Rebuilding Your Message: Big Idea #2, Always Be Evangelizing

Continuing to dig deeper  (beyond a review and key takeaways and Big Idea #1: Series) with Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilding Your Message (2015), today we’re highlighting an endemic debate in Catholic (and even wider Christian) preaching–preaching to mixed audiences, audiences of believers, seekers, and everything in-between.

White and Corcoran assert that it’s a pervasive misconception that:

“if you try to reach lost people then you are abandoning the work of growing disciples… preaching to lost people helps church people because it forces you to return again and again to the basics, which our church people need as much as anyone else…[it] keeps us from sinking into theological language and churchy insider language that not just for the lost, but a lot of church people don’t really understand…it strips away the pretense so many congregations operate under that we’re an assembly of fully formed disciples” (p. 157)

I agree–it’s a false dichotomy to pose preaching initial proclamation and response [aka evangelistic preaching] or pre-evangelistic preaching as an either/or or in competition with preaching for discipleship, stewardship, mission, etc. Why? Because these moments and stages in the life of a seeker/believer are just that–stages and phases–they lead into one another, and support one another.

A personal response to the Good News in relationship with Jesus Christ is the essential foundation of all future conversion and integration of the life of a disciple. By re-framing, repeating, reminding, and re-imagining this foundational life-changing conversion (cf. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est §1) time and again in all preaching, we both strengthen and clearly communicate that foundation, so that none walk away with the misconception that “the church just wants my money” or “that parish just wants everyone to be busy and involved.” But instead, walk away understanding “ah ha, Jesus loved me first, as I grow in relationship with Him, empowered by the Holy Spirit, _________________ becomes part of my life and response.”

Secondly, as White and Corcoran note, preaching to mature disciples involves forming believers to be proclaimers, to be evangelists. One of the best ways to “teach” evangelization is to hear the Great Story of Rescue by our Loving God over and over again. In different contexts. With different examples. This is a very human, and very effective way to learn. I see it in my own small children, as they hear a narrative again and again it doesn’t become boring (to them 😉 ), it becomes more real, their ability to retell the story grows. The same is true for us when we hear how much God loves us and how much God does to Rescue us from sin, sadness, and ultimately death.

Finally, we should always be evangelizing in our preaching (regardless of the more proximate or specific topic/theme/purpose) simply because the world needs it.

As a much younger adult, I once heard a fundamentalist Baptist pastor poignantly pour out how regardless of if it was a wedding or a touring choral group the congregation was hosting, he felt the burden of always finding a way to include the initial proclamation and offer a concrete option for response–because what if someone came to visit, just for the music with a deep need for healing in their life? What if that was God’s plan, and he as a pastor decided to take a break and remain silent that night? And I know he’s not the only pastor to discern his words this way.

So what about me?

Lost and Found Bullion
Image: Eric Golub, CC-BY-2.0

As a Catholic pondering the great images of Scripture, I think this applies to us too. the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:3-7) and the Parable of the Lost Coin (Lk 15:8-10) give us striking examples of a preferential care and concern for the “missing” one, the one most in need of foundational Love and healing.

If God acts this way, it’s certainly not wrong for us to use our words similarly, to always cast at least one line (using a fishing metaphor) for those away from the flock, for those whom God loves more than we can ever fathom, this side of eternity!

In closing, avoid creating division over this question. Seek integration, so that while a message might have a main focus of one purpose, it always includes evangelistic invitation and response (even if it’s just in a tangent–presented with clarity and directness). If you feel like “that’s nice, but I don’t have the time”–I urge you to reconsider. Don’t think so small. Be creative. Read a book like Rebuilding Your Message and find the ways to move beyond A vs. B, and find a C option that works for you and opens your preaching, speaking, and teaching up to the Holy Spirit as a way to communicate the Good News of God’s love to everyone.



The Rise of the Memoir and Pre-Evangelization

Memoir as literary genre has become strikingly popular over the past few decades in our culture.

