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The Old, Old, Story: Fr Dwight Longenecker on Authentic Evangelization

By Fr. Dwight Longenecker
May 2nd, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Through video, radio, internet, blogs, e-books and publishing on demand the world is opening up to the proclamation of the gospel as never before. What is needed now is an army of enthusiastic, well catechized, articulate and passionate missionaries--a new breed of evangelists is needed to tell the old, old story in a new way. The fields are white unto harvest! Now we need the workers to step forward.

GREENVILLE, SC (Catholic Online) - I can remember the Evangelical preachers of my youth railing against the purveyors of something they disparagingly called 'the social gospel'. The 'social gospel' was the liberal form of Christianity that had substituted the 'old, old story' of mankind's sin and Christ's sacrificial redemption for a mixture of trendy causes, political activism and ministry to the poor. As far as they were concerned, a missionary's work , whether at home or abroad, was to preach the gospel. All that nonsense about building hospitals and schools and soup kitchens was just "the liberals watering down the faith yet again".

Such a view of Christian mission is a dangerously simplistic reaction to a perceived abuse. The Evangelical preachers had a point inasmuch as there was a stream of liberal Protestant Christianity that had ceased to be dogmatic in any sense, and had substituted a bland activism for Christian truth. However, abuse should not undo right use. To react against the "social gospel" by avoiding all political involvement and social ministry was a gross abdication of Christian responsibility.

I experienced this one-sided approach to evangelization within the conservative Evangelical churches of my youth, but it wasn't until I became a Catholic that I realized that the prejudice could go the other way too. If those interested in preaching the gospel of sin, redemption and resurrection were sometimes biased against the "social gospel", I have come to realize that there are many sincere people in the Catholic Church who are doing excellent work in the realm of "peace and justice issues" who are very biased against the proclamation of the Christian faith in all its fully dogmatic and difficulty glory.

They cringe at the idea that we should point out mankind's sinful condition. They regard a call for conversion as "triumphalistic", the see dogma as "divisive" or "ecumenically unwise". They wish for "interfaith dialogue" to such an extent that the whole idea of conversion becomes anathema.

The clash between these two views is sometimes expressed as the "kergymatic" versus the "koinonia". In laymen's terms it is dogmatic versus community-based evangelization. The first seeks to communicate the gospel through preaching and teaching. It summons people to consider the claims of Christ and it calls them to conversion in the widest sense. The second communicates the gospel through works of charity, a radiant example and a heart of love. It seeks to draw people to the attractive and overpowering love of Christ. 

If there is to be a New Evangelization then there is simply no room for a clash between these two emphases. We will all, by nature of our background and temperament, be drawn more to one than another, but this is no excuse to marginalize and exclude the other side. Both are needed if a balance is to be maintained and the New Evangelization to go forward apace.

A friend of mine who is best described as "Catholic lay evangelist" told me of his experience attending a conference on adult catechesis and evangelization. The conference was attended by diocesan leaders in the field.  My friend is definitely one of those involved in "kerygmatic" evangelization. He calls people to turn to Jesus, repent of their sins and welcome the fullness of the Holy Spirit into their lives.

He is also very involved in the Church's social witness and makes sure that the "koinonia" aspect of evangelization is a vital part of his own ministry and outreach. However, he expressed his shock that at the conference the whole emphasis was on "koinonia" to the exclusion of the "kerygmatic". In other words, the form was there, but the content was missing. The "social gospel" had become merely social.

If Evangelization is to move forward, then it is vital that the "social gospel" be rooted and enlivened by the solid dogmatic content of the faith. The social dimension is vital, but if the faith is no more than "making the world a better place" - then why bother to be a Christian at all? On the other hand, a gospel of sin, repentance, and forgiveness is empty if the social aspect is neglected. The African missionary sums it up when he says, "I cannot give them the bread of the Eucharist if I have not given them ordinary bread for supper."

The Catholic Church is strong on the "social" aspect of evangelization, but too often we have been weak in proclaiming the gospel of salvation. Happily, with increased access to the world through the new media all this is changing. The world of communications is going through a revolution of an importance that dwarfs the invention of the printing press.

Through the new media instant global communication is available to all. Through video, radio, internet, blogs, e-books and publishing on demand the world is opening up to the proclamation of the gospel as never before. What is needed now is an army of enthusiastic, well catechized, articulate and passionate missionaries--a new breed of evangelists is needed to tell the old, old story in a new way. The fields are white unto harvest! Now we need the workers to step forward.

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Fr Dwight Longenecker is starting a new evangelization project called Finding Faith. Keep up to date on his website and blog to learn more as it develops: www.dwightlongenecker.com

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