When Evangelical is Not Enough

Sherry Weddell

When we moved our office to Colorado Springs I did not understand how different life would be in the "Evangelical Vatican." Over 100 national and international evangelical Protestant organizations make their home here including Focus On the Family. We have no skyscrapers, only "purple mountain majesties" (America the Beautiful was inspired by the view from Pikes Peak) and gigantic churches with names like "Radiance" or "New Life" that dominate the corners and hilltops. Visible, unapologetic faith is much more a part of the public scene here than would ever be imagined in Seattle.

When I drop into my local dry cleaner's or Mail Boxes, Etc., the staff is listening to Christian talk radio. During a recent morning walk, a friendly older man wanted to demonstrate his dog's best trick. I witnessed the apparently charismatic pooch "praise the Lord" by rising on her hind legs and waving her paws in the air on command. Honest.

If I walk into the local discount warehouse, the genial older gentleman who greets me will very likely bellow a few bars of "Amazing Grace." The first time I heard it, my West Coast urbanite paranoia kicked in. Grabbing my husband's arm I gasped, "He's singing a Christian hymn in a public place. He can't do that! He'll be fired for sure." Six months later, he's still singing at the top of his lungs. I now know that Colorado Springs shoppers consider him a bit of local color rather than a one-man assault on the separation of church and state.

While most Catholics would shrivel like salted slugs at the prospect of singing religious solos in a discount warehouse, the general acceptance locally testifies to the prevalence of evangelical culture and how it affects our response to religious expressions. Part of a culture's power is its ability to make certain aspects of reality visible and obvious by what it affirms or emphasizes. At the same time, it renders other dimensions of life virtually invisible by what it denies or ignores. One of the ironies of the American scene is that although Catholics have been the largest Christian communion in the US for 150 years (we are nearly four times the size of the next-largest: the Southern Baptist Convention), the primary Christian cultural influence in America today is evangelical Protestantism.

This creates a problem for Catholics because Evangelical belief is rooted in the 500-year-old Protestant denial of essential Catholic doctrines and practices. Many of the early Reformers taught that Catholic beliefs-the ordained priesthood, the episcopate, the teaching authority of the Church, the intercession of the saints, and the sacraments- were not part of apostolic Christianity but were later corrupting additions that obscured the Gospel.

For most evangelicals, the repudiation of Catholic values and beliefs is no longer conscious. The bitterness of the 16th century is gone (thank heaven!) but a stripped-down Protestant worldview is still their unquestioned map of the spiritual universe. In the minds of many, authentic Christianity is evangelical Protestantism, period.

This notion was driven home to me once again after a recent lunch with a publishing director for a huge evangelical organization in town. My gracious host gave me several back copies of their journal. One article began "Despite over 150 years of Christian evangelism, the Gospel has not been widely embraced by Asia's people" (Interlit, "Theological Publishing in Southeast Asia," Soonim Lee, October 2001). The only problem with this statement is that it ignores 650 years of successful Catholic evangelization in Asia. Lee's understanding of history renders invisible the millions of Catholics who endured terrible persecution in central Asia, Japan, China, Vietnam, India, and Korea for their faith in Jesus Christ during the centuries before Protestant missionaries arrived. Although the heroic saga of Asian Catholicism is well known, I am certain that the author did not intend to falsify history. It just never occurred to him or to his editor that Catholic history is part of Christian history.

Mere Christianity?

If Catholics are to be successful in forming lay apostles, we must understand that the majority of practicing American Christians today (including a significant number of Catholics) regard evangelical Protestantism as foundational, "mere" Christianity-in what it affirms, in what it denies, and in what it ignores. From this perspective, Catholic distinctives are at worst a dangerous corruption, or at best questionable spiritual frills-decorative cultural icing on an essentially Protestant cake. So powerful is the identification of basic Christianity with evangelical Protestantism in the US that some Catholics use the term "Christian," as do many evangelicals, to mean "non-Catholic"!

Millions of American Catholics, especially those who most earnestly seek to follow Christ, have been deeply influenced by evangelical thought. Evangelicals dominate the popular Christian resources that many lay Catholics turn to for help in their spiritual journey: religious television and radio (there are over 1200 evangelical Protestant radio stations and only 42 Catholic stations in the US), contemporary Christian music, bookstores, websites, and ministries by and for the laity. Hundreds of participants at our own workshops have told me that they have been, or are currently involved with, evangelical groups or programs.

Programs for sale

In a new twist, Catholic parishes and dioceses have begun turning to evangelical ministries and models for help in a variety of areas, from Bible study to gifts discernment to evangelism. Sensing a huge new market for their products, some national evangelical ministries are now specifically targeting Catholics. I have been approached myself by Protestant ministries looking for help to revamp their materials for a Catholic audience. The overwhelming majority of these evangelical pioneers are not seeking to "convert" Catholics into Protestants but to help them become mature disciples of Jesus Christ. The problem is that their understanding of Christian maturity is not a Catholic understanding.