What does this teach us about evangelization and especially pre-evangelization?

In a September 15, 2015 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Catholic writer Mary Karr offered this theory:

GROSS: You have an interesting theory in your book about why memoirs have become so popular. And you could argue they’ve even become more popular than a lot of serious fiction. So you want to share that theory with us?

KARR: Yes. I mean, I think as fiction has become more hyper-intellectual or dystopic or unreal, I think people hungry for the real – for real, lived experience, have been forced to migrate to memoir.

The real. The authentic. Humanness. Beauty, joy, and goodness–and/or lack of it. These are connecting points that can reveal our true humanity and desire for God, the essence of pre-evangelization.

Pre-evangelization is discovering and uncovering hunger. Discovering that there’s something more, something transcendent in life–and that the most fundamental human values and experiences (i.e. love) are (even if shadowy or obscured) evidence that God exists and we are created in God’s image.

The popularity of memoirs shows this cultural hunger for authentic human experience. Sharing the Gospel necessarily includes proclaimation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior–the “initial proclamation,” as it’s called in Church teaching. Yet in many situations, before this liberating truth can be heard, a person must experience curiosity about God or the spiritual life. Cooperating with the Holy Spirit, we can help our neighbors, peers, co-workers, and family members recognize this God-sized hole by not simply sharing doctrine, Bible quotes, or Catechism passages in a vacuum–but sharing in the context of our authentic human experience. Faith is not an abstract set of propositions. Christian faith is becoming more fully human through life-giving relationship with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. You have a story to share.

As Timothy O’Brien recounted after an interview with Karr:

So while she’s willing to talk quite openly about her faith in a voice much louder than a whisper, Karr still thinks it’s her duty to “translate my spiritual experiences” so that they can be heard today, in an age where “doubt is the American religion, and whoever believes the least wins.” This is especially true in light of her belief, mentioned several times, that she is writing primarily (though not exclusively) for a secular audience. Practically, this means that “in talking about my faith, even with people who believe, I lead with my doubt.” In her view, this is not solely a matter of speaking in a way people can hear – it’s a matter of accurately portraying the life of faith: “the truth is that love and grace don’t really read on the page unless you set them next to fear and trembling. I want to write about moments of joy, but it’s hard to show it except in relief to suffering.”

And this isn’t some radical new idea. Read the New Testament. Doubt is prominent, suffering is present–but in sharing these real, authentic human moments, we also find new freedom and poignant truth.

The simple lesson for evangelization? Keep it real. Share your faith in a way that answers our culture’s hunger for “real, lived experience.”

A version of this post originally appeared at

Pre-Evangelization, Labor Day, and Desire for God

How can we share our faith with others when the people around us just aren’t interested in “religious” things? You know–the situations where the mere mention of “Church” or “Jesus” would bring the conversation to a standstill. It’s called pre-evangelization.

Pre-evangelization is our Christian witness and dialogue (General Directory for Catechesis, §47-48). It’s the conversations we have where we don’t explicitly proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, but we do show how basic human needs include a desire for God, a longing for the transcendent–for something more. When followers of Jesus transform communities and the world and live in a new way–this is part of the dynamic of pre-evangelization.

The idea of pre-evangelization is important because it’s a reminder to each of us that before many people are ready, interested, able, or even willing to hear the Gospel message, they need to first recognize that desire for God, the desire for something more. When we find the touch points that allow us to make these meaningful connections with those around us, we’re doing pre-evangelization.

Our civic holiday today in the United States, Labor Day, offers a great opportunity for this kind of dialogue.

Work is part of our basic human existence. It’s something almost everyone can relate to, regardless of whether “work” means paid-employment, volunteering, care giving, parenting, or being a student. But most Americans struggle to make sense of work. Are we supposed to like it? What about when we don’t? How do we avoid a system where people are trapped in jobs that don’t pay enough to sustain one’s family? Does our choice of work set or shape our identity? Do I work too much or too little? Would my work be satisfying if I was paid more or less? What if my work isn’t not my real calling? How do I balance work and personal relationships?

