsibility, a special love and care for the poor and vulnerable, a focus beyond ourselves and closest friends and family. But the early Christians could say much of the same, and often in the extreme. They were operating among communities whose religious leaders and state leaders rejected their values. And yet, people followed. People joined. People felt attracted to those who healed, those who showed compassion, those who wished them peace - those who came gently as lambs in a world of wolves.

Recently, I facilitated a retreat for a parish group about to embark on a mission trip. In speaking to people at the opening meal, I asked what made them want to go. Again and again, people responded that it was the "great experience" that participants had on the last trip. This "great experience" was one of encounter with God's love in the face of Christ on the margins. Their fellow parishioners had come back rejoicing, and these people felt attracted to that joy. The retreat was a program, but a program situated along their journey. The program did not draw them in, and only mattered to the extent that helped them find God along the way.

We need to embrace our role as evangelizers. We need not only cross the street to the soup kitchen or the border to Cambodia, but also to the next table in the parish hall. We need to seek out with love our fellow parishioners and other community members, share our joy, and share in theirs. This is how we build the foundations of culture of mission. Almost everyone you meet is brimming with love and passion. A community of missionary disciples seeks to accompany one another in growing in that love, and bringing that passion to bear and the lives of our brothers and sisters who hunger, thirst, and mourn.

Kevin Foy is Associate Director for Maryknoll Mission Education in the Western United States.