Bishop Robert Barron wrote a recent post demanding that his followers devote many hours of study to Catholic apologetics and talking points, then embark on more person-to-person evangelism with their friends, family members, loved ones, coworkers, neighbors, and schoolmates. It's not going to work. But the guy is clearly desperate.
A couple of years ago, a new trend emerged in Catholicism: demands for more personal evangelism from the flocks.
Personal evangelism is that person-to-person type that most of us know and loathe, not the big arena-evangelism events spearheaded by the likes of Billy Graham. And while few Christian laypeople like this odious sales task, Catholics particularly hate it.
But that hasn’t stopped Catholic leaders from noticing the uptick in demands from evangelical leaders for personal evangelism from their flocks—and wondering, against all evidence, if it just might be the answer to their own prayers.
Let’s take a closer look at those demands.
Personal evangelism: a refresher
Christians have only one product to sell to potential recruits: active membership in their church or flavor of Christianity. To sell it, they practice a form of salesmanship called evangelism.
Many types of evangelism exist. Here are just a few:
- Beach evangelism: Selling to people trying to enjoy their time at the beach
- Lifestyle evangelism: Jesus-ing really hard in the hopes that marks will notice it and be intrigued
- Friendship evangelism: Offering fake overtures of friendship in hopes of building enough social capital to get the mark to take a sales pitch seriously
- Tract evangelism: Handing out religious pamphlets to total strangers
- Comic book evangelism: Same as above, but with Christian comic books
In this case, personal evangelism is simply person-to-person evangelism. Christians typically perform this evangelism on people they know personally: acquaintances, neighbors, friends, or family members.
Well, sort of.
Generally speaking, Christians don’t perform personal evangelism at all. Most consider it a victory if they issue even one sales pitch a year. The vast majority don’t even manage that. Even evangelicals, whose very name implies a firm belief in the necessity of personal evangelism, don’t evangelize much.
Why Christian leaders want the flocks to do more personal evangelism
Until very recently, Christianity dominated American culture. Almost everyone identified as some kind of Christian. When I was growing up, I didn’t even know anyone who wasn’t Christian, and I didn’t meet anyone who openly rejected the faith until I went to college.
That near-total dominance didn’t stop evangelicals from pushing personal evangelism anyway. They sort of had to; evangelism has always been a big part of the evangelical psyche. A while ago, I had a blast reviewing a decades-old book on the topic that painted evangelism as simple and easy, with near-certain odds of success.
But somewhere around the 1990s, things began to change. People were beginning to leave Christianity in great numbers. The remaining Christians weren’t bringing in (or breeding) quite enough new people to replace them. By the early 2000s, big evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention were setting huge, desperate goals like their Million Baptism Challenge in 2006. These failed completely, consistently, and hilariously.
In 2015, Christians finally acknowledged that their religion was in a solid decline. At that point, their leaders began to push harder than ever on personal evangelism.
Big huge evangelism events weren’t bringing in enough people. They knew that. Instead, they wanted their flocks to do what they could to bring in more recruits. Rather than hire a big-name evangelist to do mass selling, they could push their individual laypeople to SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY.
Why gosh, went the logic: if every Christian brought in just one other person, then church sizes would double in just a year!
When the rubber of personal evangelism meets the road of Christian recalcitrance
Even at the time, anyone could tell that the mere idea of that kind of astronomical church growth got pastors all starry-eyed and silly. If their demands had succeeded in increasing personal evangelism attempts, who knows what might have happened? I’m sure it would have added a few more people to the church rolls.
(After all, this kind of evangelism works along the same exact lines as a pickup artist’s “game.” If you ask enough women to sleep with you, eventually one will be down for it. But if you only ask a few women to sleep with you, the odds are good that all of them will reject the idea. So pickup artists try to maximally widen their casting of the net.)
But all those pastors’ hopes and dreams got dashed against the rocks of their sheep’s simple refusal to go and do the thing.