Part of the richness of Church teaching is that it includes centuries of meditation on these oh-so-human questions. As Pope Francis asserted, “Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment” (Laudato Si, §128). Don’t be afraid to enter into conversations with friends and family members about basic human realities, like work. Ask others what they think. Listen. Explore how work does or does not connect to a person’s spiritual beliefs [remember, most Americans have spiritual beliefs even if they don’t identify as “religious”]. Share how your understanding of God illuminates the reality of work. How your challenge as a Christian, living a transformed life is to experience work “at its best” as “a deeply holy thing that ought to honor our dignity as we help God ‘maintain the fabric of the world’” (Laudato Si, §128). Share what troubles you about work in our world, how the God-inspired dignity and basic humanity of all persons is not affirmed and respected when work becomes a form of oppression and opportunity for sin and injustice.

When those we witness to are nudged toward considering the basic human desire for God, for a deeper purpose to work, for transcendence in the everyday world, we’re doing pre-evangelization. With the help of the Holy Spirit, the space we create and spark we inspire through our pre-evangelistic witness around the most basic human realities (even something as mundane as our work) cultivates the conditions for curiosity about the God who teaches us to think so differently about our world.

Yes, we want to be ready to give the initial proclamation of God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ at all times. But, if the person we’re encountering isn’t curious, isn’t yet sure that spiritual longing even exists, this is where pre-evangelization fills a gap and creates opportunities for on-going relationship and conversation.

This post originally appeared at

Evangelistic Preaching (Part 5) — Diverse Stages of Evangelization, Diverse Preaching

This is the fifth post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

We left off in Part 4 with the idea that Catholic homiletics includes many types of preaching that are complementary. This complementarity is aligned with our understanding of evangelization.

We use the language of stages of evangelization…

Slide15And so to see how preaching is essential at each stage, we can overlay the kinds of preaching we hear alluded to in Church documents, and described in Fulfilled in Your Hearing:


Masses on certain holidays—i.e. Easter and Christmas—ought to incorporate a primarily evangelistic sermon out of pastoral necessity. Likewise, most Eucharistic homilies in parishes should include at least some pre-evangelistic or evangelistic “feelers.” However, the Eucharistic homily’s purpose is not pre-evangelization or initial proclamation.

Evangelistic preaching then is a necessary part of the fullness of Catholic preaching, especially within the context of the New Evangelization’s focus on a fundamental response to Jesus Christ. This leads to our next logical question, what should evangelistic preaching be like in a Catholic setting?

Learning From Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers’ “Why Be Catholic?” — Part 2

A few weeks ago I offered notes from Deacon Harold’s presentation at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend. This is Part 2 of stepping back and thinking about (and hopefully learning!) from his  style and content. (Here’s Part 1).

Thinking About Deacon Burke-Sivers’ Talk/Sermon

Great recognition and application of the stages of evangelization. Deacon Harold made it very clear that it’s important to really engage with where people are at, i.e. while St. Thomas Aquinas might offer a moving (and certainly valuable) justification for the existence of God, St. Thomas Aquinas is not likely to have the same weight or pull on an unbeliever as he might on us. So, we need to start with real basics, without immediately jumping to quotations from our tradition (even if they are from some of the greatest Christian thinkers in history!). In this example, he demonstrated some of the unique considerations of pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching. 

Importance of pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching. Pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching are mentioned in Fulfilled in Your Hearing (1982, USCCB), but don’t receive a full explanation or description. I think Deacon Harold provided a great example of what this might look like in a Catholic context. In Show Me How to Preach Evangelistic Sermons, R. Larry Moyer notes that many “Church leaders who rarely speak to an audience of non-Christians feel very comfortable before their own people but may lack confidence before an audience of unbelievers” (p. 17). This is probably true for us as Catholics as well. Ask many priests, ministers, and catechists if they’d rather prepare a talk on the existence of God to be presented to “seekers” or indifferent agnostics, or a talk on the spirituality of Catholic marriage to be given at a diocesean family life conference –and most would probably choose the later.

