As Catholics, we seem to have a deficit when dealing with Evangelicals. In short, there is a bit of a language gap. There are, of course, instances where Catholics and Evangelicals just don’t see eye-to-eye, and probably never will. However, there are other instances where Catholics and Evangelicals are basically talking about the exact same things, or similar things, but the language used to describe these things is so different, that the two assume they’re talking about something else. As a former Evangelical, I would like to do my part to help correct this, because I believe that in bridging the language gap, we Catholics will have a much easier time not only getting along with Evangelicals, but we might be able to get a few more to come over to the Catholic Church. This is desirable, because when Evangelicals are in, they’re all in! By that I mean that Evangelical converts often make some of the most fervent and devout Catholics.
Evangelicals versus Fundamentalists
Catholics can sometimes be very hesitant to deal with Evangelicals because they may have been burned in the past by encounters with Fundamentalists. We should clarify however, that there is a difference between the two, and while they often look the same at first glance, a casual conversation will quickly reveal that they are actually two completely different variations of Protestantism. Yes, you read that right. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists may often look the same at first glance, but they are two very different and distinct people. An Evangelical is not a Fundamentalist, nor is a Fundamentalist an Evangelical. So what’s the difference? Let’s break it down..
The original Protestant reformers were extremely anti-Catholic. However, starting in about the early twentieth century (early 1900s), Protestantism began to fracture, and by the end of the twentieth century (late 1900s), three very distinct forms of Protestantism emerged.
Catholics often get hung up on the hundreds of differing Protestant denominations, affiliations and sects. This is a distraction. It may be useful to point that out to a Protestant when debating one, but beyond that it’s really something Catholics shouldn’t spend a lot of time focusing on. The twentieth century (1900s) split Protestant up into three main groups. The original grouping of Protestants (original denominations like Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, etc.) went on to be called “Mainline Protestants.” These groups tended to become far more liberal and progressive during the twentieth century, which led to an exodus from the mainline denominations, as a large number of mainline Protestants went on to become Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.
Of the two main offshoots of Mainline Protestantism, the Evangelical branch has the longest history and most organic development. It started with the Methodists in the 1700s and Baptists in the 1600s, and has since included Pentecostal and Charismatic groups, encompassing hundreds of denominations, affiliations, and independent churches, into what we know today as the Evangelical Movement, Evangelical Protestantism, or just “Evangelicalism” for short.
Make no mistake about it, Evangelicalism is Protestant. It retains all the same core features of Protestantism, such as belief in sola fide (faith alone) and sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), the shorter 39-book Protestant Old Testament, etc. However, the focus of Evangelicalism is different. Instead of concentrating on doctrinal differences between Christians, Evangelicals tend to put a high emphasis on having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” In other words, their emphasis is on “getting to know Jesus” so as to be better Christians and hopefully lead more souls to Christ. So their emphasis is on the basic premise of the gospel or “good news” (evangelium), hence the name “Evangelical.”
This is why their churches often seem barren to Catholics, with very little religious art or classical architecture. That said, however, modern Evangelicals have tried to make their worship spaces more comfortable, giving them a more homey feeling with large plants, archways, carpet, and sometimes even religious portraits or statues. Yes, you read that right, some Evangelicals will incorporate portraits of Jesus and/or statues of Biblical scenes (nativity, sermon on the mount, resurrection, etc.). They often put these things outside of the worship space, but they are present in the building. What we are witnessing, in a sense, is a reawakening of Christian art within the Evangelical movement, that has some parallels to early Catholic art in first few centuries of Christian history. This, in my opinion, is a good thing, and should be encouraged, as it demonstrates an emerging Catholic comprehension of the Christian Faith, at least in the area of art. Granted, this may take centuries to develop into what the Catholic Church has today, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The important things to remember is that the focus of Evangelicals is the gospel, and “getting to know Jesus.” That’s pretty much “what makes them tick.” They see almost everything else as a distraction, and that is usually their primary objection to Mary and the Saints. It’s not so much that they object to the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, or that they don’t see the Saints as playing a role in heaven. It is rather that they, falsely, believe that Mary and the Saints take attention away from Jesus, and that’s bad, as far as they’re concerned.
Most Evangelicals are willing to admit ignorance when it comes to Catholicism. Some believe Catholics are fellow Christians, others admit ignorance on the issue. As a general rule of thumb, Evangelicals have no interest in debating Catholics, or attacking the Catholic Church. They just look at our Catholic Faith as “foreign” and maybe “a little weird,” but that’s about it. The easiest way to tell if you’re dealing with Evangelicals is to asses their attitude toward the Catholic Church. If they admit ignorance, but generally think Catholics are Christians, or at least can be Christians, then you’re probably dealing with Evangelicals. This is because Evangelicals tend to have a more ecumenical attitude. They may not use the word “ecumenical,” or even know what it means, but it’s revealed in their charity toward other Christians. They’re much more likely to work with other Christians on various projects, and pray with them in a group, regardless of denomination. Consequently, Catholics and Evangelicals have been working together in the Pro-Life Movement for decades. We also see the two working together to fight poverty and provide disaster relief. In the 1990s, Catholics and Evangelical leaders actually signed an ecumenical document pledging to work together in the United States on various political and social issues. It was called Catholics and Evangelicals Together.