It turns out that Christians don’t like to perform personal evangelism. In fact, they absolutely hate it. Every time their leaders make this demand, their flocks nod and smile enthusiastically. Then, almost all of them simply refuse to obey.
It drives their pastors up the wall. But they can’t do a thing about it. If they get too pushy about personal evangelism, it might well result in them losing their jobs or seeing a significant downturn in weekly donations.
Still, evangelical pastors are convinced that only personal evangelism will save their religion.
And now, apparently, some Catholic leaders are starting to think the same way.
The situation Catholics face is dire
I can see why they’re grasping at straws, too. Out of every flavor of Christianity, Catholicism has faced the worst declines of all. Every survey I’ve ever seen has made this clear. Year by year, they tend to lose the most adherents. They also tend to gain the fewest incoming church switchers out of all the flavors. Oh, and they still haven’t recovered from the credibility hit created when their centuries-old child-rape scandal finally reached public awareness.
So every year, more Catholic churches close. The pandemic only accelerated that trend. In an interview with NPR just this past August, Adora Namigadde reported this stunning development:
There are a third fewer parishes in Chicago today than there were five years ago.NPR
Catholics’ priest shortage is becoming more dire by the year as well. In 2020, Religion News reported that globally, there were now 3200 Catholics per priest. According to a report on Catholic Education.org, that ratio has traditionally fluctuated somewhat, but not this much. It was 1:900 in 1900, 1:650 in 1950, and 1:1200 in 1999. As a result, 82% of American Catholic dioceses report not having enough priests to meet their needs.
Worse (from Catholic leaders’ perspective), Catholics are losing young adults faster and more completely than evangelicals are. A 2016 study from a Catholic group found that about 2/3 of young Catholics leave the faith by their teens. Only about 13% of them thought there was even a ghost of a chance of ever returning to it. Another Catholic writer estimates that “about 75 percent of Catholic children leave the church by the time they are 18.” Yet another estimates that 80% will drop out.
Those dropped-out Catholics will probably not be sending their children to catechism class. Without family pressure to ensure faithful church attendance, it’s unlikely those children will ever find their way to Catholicism.
But don’t worry! Bishop Robert Barron has figured out how to save Catholicism!
Bishop Robert Barron has an oh-so-sensibly-chuckling picture over at his site, Word on Fire.
As his title indicates, he’s a bishop. That means he rules over a bishopric, a goodly chunk of land in Catholicism. His bishopric is the Diocese of
Winona-Ryder HE WISHES STOP THAT NO Winona-Rochester in Minnesota. He’s also written a number of nicely-selling books about religion, made good-performing YouTube videos about religion, and done a lot of high-profile speaking engagements at important Catholic public functions in important centers of Catholicism like Poland.
And oh boy, he went on a tear last week over at Word on Fire about personal evangelism lately. A reader tipped me off to it, and I loved it and was here for it from start to finish. It’s got everything. It’s just such a perfect example of a dysfunctional authoritarian who can’t accept his own loss of power.
The funny thing is, he can’t use the actual term personal evangelism. That’s super-evangelical lingo right there. Remember that list of variants of evangelism that I mentioned earlier? Those are evangelical Christianese terms. Catholics don’t use them, or at least I’ve never seen any lifelong Catholics use them. Even the ideas behind them are alien to Catholics’ culture.
So I’ve got to wonder what evangelical dude got to ol’ Bishop Barron here. The kind of evangelism he describes in his post is solidly evangelical in both form and function, make and model, sense and sensibility, from top to bottom and stem to stern.
For that matter, so is the nature of his demand itself for this kind of evangelism.
He needs to see more personal evangelism out of the flocks, or else!
On October 4th, Bishop Barron wrote a long essay demanding that his followers make with the personal evangelism.