By preaching evangelically and apologetically, Deacon Harold was modeling for us how we can start these same conversations (confidently!) with those we may interact with. This reveals the reality that while pre-evangelistic and evangelistic messages are directed at non-believers (by definition), hearing these messages greatly edifies and helps believers as well because we learn through example how to articulate our faith. Deacon Harold’s message was such that an unbeliever could connect to it and engage with his points without being distracted by too much “church” language or terminology–at the same time the predominately Catholic audience could learn apologetics by example. 

Was Deacon Harold preaching or speaking? Does it matter? I asked this question (in a general sense) to a group of about 2o Divinity students, seminarians, ministers, and professors a few weeks ago in a discussion seminar following my talk on Evangelistic Preaching. I think this is an open question for reflection, and received some valuable comments from the group. One seminarian pointed out that using the word preaching is important, because it implies a specific relationship with the Word of God. It signals that the person speaking has allowed the Word to place a claim on them. It signals to the hearers that this is not just information being presented, but a privileged encounter with the Word of God in faith. Sr. Jamie Phelps, O.P., added that sometimes, however, the word preaching is confusing for hearers since it is often not through of in the broad sense that would include non-liturgical preaching or preaching by any baptized believer (in contrast with the uniquely clerical preaching of Eucharistic homilies).  

In principle, I agree with the seminarian, that preaching is a powerful term. We shouldn’t toss it around flippantly, but by recognizing and claiming the power of preaching the Word of God, we are making a statement of faith. We shouldn’t shy away from making that claim when done in proper humility, preparation, and communion with the local church (diocesean bishop).  Yet, it is true that while this is theologically correct–some people might be confused (and possibly put off) by a non-liturgical evangelistic sermon given by a baptized (non-cleric) male in a Catholic parish being called preaching.

Deacon Harold is (obviously 🙂 ) an ordained deacon, but the question of preaching outside of liturgy still exists. As a member of the audience for his talk, it truly felt like I was listening to preaching (great preaching at that!). His talk was rooted in the Word and deeply grounded in prayer. I would be comfortable defending the claim that he did more than just give a talk, he preached (to use the terms of Stephen Wright) a teaching/evangelistic sermon.

EvangelizationFaith FormationPreaching | Tagged 

Visual Depiction of the Cycle and Stages of Evangelization

I’m back from a brief hiatus on blogging last week due to preparing for a talk on evangelistic preaching in Catholic parishes–basically what it means to preach for initial proclamation, some strategies for preparing sermons of this genre, and ways to integrate this preaching into parish life in support of the New (and old) Evangelization. I’ll be posting parts of the talk in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I’d like to share an attempt to visually depict the complexity of evangelization as described in Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), Pope John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio (1990), Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue’s Dialogue and Proclamation (1991), the Second Vatican Council’s Ad Gentes (1965), and Pope John Paul II’s Catechesi Tradendae (1979).


I offer this with the recognition, as Paul VI writes, that “any partial and fragmentary definition which attempts to render the reality of evangelization in all its richness, complexity and dynamism does so only at the risk of impoverishing it and even of distorting it” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 17). However, attempting to capture and integrate all of the aspects of evangelization present in our Catholic faith shows how rich and deep our understanding is, as well as illuminating the many ways we as Church evangelize.

What do you think of the visual depiction? What would you add or change? 

Update! I received the excellent question from a colleague and classmate, Matt Flynn, what about Confirmation? I think the simple answer, is that the word, Baptism, inside the purple oval should be replaced with Initiation–encompassing baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. Thanks Matt 🙂