As Catholics, we respect our evangelical brothers and sisters for their efforts to follow Christ's command to "make disciples of all nations." We are challenged by their zeal in communicating Christ to every person in every generation. Evangelicals are extremely sensitive to cultural change and its effect on the proclamation of the Gospel, and they have often devised inspired and innovative methods to more effectively reach each new generation. What Catholics need to hear most from evangelical Christians is their insistence that encountering Christ should be profoundly life-changing and the corollary that if people's lives aren't changing, something is wrong in our proclamation of Christ.

But it is also important to remember what we cannot learn from evangelicals. Evangelical Protestantism is only 60 years old, emerging from American fundamentalism at the end of World War II. In that brief time, it has spread with breath-taking speed and there are now hundreds of millions of evangelicals around the world. But Catholic Christianity has a living memory of 20 centuries of seeking to follow Christ in every culture on earth; it is still far larger and infinitely broader and deeper. Catholic theological, intellectual, and cultural traditions; contemplative spirituality; liturgical and sacramental life; and sophisticated teachings in the area of social justice have no equal in the evangelical world. Compared to the banquet that 2000 years of Catholic prayer, tradition, and life offer, evangelicalism is seriously impoverished-a sort of spiritual "Lean Cuisine." A person can live on it, but why would anyone want to if Christ calls us to so much more?

Differences: subtle but real

Eager, apostolically-minded Catholics are often drawn to Protestant evangelical programs that seem to change people's lives. Unfortunately, as every good teacher knows, good will does not render students immune to the disease of unintended effects: those we form will learn not only the content that we are trying to teach but the worldview behind that content. When this backdrop is the evangelical worldview, large parts of the historic Christian tradition become invisible. Consequently, Lay Catholics absorb an "abridged" Christian worldview founded upon the denial or ignorance of Catholic essentials. They come to view truly Catholic spirituality as unnecessary, foreign, or hopelessly complex. To our chagrin, we may find that in using evangelical approaches in Catholic lay formation, without first vetting and amending them, we are deforming Catholics rather than forming apostles.

The problem of the evangelical worldview in Catholic formation programs can manifest itself in subtle ways. I recently came across a Bible study guide for Catholics intended for novices in which the Catholic author assured her readers several times that the Holy Spirit will "teach you everything" (John 14:26). Never once did she mention that the Word of God comprises Church Tradition and Scripture together, nor did she refer to the critical role of the Magisterium in interpreting God's Word. In her laudable attempt to help Catholics become familiar with the Bible, the author inadvertently vaccinated her readers against the Catholic understanding of Scripture. Despite her good intentions, her silence in these critical areas renders the true source and context of Scripture invisible. Earnest and open Catholic readers will very likely absorb the evangelical belief that the Bible alone is the Word of God, something separate from the teaching of the Church, and that its true meaning is obvious and sufficiently understandable by prayerful individuals. It is highly unlikely they would guess that the Church had anything essential to say on the matter at all.

Evangelization is another area where things get confused when Catholics draw upon evangelical expertise. Catholics and evangelicals both want people to have life-changing encounters with the risen Christ, something all believing Christians desire for everyone. I have talked to hundreds of Catholics around the country whose lives have been changed through an experience of a personal encounter with Jesus. Some conversions were quiet but profound. Others were dramatic knocked-off- your-horse, mind-blowing, convention-shattering experiences that completely reoriented lives. What separates Catholics from evangelicals is not the experience of conversion but how that experience is interpreted.

A Catholic approach would assure the newly awakened disciple that initial conversion, however dramatic or quiet, is merely the first step in a lifelong journey of love. The next step for a follower of Jesus is membership in Christ's visible body on earth, the Church, and participation in her worship and sacraments, which are powerful ongoing encounters with Christ and his life-changing grace. However, a new believer's spiritual experience can be interpreted for her or him in a way that obscures the sacraments, leading the neophyte to regard them as nothing more than memorials of the "real" event which took place entirely within the new disciple's psyche.

A case in point

One example of such an interpretation comes from Alpha, which began in an evangelical Anglican church in London; it is a ten-week, parish-based, evangelistic outreach now used (with a "Catholic addendum") in Catholic parishes and dioceses all over the world. When I first heard of Alpha, I was quite excited. Here was an evangelically-inspired approach to sharing Christ with the unchurched that seemed to really work and was being used effectively by Catholics. I went through their formal leadership training and talked to Catholic leaders around the country about their experiences with Alpha. Only when I was asked to give a live presentation of one of the programmed talks, however, did I review the videotaped presentations and accompanying booklets in detail. It was then that I realized the content had significant problems from a Catholic point of view.

From a Catholic perspective, becoming a Christian and being saved are related but not identical. One becomes a Christian through baptism into Christ's life and death-an act that forgives all sins, bestows sanctifying grace, and serves as the doorway to Christian life and salvation. Salvation, on the other hand, is not an act or event but rather a lifelong process that follows baptism. Salvation is the process of being made Christ-like by a lifetime of freely accepting and cooperating with God's unmerited grace made available to believers primarily (but not exclusively) through the liturgy, sacraments, prayer, and acts of charity. All the baptized are real Christians but not all real Christians are necessarily saved. Individuals can always freely refuse to cooperate with the grace that is freely bestowed.