First, he begins with an anecdote about just how bad his diocese is doing. Like every other American diocese I’ve ever heard of, it faces some serious challenges. Its leaders are having to get more creative every year to deal with their shrinking flocks and incomes. (Hey, the Pope sure ain’t opening the Vatican vaults to bankroll these failing dioceses.) They’re merging church congregations, reorganizing others, and probably figuring out how to axe more of their few remaining paid staff members.
Then, he pops this bit of bluster out of his hat:
Even as I expressed my approval for some of these changes, I told the deans that, for every strategy of consolidation, I want a strategy for growth as well.
I simply refuse to accept the proposition that I, or any other bishop, should be presiding over the decline of our churches.Bishop Robert Barron
I was instantly hooked right there. He wants “a strategy for growth,” and he flat refuses to accept a diocese in decline. He refuses, did you hear him? Refuses!
He rejects our reality and substitutes his own!
Too bad reality has such a profound anti-wingnut bias.
Personal evangelism could double parish sizes within a year!
A couple of paragraphs later, Bishop Barron tops himself by parroting a well-loved evangelical line—complete with that sense of wide-eyed wondering that evangelical leaders always radiate:
Identify these wandering sheep and make it your evangelical challenge to bring them back to Mass. If we all did this successfully, we would double the size of our parishes in a year.Bishop Robert Barron
Along with this shopworn bit of chirping, he then parrots evangelical leaders’ demands that the flocks pray more often for growth. If prayer actually could make churches grow, evangelicals wouldn’t be in decline. I have no doubt that a number of them do pray for that, at least in church services while their pastors are saying the actual prayer and they’re just nodding along.
Yes, we’re actually in the middle of a four-part listicle. At least he titled it with a standard-issue listicle format: “4 Ways to Grow the Church.”
“Grow the church,” incidentally, is something I’ve only ever heard evangelicals say.
Oh, there is no way this third demand is gonna turn out like he wants
The third item on Bishop Barron’s listicle involves asking “seekers to raise their questions.” I love this so much. It brings me so much joy, all because I know that those “seekers” ain’t gonna be fooled by this false display of agreeableness. Whatever their questions are, the answers will be Catholic talking points. Any concerns those seekers bring up will be hand-waved away, trampled with dogma and manipulation, and ultimately dismissed.
I know this because that’s exactly what happened when one poor bastard, Peter Daly, tried to hold “listening sessions” aimed at doing exactly what Bishop Barron suggests here. He got less than 10% turnout to his invitations. The “No. 1 issue by far” raised by his young attendees was Catholic bigotry against gays and lesbians. And that was not a concern he could or even wanted to fix, and his 40-or-so young-adult attendees immediately figured that out.
Similarly, Barron doesn’t even bother trying to pretend that these questions have answers that’ll satisfy anyone. In fact, he tells his followers that he expects them to do a significant amount of work to follow his instructions:
[I]f you elicit questions, you better be ready to give some answers. This means that you have to bone up on your theology, your apologetics, your Scripture, your philosophy, and your church history. If that sounds daunting, remember that in the last twenty-five years or so there has been an explosion of literature in just these areas, focusing precisely on the kinds of questions that young seekers tend to ask—and most of it is available readily online.Bishop Robert Barron
In the end, it’s not like today’s “young seekers” will be fooled. They weren’t fooled in 2015 with Peter Daly, and they will not be fooled by all this effort either. Their dealbreakers will be dismissed. In fact, they must be dismissed. All the extracurricular reading and studying in the world won’t change that simple fact.
A recommendation that probably has a very good reason behind it
His draws his last point from a Catholic book, Forming Intentional Disciples. “Intentional” is another buzzword borrowed from evangelicalism. It just means doing something according to a plan and with a specific goal in mind, rather than just letting things happen as they will. In the past 4 or 5 years, we’ve seen it crop up many times in the evangelical Christ-o-sphere. But here, it comes from a Catholic author, so it’s street-legal for him to use it.
I suspect he specified this book by a Catholic author specifically to head off any accusations of being evangelical-ized.
