Evangelism Lessons from a West Coast Bishop

Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron working with a film crew. Photo courtesy of Word on Fire.

By David Watson –

Last summer a friend recommended a podcast called “Word on Fire” and I have been a grateful listener ever since. Word on Fire is a podcast that embodies a much-neglected kind of public discourse. Unlike much of the surface conversation we often get in the world of social media, Word on Fire dives deeply into complex theological topics. It is a model of intellectually virtuous conversation. The discussions are well reasoned, coherent, and relentlessly truth-seeking. It has re-inspired me to pursue these virtues in my own work, and it has fueled my discontent with bland and facile discourse regarding matters of faith.

The host of Word of Fire is Robert Barron, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He has gained considerable notoriety not only for Word on Fire, but for his extensive body of writing, his Youtube videos, and the acclaimed Catholicism documentary he hosted, which aired on PBS. Barron has emerged as the successor to Bishop Fulton Sheen, the massively influential twentieth-century evangelist and public intellectual. Sheen was a pioneer in the use of media for the propagation of the Roman Catholic faith. Barron has followed suit, though making use of a much broader range media than was available in Sheen’s day.

One might even be tempted to call Barron a Roman Catholic rock star, so great has his notoriety become. While I don’t know Barron personally, I don’t think he would be comfortable with that characterization. He carries himself with an air of humility. As a preacher, speaker, and writer, he consistently points away from himself to Jesus Christ and his Church. Put differently, the way in which he conveys his witness is a testimony to its truth.

In an age in which social media is often weaponized to shame, discredit, and insult one’s opponents, Barron models a generosity of spirit. In this sense, he is reminiscent of Dr. Timothy Keller, the noted Reformed intellectual, author, and recently retired pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Both hold up the goodness of what they believe to be true rather than spending their time and intellectual energy in rancorous debate. Likewise, both are committed to rigorous inquiry, never settling for the easy assurances proffered by purveyors of “smooth words” (Romans 16:18).

As Protestants, there are obviously places in which we will part company with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We simply differ on some important issues, including our doctrines of the church, our understandings of ordination, and our sacramental theology. Nevertheless, there is a great deal we can learn from Barron, particularly about the work of evangelism. He is a model of what Roman Catholics call the “New Evangelization,” which focuses on the re-evangelization of those who have fallen away from the faith and the centrality of a relationship with Jesus Christ. (“Evangelization” is the the Roman Catholic term for what Protestants usually call “evangelism.”) Much of his work, moreover, focuses on reaching the “nones,” a growing group of mostly younger people who simply claim no religious affiliation. He is not simply resigned, as so many of our leaders seem to be today, to the decline of Christianity in Western culture. He is fighting back – with considerable success – against the rising tide of secularism, and we would do well to learn from his example.

Recently I read Barron’s book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age (with John L. Allen Jr., Image Books, 2017). In truth, the book is more about Barron than by him. Allen often quotes from Barron and draws upon previous works as he walks the reader through a brief sketch of Barron’s background and then dives more deeply into the his theology and practices of evangelism. This is a helpful approach because it speaks to the ecclesiastical and cultural tailwinds that guided Barron toward the positions he holds today. You understand not just what he believes, but why he believes it.

Barron is as much of an apologist as he is an evangelist. Apologetics is the discipline of presenting and defending Christianity in ways that are accessible, compelling, and winsome. This is where Barron really shines. Devoted Catholic that he is, Barron’s approach to apologetics draws upon the deep well of his tradition, and particularly Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD).

“In Christian tradition, beauty, goodness, and truth are known as ‘transcendentals,’ linked to  the three core human abilities to feel, to wish, and to think,” writes Allen (page 41). Each of these three transcendentals has the capacity to lead people to God.

