By Eric Sammons - OSV Newsweekly, 2/13/2011
In the world of sales, the going motto is that you need to sell the results, not the product. You don’t sell toothpaste — you sell white teeth. Evangelization is not the same thing as sales, but both seek to influence the decision-making of another person, so we who are sharing our faith with others can learn something from sales techniques.
When speaking to a stranger, it is rarely helpful to start by overwhelming the other person with the details of the Church’s position on “hot-button” issues. Instead, the initial focus should be on the joyful, fulfilling life that flows from following the Church’s teachings. For example, no one gets married to end up divorced, but the fact remains that many, many couples do end up divorced. This is a problem for which the Church has a definite solution. If we emphasize that following the Church’s teachings greatly improves one’s chances of having a lasting, fulfilling marriage, we are more likely to find a receptive audience.
Here is one example of how this approach can be taken. Most people — including too many Catholics — are resistant to the teaching on natural family planning (NFP) and would be slow to hear a message that emphasized NFP first. However, the divorce rate among NFP couples is less than 1 percent (see www.physiciansforlife.org/content/view/193/36/) — a microscopically low rate in today’s culture. So a message that began, “Would you be interested in something that could radically reduce your chances of divorce?” is much more likely to be well received.
Obviously this method of evangelization can be taken to a harmful extreme: selling an “experience” separated from the content of the Faith. But offering the Faith — even the “hot-button” issues — as the gateway to a life-changing experience has an established pedigree. Jesus himself used this method on numerous occasions, including his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (see Jn 4:1-42). Almost immediately after meeting the woman, Jesus tells her about living water — water that quenches one’s thirst permanently. Now he has intrigued the woman — who wouldn’t want such water? So the woman responds by asking — begging, even — for the water that this stranger offers. With her heart opened, Jesus is able to gently lead her to realize that the way she has been living her life is harmful, and he offers her a better way. Had he immediately started his conversation with, “Did you know that your lifestyle is immoral?” it is unlikely that he would have been able to touch this woman so deeply.
We can never be afraid to proclaim the Gospel in all its fullness — “hard sayings” included. But we should always work to help others to be open to those hard sayings by emphasizing that their lives can be radically transformed by the Gospel. Then, like the Samaritan woman, they will be imploring us to learn more rather than running from the truth.
When establishing the Church, Jesus did not choose theologians or well-spoken religious leaders. Instead, he chose fishermen and tax collectors and asked them to spread his teachings throughout the known world. And, amazingly, they did just that. St. Peter would probably flunk out of any theological school today, yet he was able to bring thousands of people into the Church. St. Paul, although he had a trained theological background, did not base his preaching on theological and philosophical concepts and theories; in fact, the one time he did, he had only limited success (see Acts 17:16-34).
So how did these first evangelists spread the Gospel? By personal witness. They didn’t try to prove that Jesus was divine — they simply related what Jesus had done for them. They didn’t attempt to debate theological fine points — instead they powerfully proclaimed that Jesus changed their lives for the better.
A direct experience of the Risen Christ: This qualified someone to spread the Good News; in fact, that is how Peter described the duty of an apostle — as someone who could “become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:22). The Christian faith spread throughout the Roman Empire because followers of Christ were willing to tell others that Jesus is alive, and that a relationship with him is life-changing.
The same is true today. We live in a society that values personal witness. Many people today reject any type of logical or philosophical argumentation — they’ve got nothing to do with “real life” — but they are willing to listen to someone tell the story about how his life changed for the better. Every person, furthermore, has a story to tell. Whether you are someone who had multiple abortions and then converted to the Catholic faith or someone who has always accepted the tenets of the Church, you have a story about how Jesus has changed your life. So many people search everywhere for a way to better their life — through fame, or technology, or sex, or any of the other gods our society puts forth — and many of them begin to realize that these false idols do not bring happiness or peace. But when you proclaim that you have found that peace and it comes through a relationship with Christ in the Catholic Church, you give the Holy Spirit an entry to work in the hearts of the unsatisfied.
The most powerful evangelization is often simply telling your story. No prior theological training necessary.
The following is based on an actual encounter that took place between a Catholic mother and a stranger:
A Catholic mom is walking down the grocery-store aisle, her four children in tow. Just as she has nearly determined which brand of peanut butter is the best deal — all the while keeping her infant happy and her other children at peace — a woman approaches …
Lady: Excuse me, are all these kids yours?
Mom: Yes (smiling, but thinking, “Oh, brother”).
L: Four? You have four?
M: Yes, three girls and a boy. (Still smiling and wondering how personal this conversation is going to get.)
L: How old are they?
M: My youngest is 14 months and my oldest is 7.
L: How do you do it? I mean, how do you manage?
M: Oh, it’s a lot of work, but it’s actually a lot of fun, too. The older kids are really helpful, and we just enjoy being together (as one sister elbows another).
L: I don’t think I could ever handle all of that. I’m exhausted with just my two kids.
M: How old are they?
L: Two and 4.
M: Well, it really does get easier as they get older. I think having two was harder than having four is! They entertain each other — never a dull moment!
L: I guess you’re finished now, right? You aren’t having any more children, are you?
M: Oh, I hope we will — whatever God sends us. We do feel overwhelmed sometimes, but we feel really privileged to have this great family.
L: But how can you afford it? Your husband must have a great job.
M: (laughing) Oh no — but we’ve learned to live simply. We don’t take big vacations, but we’re amazed at how much fun we can have in the backyard. The kids are worth sacrificing for, you know?
L: Wow. Thank you so much. My husband and I have been talking about having another baby, but I was really nervous about it. You are so calm! You make me feel like I could do it, too!
M: Well I sure hope you do! Kids are great!
Catholic Answers: The go-to resource for Catholic apologetics. Contains a dynamic forum with participants who can help address just about any issue that might arise in conversations with non-Catholics (www.catholic.com).
Catholics Come Home: A relatively new apostolate that has produced some life-changing videos highlighting the power and beauty of the Catholic faith (www.catholicscomehome.org).
Catherine of Siena Institute: An apostolate to help parishes form laypeople for evangelization (www.siena.org).
The Holy Bible: It is imperative that Catholics know their Bibles, for it is only in the Scriptures that we find God’s Word in God’s words.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: Whenever a specific question about the Catholic faith arises, this should be the first place to look. Clear and comprehensive.
Catholicism for Dummies: An easy-to-read resource that gives the “basics” of Catholicism, written by authors John Trigilio & Kenneth Brighenti.
National Right to Life Committee: www.nrlc.org
USCCB Pro-Life Activities: www.usccb.org/prolife
One More Soul: www.onemoresoul.com
Theology of the Body: www.theologyofthebody.net
“From Scandal to Hope,” by Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R. (OSV, $9.95)
“Pope Benedict XVI and the Sex Abuse Crisis,” by Gregory Erlandson & Matthew Bunson (OSV, $12.95)
Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: www.catholicscripturecommentary.com
St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology: www.salvationhistory.com/
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