Incarnational Evangelization: The Art of Accompaniment
Pope Francis said, "We need a Church capable of walking at people's sides... a Church which accompanies them on their journey." Programs are not enough for effective evangelization; we have to share life with people. This article explains how to invest deeply in others and how to accompany them in their walk of faith in order to share the Gospel with them.
Optional Lectio Divina Prayer
- Read Matthew 9:10-13.
- Meditate on the words.
- Speak to Christ about this passage.
- Rest and listen in God’s presence.
- Discuss together.
As a young priest, Fr. Karol Wojtyla lived in Notes troubled times. His native Poland had been taken over, first by the Nazis and then later by the Soviet communists. As his people struggled to live under the communist regime, laws were put in place to limit the work of the Church, especially priests. The young people of the time often found themselves lost amidst the chaos.
As a good pastor, Fr. Wojtyla went out to his people. He didn’t simply schedule talks at a parish and wait for people to come to him. He went out and got involved in their lives. He planned outdoor excursions involving kayaking, camping, hiking and skiing. He entered into the lives of the young people who joined him—getting to know their hopes, dreams and fears, how they lived their friendships, their struggles in dating relationships, how they made moral choices. He truly shared life with them. They sang. They laughed. They told jokes. They recited poetry.
Fr. Wojtyla was a master of “accompaniment,” walking with people amid their daily joys and struggles and witnessing Christ’s love to them. He said that God called him “to live with people, everywhere to be with them, in everything but sin.”20 One friend said of him, “We felt that we could discuss anything with him; we could talk about absolutely anything.”21 Others said that he, “had mastered the art of listening,” that he “was always interested,” and that he “always had time.”22 Another simply said, “He lived our problems.”23
After years of serving as a priest and investing deeply in his friends, Fr. Wojtyla eventually became a bishop, then a cardinal, and then later, he was elected Pope. Many of his friends wondered if this new responsibility would destroy their friendship. One of them lamented, “We’ve lost [him].”24 Only a little while later, however, they found themselves in possession of invitations to the Vatican. Each year, even with his tortuous schedule as Pope, he made time for them in Rome. And just hours before he died, he sent one last message to these same old friends.
Everywhere to be with them, in everything but sin.
The men and women Fr. Wojtyla invested in were changed. Some became priests and religious. Others committed themselves to holiness in marriage. All of them lived their Christian lives more faithfully because of his influence. Fr. Wojtyla, now known as Pope St. John Paul II, was a great evangelist, not just as a Pope who preached to millions throughout the world, but as a man who went out and invested his life deeply in the people he served in Krakow.
Discuss: What stands out to you about the way that Pope St. John Paul II evangelized? How does his example challenge you? How does it encourage you?
Pope St. John Paull II evangelized by going out, getting involved in people’s lives and sharing his own life with them—a practice that can be called “Incarnational Evangelization.”
Incarnational evangelization is the model of how God evangelized. Just as God entered into our world, so too must we enter into other people’s lives and meet them where they are to bring them the Gospel. God didn’t stay in heaven waiting for us Notes to find him; he entered our world and sought us out.
Jesus models this concept also throughout his public ministry. He didn’t wait in a synagogue for people to come to him; Jesus went out and built relationships with people by sharing meals with them, conversing with them, praying with them and hanging out with them. His life revolved around his friendships with people: fishermen, Jewish leaders, tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners.
Paul also lived out Jesus’ model of incarnational evangelization. While ministering to the people in Thessalonica, Greece, during his missionary journeys, he was willing to give everything of himself so that the people would be able to accept the Gospel. Paul sums this up in 1 Thessalonians 2:8: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”
Discuss: How does Jesus’ example of becoming one of us and living with us teach us about evangelization? What does it mean to “share our very selves” as St. Paul talks about? What do you think the result would be if we just tried to give people the Gospel and not our very selves? Why?