Lead with beauty. One of the mantras of Barron’s approach to evangelism is “lead with beauty.” There is abundant beauty in the Christian faith, and this beauty can move us to fall in love with God, rather than simply trying to learn and practice the rules of religion. Barron often uses the analogy of baseball in describing how beauty works as an evangelistic tool. Imagine you’re a baseball enthusiast, and you want your friend to come to love baseball as much as you do. If you begin by simply explaining the rules of the game or the mechanics of hitting, chances are your friend will soon become bored and lose interest. He or she is much more likely to be drawn in by seeing the beauty of the game, smelling the grass, observing the skill of the players, and participating in the excitement of the crowd.

There is simply something beautiful about baseball that a knowledge of its rules cannot capture. Of course, at some point the rules and techniques of baseball become important, and we must learn them if we wish to take in all that the game has to offer. Christianity is much like this. The beauty of music, art, poetry, and preaching can lead us to fall in love with Jesus, and in time we will want to know more and more about the life of faith lived in dedication to him.

Wesleyans are not as iconic (given to the use of visual images) as are Roman Catholics. Nevertheless there is considerable beauty within our tradition. I remember sitting in the church as a child, listening to our little choir sing anthems each Sunday, and wondering if there were angels singing along with them. It seemed to me that people by themselves could never create a sound so beautiful. I remember as well looking up at a stained glass window of Jesus each Sunday. It wasn’t particularly elaborate, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

Perhaps the most beautiful contributions of the people called Methodist to the body of Christ are the hymns of Charles Wesley. Hence we have always placed a great emphasis as Wesleyans upon singing our faith. There is also beauty in our ritual of the Lord’s Supper. There is beauty in our creedal tradition, as well, and in historic prayers, such as John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer. Yes, there is beauty in our tradition, though many of us will have to recover it. Many of our churches have turned toward a generic evangelicalism that would be equally at home in a Reformed, non-denominational context. Perhaps we should give that another thought.

Bishop Robert Barron. Photo courtesy of Word on Fire.

Show the good life. The second transcendental that Barron emphasizes is goodness. A life intensely dedicated to serving God – to “the good,” as Christians understand it – will inspire others to follow this same God. As Barron explains it, “There’s a wonderful story told of a young man named Gregory who came to the great Origen of Alexandria (184-253 AD) in order to learn the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. Origen said to him, ‘First come and share the life of our community and then you will understand our dogma.’ The youthful Gregory took that advice, came in time to embrace the Christian faith in its fullness, and is now known to history as St. Gregory the Wonderworker” (page 64).

As Christians, then, we have the opportunity to show the world what a life well lived looks like. We have the opportunity to show others “the good,” and thereby invite them into the good life as well. The old axiom that “actions speak louder than words” is appropriate here. The sanctified life will draw people to Christ.

In describing demonstrations of goodness, Barron draws upon the long Roman Catholic tradition of the veneration of saints and martyrs. Protestants rarely use the word venerate and sometimes it gets confused with the word worship. To venerate is to revere someone’s life or to show deep respect. Worship is reserved alone for God.

While we Protestants do not officially canonize saints, we should be honest about the fact that we do venerate particularly virtuous people who came before us in the faith. Think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran theologian and Christian martyr. Think of Mother Teresa, venerated by Protestants and Roman Catholics alike. Think of abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth. And if you need any more evidence that we have an informal canon of saints, I suggest making a visit to the World Methodist Museum at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The veneration of John Wesley is impressive; one can even find a lock of his hair and his death mask on display. Why do we honor these figures? Why do we study their lives and recount their heroic deeds? At least part of the reason is that they both teach and inspire us. They show us the good life of which we are capable and inspire us to more Christlike living.

The proclamation of the truth. The third transcendental is truth. We live in a culture in which truth claims, particularly religious ones, are immediately regarded with suspicion. Thus, while truth is crucial to the Christian life, for Barron the beautiful and the good can help pave the way for the proclamation of truth. In describing Barron’s approach, Allen writes, “Winning a debate doesn’t do much good, he understands, if you haven’t first won hearts and minds, and he knows that all his erudition, however precious it may be, often can’t accomplish that latter goal by itself” (page 86). Telling people the truth about God and about who they are in Jesus Christ is essential to the work of evangelism, then, but it often not the best way to lead off an effort to bring the unconverted to Christ.

