Four Keys to Train for Parish Outreach to the Unaffiliated
Adam Janke, Saint Paul Evangelization Institute
On a recent trip to England I had the opportunity to visit many of the beautiful churches in London. What stood out more than anything was how empty they were during worship times, and most of those who were there did not believe in God. Participants were not there to pray, they were there to take in the beauty of the building and the choirs without having to pay the normal admission fee. The overwhelming majority of people I spoke to told me that they “were not religious”, even those who were raised as Christians.
The word is out. It is becoming increasingly common knowledge among religious leaders that the generations being raised up now are disassociating themselves from any religious group. Surveys by Pew Research and Barna leave little room for doubt: “More than any other generation before them, Gen Z does not assert a religious identity. They might be drawn to things spiritual, but with a vastly different starting point from previous generations, many of whom received a basic education on the Bible and Christianity. And it shows: The percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. adult population.”1 We see this reflected in shrinking parish budgets, fewer sacraments being received, poor Mass attendance, and parish closures.
Christian churches are responding by trying a variety of methods to bring the “nones” back into the fold. These include short, medium, and long term efforts. There is no silver bullet to evangelization, so a variety of different efforts are necessary. Shallow entry points such as small groups, accompaniment programs, “ask-a-priest” evenings at local bars, street evangelization, podcasts, Bible studies, social ministries that include evangelization, and supernatural/charism ministries are popping up around the country. The goal of such efforts is to discern what God desires to bless and use to bring about that initial and fundamental conversion to Jesus Christ and His Church. Parish leaders can then sow more into those efforts.
There are some common approaches among these efforts that have been shown to bear good fruit. This paper will focus on four basic principles to train teams for parish outreach to those people who identify themselves in surveys as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” These ideas are based on our experience at the St. Paul Evangelization Institute training, equipping, and mobilizing over 300 grassroots-driven evangelization teams where we work with local parishes to provide opportunities to explore faith and life through bridge-building activities.
1. Training in organizational health.
First, our parishes need to become healthy as organizations. This includes a rediscovery of their mission, a focus on minimizing confusion and politics, an increase in morale and productivity, and an understanding of the primacy of grace in their work. Why do our parishes exist? Are Catholic parishes simply non-governmental charities? Or do parishes exist for the salvation of souls? Or something else? Until we know why we exist, we have no metric for growth and proper staff behavior. Our parishes need to have cultures that reflect the Gospel they are supposed to be committed to.
The unaffiliated have suffered the consequences of our lack of organizational health. They don’t know why we exist either. In a recent Pew Research article the top reasons the “nones” cite for labeling themselves as such include “I question a lot of religious teachings” (51-77%), “I don’t like the positions churches take on social/political issues” (47-54%), and “Religion is irrelevant to me” (26-63%).2 We know that we have the answers to all questions in Christ, but we are not answering the questions people have about faith and life, and are instead focusing our time on answering questions that no one is asking. There is a link between our inability to answer these basic questions about our parishes and the struggles people face as they look for answers elsewhere.
Pope Francis opens Joy of the Gospel with such a meditation: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”3 Training should start by looking at your parish culture and its ability to change lives and transform hearts. It is well worth going back to these basic organizational questions as they have helped our own institute grow immensely.
2. There are many Catholic apostolates and organizations able to walk alongside you through this process.
By identifying the reason that our organization exists (“For the salvation of souls”) and our core values we were able to avoid mission drift. We decided as a team to end some programs and efforts that served to distract us from our core activities. Creating a discipleship roadmap to personal holiness.
Once our parishes are healthy, organizationally speaking, staff will want to dedicate time to creating a discipleship road map. We cannot give what we ourselves do not possess. The catechumenal model could be followed here. In pre-evangelization we form virtuous friendships and strong families, which counter the devastating epidemic of loneliness and anxiety felt in our culture. In evangelization we boldly and fully proclaim the Gospel and make an invitation to follow Jesus in the Catholic Church. Evangelization leads to the initial or fundamental conversion of both the mind and the heart to God and away from slavery to sin. As grace perfects nature the next step is training in holiness through prayer and formation. Second, we need better training for catechists. Third, we need training in prayer, discernment, and spiritual growth. Are staff and volunteers moving through the purgative way, illuminative, and unitive ways? Are pastors instructing them on how to do so?
We saw this played out when our staff met at a local restaurant for a lunch meeting. Our waitress saw that we were doing “Jesus stuff” and asked if we had time to explain to her who Jesus was. She had heard of this “Jesus” before, but didn’t know much. We took the time to share the Gospel with her. She confided in us that she was lonely and wished there was someplace she could go to find friends. The next step was to get her involved in a local small group that could minister to her, give her room to think more about Jesus and respond to the promptings of grace to have faith in Christ. We have hundreds of similar stories of walking with people down a path of initial conversion and discipleship.
We know that we can no longer assume staff and parishioners are disciples of Jesus Christ, are receiving proper formation at home, and are advancing in the spiritual life. Creating and following a lifelong discipleship road map will help our parishioners become great saints. This is also necessary groundwork to sending evangelists out to bring new people in through the process of discipleship.
