When I say "Evangelicals lead," I mean they lead by evangelism, and social influence. Evangelicals are incredibly aggressive when it comes to evangelism, and they are incredibly successful when it comes to social influence on a political level. They're constantly reaching out in every direction, to lead more people to Christ, and get them thinking about their own lives, and the moral decay of our society. As a consequence, their pews fill and their church memberships swell. It was the Evangelicals who coined the term "mega-church," and it was the Evangelicals who decided the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Likewise, they will probably decide the 2008 election too, if the right candidate wins the G.O.P. nomination.
As Catholics we can sight various reasons why we don't like the Evangelical method. We could point out a long history of anti-Catholicism. Though it may not be true in every case, it is a perfectly valid point. We could say that some Evangelicals target Catholics to convert them. We could also point out obnoxious methods used in public places, such as street preaching. We could point out a variety of things, and all of them would probably be valid points, but they don't answer the question. Why do Evangelicals lead, while Catholics lag?
Some might be inclined to point out that Catholicism, by its nature, just isn't a very evangelistic religion. They might say that Catholicism relies more on birthrate than conversion. If they're talking about Catholicism in the United States, they would be 100% accurate, but to apply that same theory to Catholicism worldwide would be a terrible mistake. In Africa and Asia, Catholics are very evangelistic. These are also the areas where the Catholic Church is growing at a breakneck speed, much faster than Evangelicalism in those areas. It's even growing faster than Evangelicalism in North America. So the notion that Catholicism isn't an evangelistic religion is just pure silliness, based entirely on an Amero-centric world view.
Others might point out scandal in the U.S. Catholic Church, claiming that this paralyzes Catholicism, making it impossible to reach out. That sounds like a convenient excuse, but it doesn't explain why Evangelical groups continue to grow after numerous scandals within their ranks over the years. (Do the names Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart ring a bell?)
Then of course, there are those who say the reason why Catholicism does not gain more converts is because it's much too conservative. These people tell us that if the Church would only drop it's opposition to abortion, gay-marriage, birth-control, and women in the priesthood, it would grow by leaps and bounds. These same people seem to ignore the statistical examples of liberal Protestant churches that have implemented this exact agenda. Take the U.S. Episcopal Church (ECUSA) for example. Here we have an organization that mirrors Catholicism in every way, except for it's liberal social gospel. The ECUSA has a very liberal view of abortion and birth-control, has not only blessed gay-marriage, but even ordained gay men to the priesthood, and elevated one to bishop. Women have been ordained as priestesses in the ECUSA for over three decades now, many have become bishops, and one currently leads the national denomination. In effect, the ECUSA is EVERYTHING they say the Catholic Church should be, and yet what have we seen? In the 1970s, the denomination consisted of 3.6 million members. Within a decade after ordaining women, it lost nearly a third of it's membership, down to 2.6 million. In the decades to follow, the denomination continued to fracture and disintegrate. Now it's very existence is in question, as schism threatens not only the national Episcopal Church, but the entire worldwide Anglican Communion as well. It would seem that those who advocate the Catholic Church adopt the same policies as the ECUSA don't have the best interests of Catholicism in mind. It would instead appear that many of them are political opportunists, seeking to further their own social agenda, at the expense of any Church or denomination they claim they want to help. In contrast, Catholicism in Africa and Asia has surged, not because of a liberal message, but by espousing an extremely conservative message, harkening to the ancient traditions of the Church. Likewise, Evangelicals in North America do not gain massive converts with a liberal message. They espouse a very conservative Protestant message, and as a result, they build churches the size of stadiums. Statistics worldwide make it very clear that Liberalism is a one way ticket to nowhere. Not only does it fail to help churches grow, but it leaves them in ruin.
Whether we Catholics like the Evangelical method or not, we have to admit that whatever it is they're doing, it works! When it comes to following the great commission, it's the Evangelicals who are taking the Catholics to school, at least in North America anyway. The time has come for us to stop criticizing them and starting watching them, learning from them. We have to figure out exactly what they're doing, not for the purpose of imitating them, but rather to correct and improve upon what they've done. If Evangelicals can accomplish what they've done with just part of the gospel, just imagine what Catholics could do having ALL of the gospel! A quick glance at Evangelicalism reveals a few important traits...
- They're highly conservative. They take the basic premises of Protestantism and stick to them with zeal. They generally don't compromise with Secular Liberalism on anything. Though their critics have claimed this makes them look foolish, their numbers continue to grow.
- They're message is simple and consistent. They preach it over and over again, never straying or losing focus. Ironically, the basic premise of it is the same as the Catholic faith - Jesus Saves!
- They're not afraid to use every method of the new media at their disposal. In addition to using the time honored practice of circulating gospel tracts, they make movies, broadcast on television and radio, and they use the Internet.
- They're primary evangelists are laymen. They focus almost entirely on getting their message out through the laity, particularly the young people. With Evangelicals, it's all about bringing an "unsaved" friend to church.
- They're outreach to "unsaved" friends is twofold. Getting them into their church is only half of the strategy. Once there, the pastor always makes sure to set aside a few minutes during the sermon to explain the gospel message, and then extend an invitation for conversion. Sometimes this is done through an "alter call," and sometimes the invitation to speak with a counselor after the service.
Granted, it's not all about numbers. Having a large parish isn't very impressive if the parish is watered down with unorthodoxy and liberal attitudes toward liturgy and morality. However, the Evangelical model isn't based on liberal attitudes. It's based upon conservative Protestant teaching, and they stick to it with a passion. Sticking to their faith seems to work for them. Doesn't it stand to reason that it would work for Catholics too? The largest single denomination in the United States is the Catholic Church, making up about 40% of all Christians in this country. No Evangelical denomination comes close to that number. Yet as a group, these numerous Evangelical groups tower over us, both in size and influence. It seems that U.S. Catholics have become all too comfortable living in the Evangelical shadow. Maybe it's time we stepped out into the light and showed this country, and this continent, what our faith is really all about.