My Mission Trip to Ireland Taught Me the Real Meaning of Evangelization
“If you do not pass on the fire of our faith, it will die out.”
The priest’s words echoed in the church — and I swear you could hear a pin drop as the urgency of his call resounded in our hearts.
It was St. Patrick’s Day, and we were in Athenry, County Galway, Ireland. Yes, on a mission trip. When I originally told people I was going there for a mission trip, I got a lot of weird looks. It’s true that over 80 percent of the country is Catholic…but define “Catholic.” The reality of the faith in Ireland is dire. The churches are nearly empty, and the only people in attendance are the elderly and some mothers with their children. There were very few fathers, and there were no young adults or teens present at all.
Generally, people there are bitterly angry about the Church. They’re angry with God at best, and indifferent toward Him at worst. They grew up in Catholic schools, but without good catechesis; they know very little about Church teaching. Most sadly, they do not know the Person of Jesus. All they know of the Church is its corruption — and as a result, my generation there is absent from the Church entirely.
The priest was right: If the people there are not evangelized to, it will die out. Very soon. And that thought should frighten us.
Seeing this dire reality face to face woke me up to the fact that, while the U.S. might not be in as bad shape as Ireland, there is still urgency in sharing Christ with others. Ultimately, evangelization only works to the degree that I am willing to get out of my comfort zone and let Christ transform my heart.
So, I set out on this mission trip to do just that: to get out of my comfort zone and share Christ with others. But it didn’t end up looking the way you would think.
One day, we went door-to-door. But our mindset wasn’t “We’re going to walk up, knock on the door, and poof! — they will be magically converted!” No. Not even a little bit. Our Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness friends might say we’ve got it all wrong, but our approach was to learn.
We’d walk up, knock on the door, introduce ourselves (if we were lucky enough to get an open door) — and then we’d ask the residents what their experience of God and the Church has been.
Reactions were very, very mixed. But one conversation in particular stood out to me.
My partner and I approached a couple of guys who were doing some construction work on a house, and we asked them the same question.
One of the guys unloaded. He was so angry. Everything I’ve ever heard anyone be angry about in regard to the Church: how women can’t be priests, the corrupt hierarchy, the extreme rules…you name it, he was angry about it.
He went on and on. We didn’t get a word in edgewise. But, rather than feeling myself become discouraged and burdened by the list of things he was angry about — which increased by the minute — I found myself excited.
I wasn’t excited that he was angry. Far from it. My heart broke for whatever wounds he had endured at the hands of someone else and for the pain of broken trust, which was valid. But I was excited because I found that he needed someone to listen, and I was honored to be that person.
I listened to everything he said and acknowledged the things he was angry about. When I finally spoke (he had been talking about how he thinks the Church is just a bunch of rules), I told him, “I used to feel the same way too. But then I met the person of Jesus. I realized He loved me, and having a relationship with Him — that changed everything for me.”
His confused laugh and the unfamiliar look in his eyes told me he had never heard the phrase “relationship with Jesus” before. But this is what the gospel is: that God loves us. A love, a relationship that is new every day; this is the “Good News” — and this man had never heard it before.
That was all I was able to say. And he went on talking, and I listened.
I can’t say if our conversation meant anything to him, or how it moved him, if it did. Did he convert on the spot? No. But was it still an authentic experience of evangelization? Yes. And it moved me.
Here’s what that experience taught me about evangelization:
1. Evangelization isn’t always what we think it is. With all this talk of “evangelization,” it’s become a word that’s overused and misunderstood. We can often pigeonhole it to mean one thing. Evangelization equals Bible studies; evangelization equals sharing a Bible verse as your Facebook status; evangelization equals supporting the Bible mini-series on the History Channel; you get the idea.
These things can be evangelical, and they’re good. But they’ve become one-dimensional. Evangelization is much more personal than that, and it requires creativity to respond to that person. When evangelization is authentic, it’s led by the Holy Spirit. It’s sharing a Person with another person.
2. Evangelization doesn’t always look the same. Sometimes it’s using words to speak to a person: sharing Church teaching, giving your testimony. Other times, you’re simply with that person: growing in friendship, open to sharing your very self and Christ within you. It starts in different stages, and it is a response to that person and the stage of life and faith they’re in.
But evangelization always means being in relationship with another: listening to them, receiving who they are, sharing yourself and, ultimately, loving them.
3. We ourselves need evangelization. We always need to be constantly converted. We will always need evangelization ourselves. And this means encountering Jesus and His earth-shattering love for us daily. His is a love that is constant and yet always new to us when we experience it. His love, your relationship with Him, the gospel — you can never hear it too many times.
4. Sometimes the most
important evangelization we can do is just listen. It’s good to share our
story when we have the opportunity — but first and foremost, we should listen. Receive
the heart of the person speaking to you. Listen to the prompting of the Holy
Spirit; evangelization is His work, anyway. The result is never up to us.
My mission trip in Ireland changed me. I did see lives changed while we were there, but it looked so different from what I expected. And as I found myself doing my best to listen to the Holy Spirit, I found that He asked me to keep doing just that: listening.
And in listening, it let Him do the heavyweight work of changing their hearts — and mine.