In contrast, Alpha portrays salvation as a one-time event. At the end of the third session, participants are invited to pray privately, asking Christ to forgive their sins and to invite him into their lives as Lord and Savior. The following session, their experience of having encountered Jesus in prayer is interpreted for them. The participants are assured that as a result of their prayer the previous week, they are now Christians who have received forgiveness for all their sins and the promise of eternal life.

No reference is made, of course, either to the sacraments or to the Church as being channels of saving grace, an omission consistent with Alpha's evangelical worldview. Given the way Alpha contextualizes the topic, those already baptized could hardly be blamed for reaching the conclusion that they were not real Christians before they prayed that prayer. If the private decision of an individual is what really makes you a Christian and gives you eternal life, by implication, the sacraments are nothing more than mere symbols or memorials.

Many Catholics using the Alpha process are aware of some deficiencies and provide follow-up sessions on specifically Catholic topics. But this is dependent upon busy adults committing to a second program after the initial 10-week process. Moreover, even if participants do continue on, pitting an academic "reeducation" held 2 months later against the power of their initial experience violates one of the fundamental principles of adult education, namely, that the most effective way to convey a new paradigm is through personal experience. The second most effective is through the experience of others. Lagging way behind, in third, is through the teaching of ideas. How participants initially learn to interpret and understand a life-changing spiritual experience will not be readily undone months later by a videotaped lecture. How we help people understand their encounter with Christ at the moment of conversion is foundational.

By no means am I saying that we should throw out all evangelically-inspired programs and start over. But we must take the time to ensure that all our evangelistic and formation initiatives, whatever their origins, reflect the fullness of Catholic teaching before we offer them, not afterwards. For instance, when offering an Alpha-based program in Seattle, where we were blessed with a number of excellent teachers (many of them converts from evangelicalism), we substituted live presentations for the standard videotapes wherever there was a problem. When we offer a Called & Gifted Workshop, we present gifts discernment in the context of the Church's teaching on the mission of lay people to the world- that they are secular apostles called to evangelize the people and structures of the world. To our astonishment, many who have attended our workshop say that the material concerning secular apostleship is the part that they like best. But this profoundly Catholic way of understanding our identity in Christ-one so many find compelling and exhilarating-will be absent from resources born in an evangelical environment.

Turning to the Tradition

We must not believe that by default, we must follow evangelical models in order to be effective as evangelizers and formators. As Catholics, we have evangelizing assets in the Tradition, the sacraments, the Eucharist, and the communion of saints that evangelicals have not dreamed of. In my judgment, the most fruitful response Catholics can make to the challenging success of the evangelical movement is to return to the fullness of the apostolic Tradition with renewed expectations, asking, "How does knowing Christ change lives?" and then let the Tradition speak. Trusting in the fullness of Church teaching and letting it address the challenges of their times and experience has always been a source of tremendous creativity for saints and apostles over the centuries.

To successfully evangelize and form lay Catholics in the United States, we must go to great lengths to affirm the parts of the faith that are ignored or denied by our popular religious culture. In the midst of a Christian culture saturated with the idea of "Bible alone," we must never talk as if the Bible alone were sufficient. Yes, it is very important that Catholics be taught to encounter Scripture directly, but always in a way that shows how the Bible is part of the apostolic Tradition and interpreted by the teaching Church. When we challenge people to follow Christ, we must let them know that being a Christian is not just a private arrangement between "me and Jesus," but about receiving Christ's life and being united with his Church through the sacraments. Most of all, we must do our homework and creatively demonstrate how the fullness of the Catholic faith answers the desires of 21st century hearts.


If you would like to know about more programs in specific areas that reflect the fullness of Catholic beliefs, you can e-mail Sherry (sherry@siena.org).

Catholic Evangelization Program

One example of creatively applying the assets of our Tradition is a very effective but little known Catholic program of evangelization in Idaho. Called "Evangelization Retreats" and run by lay people for lay people, these weekend gatherings are entirely Catholic in practice, language, and worldview and have an amazing impact on those who attend. Men and women who have stayed away from the Church for decades undergo intense conversions, powerfully encountering Christ as they renew their sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, and as the Eucharistic presence of Jesus is adored. Their renewed life as disciples continues to be nurtured in the small Christian communities formed at the close of the retreat.

Even the lives of non-Catholics have been transformed by these Evangelization Retreats. A Protestant participant told me that when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, she felt a powerful spiritual energy issuing from the Host. "What is that?" she gasped to her friend. Before that moment, she had never imagined what the Church teaches about the Eucharist could be true, that Jesus is really and fully present. But by the time the retreat ended, she had come to believe her Catholic friends were right. A year later, she was received into full communion.

(For more information on Evangelization Retreats, contact Carol McGee at Sacred Heart Church in Boise (208) 344-8311.)