It’s starting to become a fretful point of contention in Catholic circles. Many hardline Calvinist evangelicals are converting to Catholicism lately because ultra-right-wing fundamentalist evangelicalism (fundagelicalism) stops scratching their scrupulosity itch and can’t address their craving for “smells and bells.” And they are, of course, bringing their evangelical notions in with them. Personal evangelism is just one of those notions.
These converts are also largely on the anti-Pope-Francis train, which is pushing hard for what might just turn into a schism.
There is not much that’s funnier to me than the idea of all these Protestants joining Catholicism, going through the huge long hassle involved in becoming a full Catholic, and then acting completely contrary to Catholicism by publicly feuding with and disobeying the Pope. They just act like they know how to Catholic SO much better than the actual King of Catholicism himself. And obviously, one Catholics perfectly by behaving as a Protestant.
They’re treating the Pope like he’s just the president of the Southern Baptist Convention or something, just some denominational bigwig like they knew in their evangelical churches back home. It’s hilarious.
Kindness won’t help with personal evangelism
But evangelicals ain’t got nothing on Catholicism’s culture wars. The sheerly-inhuman, insectoid, swivel-eyed depravity and casual cruelty that Catholics routinely bring to the table here just dwarfs the worst things evangelicals have ever managed to burp out in competition.
So when Barron sternly advises his followers to “be kind,” it comes across as the most gob-smacking bit of disingenuous smarminess imaginable. Look, Catholic leaders are on record as not caring at all if pregnant women die when a therapeutic abortion could easily save their lives. That’s not a medieval position, either; a woman discovered it was still very much the Catholic party line in 2003, and she wrote about the topic in February this year.
Barron simply advises a kind of surface-level niceness, which amounts to refraining from acting like unmitigated asshats to people in real life or online. Worse, he’s suggesting this very evangelical tactic for a very evangelical reason. Evangelicals call it earning the right to speak, though of course it doesn’t.
He doesn’t use that distinctly evangelical phrase either, of course. Instead, he just says Catholics should “be kind” because “No one will be interested in hearing about the faith life of obviously bitter and unhappy people,” and because “If someone thinks that you are a good and decent person, she is far more likely to listen to you speak about your faith.”
And no, that’s not true. Normies aren’t likely to think that someone’s faith had anything to do with them being good or decent, not when we’ve all encountered so many fervent Christians who were neither and so many heathens who were both.
And now, the reality of Catholics doing any personal evangelism
In 2013, a for-profit evangelical survey business called Barna Group published a survey titled “Is Evangelism Going Out of Style?” Remember, this is a solid two years before evangelicals really accepted that they were in decline. And it got some really interesting results.
They asked self-professed Christians in a variety of flavors about their opinions on personal evangelism.
Obviously, 100% of evangelicals agreed that they had a personal responsibility to “tell other people my religious beliefs.” (Holy cow, could they have made that statement sound more entitled, narcissistic, and boundary-violating?) Barna Group does, in fact, actually include this sentiment in their working definition of evangelicalism itself, so there’s no way they could score less than 100%.
Of the rest, 54% of mainline Christians agreed with that statement.
Only 34% of Catholics did.
Moving from feeling responsible for personal evangelism to actually doing it
Then, Barna Group asked if their respondents had “explained [their] religious beliefs to someone who had different beliefs, in hope that they might accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.” Only 69% of evangelicals claimed to have done this at least once in the previous 12 months. Meanwhile, 42% of mainline Christians made that claim.
And only 33% of Catholics made it.
I’m willing to bet that almost all of those Catholics were fibbing. Then again, maybe the evangelism-minded Catholic respondents were part of the large number of ex-fundagelicals who’ve converted into the faith. Or perhaps they were in positions of power over children and made sales pitches in the course of teaching the Catholic version of Sunday School or something. Maybe they participated in some college campus recruitment drive and deciding that counts as a yes. I’m grasping at straws here.