3. Training in relational ministry.
First, many parishes are moving from a program-centered strategic plan to a person-centered strategic plan which is what should be done. No single parish program is going to solve all of our evangelization problems. We must ask: “What are the questions that the unaffiliated are asking about God?” “Where are they searching for fulfillment and meaning in their lives?” “How have they been trained by our culture to look for fulfillment and meaning?” Our Seeker Small Group program focuses on pre-evangelization through authentic friendships and accompaniment, the full proclamation of the Gospel, and answering questions that the “nones” cite as reasons they stay away from faith. Our motto is to “listen, befriend, proclaim, and invite.” By creating an atmosphere of trust and curiosity we often see people experience conversion even through two minute conversations on the street. Second, we need to provide answers to the questions the “nones” are asking. According to Bishop Barron, “In order to evangelize the ‘nones’ they have to be argued back into our position through a new apologetics that focuses on the doctrine of God, the interpretation of the Bible, theodicy, and religion in relation to violence and science. The young are argued into atheism and they need to be argued back into Christianity... We who would evangelize simply have to become better theologians, that is to say, articulators of the truth about who God is.”4 We need to train parish staff through a rigorous intellectual formation so that they may be prepared not only to befriend and love those with no faith, but when the time is right (when the world fails to satisfy) propose Christ as the answer to those deeper longings on their heart.
As I was waiting in line to grab lunch one day I struck up a casual conversation with a gentleman about where we both work. That opened up the opportunity to talk about faith. We ended up having lunch together. He was a scientist and told me he did not believe in God. I shared the story of Mother Teresa with him as one valuable contribution faith brings to the world. He hadn’t thought about faith from that perspective before and asked to keep in touch. Eventually he gave his life to Christ and joined RCIA. I did not intend to start the conversation with Mother Teresa, but following the Holy Spirit’s promptings, that’s exactly what he needed to hear.
4. Training in the bold proclamation of the Gospel.
St. Paul Evangelization Institute offers workshops and training programs through our School of Evangelization where we equip Catholic disciples with the basic tools they need to be effective in proclaiming the fullness of the Gospel. This includes training in Gospel proclamation, Christian testimony, prayer and healing ministry, evangelical apologetics, behavioral and relational ministry, and more.
Training must help Catholic evangelists identify the appropriate times to talk about God’s love and mercy, his judgment and the possibility of eternal damnation, the saving message of Jesus Christ, and when to offer an invitation to respond to God’s grace by repenting of sin, exercising faith and trust in Jesus Christ, and entering the kingdom of God through the Church he founded.
In our street ministry we love to give people “one good reason” to take the next step in their walk with God. We often meet Catholics who used to go to Church, but have since gradually fallen away. “Can I give you one reason why I choose to go to church?” we might ask, putting the question on ourselves. “Would I love my spouse very much if I didn’t give her one hour of my time each week? Of course not! If I refused to spend time with her she would throw me out of the house. And she would be right to do it. If we don’t spend time with God, we can’t love God.” That self-examination often helps bring people back to church where we can continue walking with them.
Pope Saint Paul VI taught that “evangelization is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize.”5 If there is no Heaven or Hell, many will fail to find the purpose of religion. We can’t overcomplicate the Gospel or shy away from proclaiming it in its fullness with great zeal for souls. Each person we meet will spend an eternity in heaven or hell. Hell is real and God’s mercy to sinners is the radical antidote to it which we must proclaim.
Further, Paul VI goes on to say: “Techniques of evangelization are good, but even the most advanced ones could not replace the gentle action of the Spirit. The most perfect preparation of the evangelizer has no effect without the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the most convincing dialectic has no power over the heart of man…We live in the Church at a privileged moment of the Spirit.”6
One of the most effective means in evangelization today has been to pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal the Father’s will to a person through by making Himself known. Our evangelists will pray with people for a word from God for their life, for inner healing, for physical healing, or for God to reveal Himself in some other way. By leaving room for the action and desires of the Holy Spirit we are seeing people healed, discovering God in the silence of their own hearts, and experiencing His love in powerful and unexpected ways.
 Barna Group. “Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z.” Barna.com. https://www.barna.com/research/atheism-doubles-among-generation-z/ (Accessed February 1, 2019).
 Alper, Becka. “Why America’s ‘nones’ don’t identify with a religion.” Pewresearch.org. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/08/why-americas-nones-dont-identify-with-a-religion/ (accessed February 1, 2019).
 Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, accessed February 1, 2019, Vatican.va, 2.
 Barron, Robert. “Evangelizing the Nones.” Firstthings.com https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/01/evangelizing-the-nones (accessed February 1, 2019)
 Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, accessed February 1, 2019, Vatican.va, 14
 Ibid., 75.
Adam Janke oversees the development of programs and resources for the St. Paul Evangelization Institute including the Urban Missionary Program, Regional Missionary Program, Leadership Training Institute, and the School of Evangelization. Adam brings the experience the institute has gained through more than 300 street teams in the form of talks and workshops on evangelization, healing, and hospitality. After converting to Catholicism from biblical fundamentalism in 2005, Adam obtained a BA in Theology and Catechetics and an MA in Theology in Christian Ministry from Franciscan University. Adam has been featured on EWTN Television and Radio, Catholic Answers Live, the Radio Maria Network, the National Catholic Register, as well as in several other Catholic news publications. He resides in Michigan with his wife and six children.”