As we help others to understand the truths of our faith, however, we should not water down, dumb down, or compromise them in the interest of making Christianity either more “accessible” or palatable. I was particularly fascinated by Barron’s description of the “beige Catholicism” in which he was raised. This is “a Catholicism that’s become bland, apologetic, unsure of itself, hand-wringing, overly accommodating, that’s allowed its distinctive color to blend into beige, so that it’s hard to distinguish it from other religions and the wider culture” (page 89).

This is the Catholicism of the post-Vatican II era, which, not coincidentally, is the era in which The United Methodist Church was born. It is the era of the modern ecumenical movement, which proceeded with the noble intention of bringing the various Christian denominations together, but tended to de-emphasize the particularities of these traditions in the interest of finding common ground. This is why we United Methodists wrote theological pluralism into our 1972 Book of Discipline. There was a mood within Western Christendom at that time that stands out in these early United Methodist documents. Those formed in the early years of our denomination might be inclined to speak of a “beige United Methodism.” 

It is not enough to be taught that Jesus loves you and to live a good life, whatever that may be. There are treasures to be found in the depths of our faith, and the people within and outside of our churches are far more capable of understanding these than we often acknowledge. Barron sometimes uses the example of  a conversation he once had with a young girl who recounted the Star Wars saga in great detail, complete with many of the bizarre names that attend George Lucas’s fictional universe. Why then, would we assume that she can only learn the most rudimentary teachings of our Christian faith? In a nutshell, Barron is saying that we clergy have underestimated the laity in our churches, and in so doing we have neglected to hand over to them the fullness of the truth we proclaim.

There is much that United Methodists can learn from Barron’s philosophy of evangelization and apologetics. As we face serious decline in North America, it behooves us to reclaim the disciplines of evangelism and apologetics. Western culture is changing rapidly. Attitudes toward religion, authority, truth, and personhood are transforming before our eyes. We Christians need to learn from each other, to join hands are we are able – without compromising the particularities of our traditions – and join in common cause to seek and save the lost.

Wesleyans run the risk of losing the bulk of multiple generations if we cannot respond to our cultural moment in ways that will help people to understand the truth about God and the truth about who they are in Jesus Christ. I’m a Wesleyan in my bones, and I doubt that will change. Yet I constantly grow in the faith by engaging Christians of other traditions. I’ve learned a great deal from reading and listening to Bishop Barron, and I pray that you will, too.

David F. Watson serves as the Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever (Seedbed 2017) and Key United Methodist Beliefs (with William J. Abraham), (Abingdon2013). Dr. Watson cohosts Plain Truth: A Holy Spirited Podcast with Dr. Scott Kisker and Maggie Ulmer.

Comments

  1. Love this!

    I’ve been enjoying Bishop Barron’s YouTube videos, homilies, and podcasts for over a decade now. Top-notch insights every single time. He’s definitely been a bright light in a culture that has so quickly forgotten that Jesus is truly the way, the truth, and the life.

    For anyone interested in giving Barron a try, I suggest checking out the following webpage which has all of his YouTube videos categorized by topic: https://catholicreligionteacher.com/fr-barron-videos/

  2. Tad Stilwell says:

    Thank you for your very ecumenical appreciation of Bishop Barron. All Christianity is at risk of losing particularly its young members to a secular world that is far better at evangelizing than the Church. May all efforts in evangelizing, each within their chosen denomination, bring the tide of “nones” back into the fold. Then, still regarding our unique tenets of faith, perhaps we will become a complete Church, if not One Church.

  3. I know a Methodist who converted to Catholicism. Him and I are praying his brother converts as well.

  4. May I recommend to you, Dr. David Watson another well-known and loved Catholic theologian, Dr. Scott Hahn? He is an outstanding professor of theology and lecturer.

  5. I doubt you really mean ‘notorious’! 🙂

  6. Oh, yes! Scott Hahn’s faith journey is fascinating! I read his book in one sitting, staying up to 4:30am.

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