It is just that hard for me to see personal evangelism as something that any Catholics do outside of very carefully pre-defined outreach efforts. I’m trying to imagine my super-Catholic family, or any generation-spanning Catholic family that I ever knew, doing anything like what Bishop Barron is suggesting. And I’m just coming up blank here. It’s impossible.
I think that would be the most mortifying conversation I’d ever have with a family member
If my aunt-the-nun ever called me to say, “Hon”—she is Baltimore born and bred like my mother, so everyone is “hon”—”I’m here if you ever want to talk about any problems you have with Catholicism,” I think the ensuing Paradox backlash would cause our universe to divide by zero and then, I don’t know, pop out of existence. Thinking that a solid third of any Catholic church’s members have made even one sales pitch in the past year just beggars my imagination.
My answer would likely begin with the Catholic child-rape scandal and its centuries-old cover-up and then freely frolic in the fields of Magdalene laundries, Catholic leaders’ refusal for years to support condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa, and those extensive Catholic baby-kidnapping rings. I’d certainly bring up abusive Catholic schools and Savita Halappanavar’s fetus-caused death in abortion-unfriendly Ireland.
I think my aunt is smart enough to know that she can’t meaningfully engage with any of these concerns, and it’d be purely mortifying to us both if she even tried to do it.
Really, she’d be lucky if I didn’t compare her leaders’ demand to always be selling to how multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) recruiters train their underlings, and then draw comparisons to what happens to those underlings’ relationships if they actually obey that order.
I think this bishop’s reckoning without his hosts
For many long centuries, Catholic flocks have been taught to show up, sit down, shut up, stand up, kneel, sit down again, and (of course) open their wallets upon command. That’s what Catholicism is. It’s a thing people do: a series of observances done at specific times in specific ways. It’s a family tradition.
Sure, its faith points are often very deeply felt, but in a very private way. If Catholics are going to get involved in their faith, it’s going to be something like volunteering to teach their version of Sunday School, going on group pilgrimages, being on the welcoming committee to arrange snacks and drinks after Mass every Sunday morning, or becoming part of the Mass itself in some way—like being an altar server, singing or playing instruments, reading preselected texts, or performing interpretive dances.
If very fervent Catholics ever get a wild hair up their rumps about recruitment, Catholicism has a lot of ways to make that happen in more organized ways and involving targets they don’t have to live with or bump into all the time at work or school. Heck, the money-grubbing short-term missions (STMs) industry long ago got its hooks into Catholicism. That means that Catholics, too, can know the supreme joy of paying thousands of dollars to a business to jet them to another country and beau them around, set them to performing meaningless busy work that locals will probably have to redo anyway, get them lots of those sweet, sweet social-media photo opportunities, and generally just feel like they’re helping Jesus out bigtime.
But yikes: actually talk to their family members, friends, loved ones, coworkers, neighbors? Inviting questions about stuff that clearly requires many long hours of study to allow for answers that won’t make their targets happy at all? Issuing church invitations that will probably only alienate them from their loved ones?
No. Out of every flavor of Christianity, this one values its social capital the most, I’d argue.
Obviously, Bishop Barron is desperate here
I hope I’ve managed to convey even the tiniest taste of how impossible it will be for Bishop Robert Barron to convince his flocks to perform more personal evangelism. He’s not just asking the flocks to take on an inconvenience and a time drain. Rather, he’s suggesting a course of action that may well wipe out their relationships and social capital for the itty-bitty chance of success that these awkward and unwanted conversations universally tend to have.
But the guy is very clearly desperate here.
The numbers keep dropping. Churches keep closing. Parishes keep having to be shuffled around and reorganized. Priests keep having to be spread thinner and thinner. And it’s just not enough, even so, not if the vast majority of American churches are reporting that their needs aren’t being met as things stand.
With the dwindling money coming in, there’s no way the situation can possibly improve.
So I’m not surprised to see more Catholic leaders demanding personal evangelism of the flocks.
It isn’t working for their evangelical counterparts. It’ll work even less for Catholic ones.
But it’s all they’ve got.