AVOIDING JACUZZI CHRISTIANITY
We can carry out this model of incarnational evangelization today as well. Pope Francis has spoken about two particular ways to do this:
First, we need to be willing to go out and meet people in the midst of their ordinary daily lives. To hang out where they hang out. Visit their house. Go to their games. Enter their world. “The word of Christ wants to reach all people, in particular those who live in the peripheries of existence . . . We are called to go, to come out from behind our fences and, with zealous hearts, to bring to all the mercy, the tenderness, the friendship of God: this is a job that pertains to everyone.”25
The call to go out was Jesus’ last command to his Apostles. He didn’t tell them to wait in Jerusalem for people to come to them and sign up for Bible studies. He told them to go out to the world—“go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Like the apostles, we shouldn’t wait at the campus ministry center or the parish and hope people will come to us and seek us out. We must go out to them. Get involved in their lives. Take an interest in their interests. Hang out where they hang out. The Gospel is not a “come to me” Gospel. It is a Gospel that is meant to go out.
Sometimes, however, it can be tempting to settle for “Jacuzzi
Christianity.” Have you ever sat in a warm Jacuzzi, enjoying
time with friends, yet dreading the moment when you have
to get out and allow the cold air to whip against your wet
skin? Something similar can happen in the Christian life. We
can get so comfortable in our Christian community that we
become hesitant to go out to the cold, hurting and broken
world. Instead, God calls us out of our Jacuzzi. He calls us
out of our comfortable Catholic bubble to invite others to
experience the same joy that we have found in Jesus Christ.
Investing Outside of Formal Settings
Second, we need to accompany others. On this point, Pope Francis emphasized, “We need a Church capable of walking at people’s sides, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey.”26 Evangelization is not simply speaking from a stage, leading a Bible study or getting together regularly with others for a discipleship meeting. We are called to share our lives with one another, to eat meals together, to hang out on the weekends, to share common interests and to become part of one another’s lives. In sum, to live authentic friendship with the people we serve. It’s often when we share life with people outside of formal meetings and faith formation settings that the seeds of faith take deeper root in their souls.
I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
Will we invest ourselves personally by giving people not only the Gospel but also very lives? Will we share life with the people God has entrusted into our care? Will we love them enough to spend time with them outside of Bible study or formal discipleship sessions? Or will we treat them like projects and just schedule meetings? When we live out incarnational evangelization, we not only follow the model of Jesus and the saints, but we also become more effective at helping others hear and answer the Gospel. Through this model, we can fulfill Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22).
Discuss: Are you living in the Christian Jacuzzi? Do you struggle to “go”
as Jesus commanded? How can you embrace incarnational
evangelization in your own life? Are you willing to “become all
things to all people” for the sake of Christ and the Gospel?
Incarnational evangelization can look very different depending on the people you are reaching out to. Take some time to reflect on the interests of the people in your life. What do they like? Where do they spend their time? What is important to them? How could you enter into their lives?
Next, take a minute to write down the names of people to whom you want to reach out. Then, brainstorm ways that you might be able to share life with them. Discuss your ideas together and come up with a plan for beginning to live out incarnational evangelization with these people.
Incarnational evangelization is the model of how God evangelized. Just as God entered into our world, so we must enter into other people’s lives and meet them where they are to bring them the Gospel.
Avoid Jacuzzi Christianity: We must get out of our comfortable Christian community and share God’s love with the cold, hurting and broken world.
1 Thessalonians 2:8: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”
20 Weigel, George. (2005). Witness to Hope. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 104.
21 Weigel, George. (2005). Witness to Hope. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 105.
22 Weigel, George. (2005). Witness to Hope. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 102, 105.
23 Weigel, George. (2005). Witness to Hope. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 107.
24 Weigel, George. (2005). Witness to Hope. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 256.
25 Pope Francis. (2015, March 21). [Homily]. Retrieved from https://zdoc.pub/the-future-of-a-people.html
26 Pope Francis. (2013, July 28). [Address]. Retrieved from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/