Fundamental Protestantism, otherwise known as “Fundamentalism,” is a relatively new phenomenon, born in the early twentieth century (early 1900s), and is a knee-jerk reaction to the liberal-progressive trajectory of most mainline Protestant denominations. Fundamentalism embodies the zeal of old-school Protestantism, which began to fade away in modern times. In a way, Fundamentalists are merely a reflection of old-school Protestantism, or the way Protestant denominations used to be, prior to the twentieth century.
The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth (often referred to simply as The Fundamentals) was a set of ninety essays published between 1910 and 1915 by the Testimony Publishing Company of Chicago. They’ve since been compiled into a series of books, usually between two to four volumes, depending on the publisher. These essays were effectively rebuttals to the liberal-progressive trajectory influencing mainline Protestant denominations at the time. The objective of these tracts was to revive the zeal of old-school Protestantism within these denominations. Instead, however, what they accomplished was a whole new Christian movement within Protestantism.
On the surface, Fundamentalists often look a lot like Evangelicals. They even associate with Evangelicals quite a bit. Some might say that Fundamentalism is a subset of Evangelicalism, or sort of a niche within the larger community. However, a growing number of Evangelicals are beginning to disown them, not only for their harsh treatment of other Christians, but also for their harsh treatment of many Evangelicals too.
Their emphasis is on the core objections of Protestantism to the Catholic Church, in addition to objections against modernism. While their objection to modernism is not necessarily a bad thing, they often tend to mislabel modernism in attacking things that aren’t really modernist. They often see themselves as Christian warriors, on a crusade to deliver the truth to the lost souls of the world, even those within other Christian organizations, most especially the Catholic Church.
Fundamentalists do not see Catholics as Christians at all, and reject the Catholic Church as a Christian body. They often refer to the Catholic Church as a “cult,” and tell Catholics we have to choose between Catholic OR Christian, as they say we cannot be both. Their understanding of Christianity is very narrow and limited to their own form of Protestantism, as expressed in The Fundamentals, and as a result they’ll even attack other Protestants both mainline and evangelical. For example, one of their primary Evangelical targets is evangelist Billy Graham, whom they say betrayed Christianity and was actually a “secret agent” of the Catholic Church. As you can see, they are often heavily into conspiracy theories. The anti-Catholic Chick Tracts are a good example of Fundamentalism in action today.
In the United States, a large number of Fundamentalists strictly use the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, and believe it to be the only infallible English interpretation. This, in spite of the fact that the original KJV contained all of the deuterocanonical books found in Catholic bibles, which were removed only in the late 1800s to “save paper.” Fundamentalists are usually unaware of this, but when it’s pointed out to them, they often dismiss it as “lies” and “Catholic propaganda.”
While Fundamentalists often look like Evangelicals at first glance, they’re pretty easy to spot within casual conversation. They’re often highly dogmatic and argumentative. They’re extremely anti-Catholic, referring to old Protestant arguments against Catholicism, along with some new ones. They even oppose other Protestants, often including Evangelicals, and see themselves as the only “true keepers of the gospel.” Consequently, “ecumenical” is a dirty word to them, and while they might occasionally pray with Evangelicals (depending on the circumstance), they won’t be caught dead praying or working with other Christians — especially Catholics!
My advice to dealing with Fundamentalists is don’t. By that I mean, don’t bother. They’re so stuck in their narrow-mindedness that not even Evangelicals can reach them. While most of their arguments are easily refutable, and I have done so in my books and on my blog, you’ll never get past that attitude. It’s a form of invincible ignorance that cannot be overcome with Scripture or reason. What they need is to be humbled by God, and only God can do that. So if you want to do something for Fundamentalists, do this. Tell them to visit RealClearCatholic.Com, then stop talking to them entirely and just pray for them. God is going to have to do the rest.
As Catholics, we can deal with Evangelicals, but we cannot deal with Fundamentalists. We’re wasting our time with the latter. Evangelicals, however, are much more agreeable and relatable to us.
A Personal Relationship
Evangelicals often refer to Christianity as “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Now to some Catholics, this terminology may be off-putting, because it sounds like being a Christian means just saying you love Jesus and nothing more. As a former Evangelical, I can attest that is not what most Evangelicals mean. When they speak of “having a personal relationship with Jesus,” they’re primarily talking about a state of mind, or an attitude, of putting Jesus Christ first! What they often mean can be likened to a marriage relationship, wherein Jesus Christ becomes the first and foremost important person in their lives.
Having a relationship with somebody is a two-way street. Evangelicals will often liken the Bible to God’s “love letter” to humanity. When looking at the Scriptures this way, they see this “love letter” as God’s communication with us in our day to day lives. So reading it becomes paramount, because it’s the way God talks to us in that relationship. Conversely, prayer is the way we talk to God. Private prayer is our private conversation with God. While church services are our public, or communal prayer/conversation with God. And this is how the typical Evangelical comprehends and grasps the Christian Faith.
From a Catholic perspective, while a lot of important details are missing, the basic premise of this understanding is accurate. As Catholics we can understand our Christian Faith this way too, however, we can add more details to the relationship. For example, in addition to the way God communicates to us through Scripture, he also communicates to us through the seven sacraments, as real means of grace, which are physical ways he touches us as physical beings. The chief of these sacraments being the Eucharist, wherein Jesus Christ (God in the flesh) literally communes with us in a physical way, coming into our bodies and becoming one with us, not just spiritually but also physically. So in a very real sense, Catholics have a deeper and more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ that is not just limited to Scripture and prayer.
Because of this, Catholics can, and should, feel free to discuss our religion as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Evangelicals, of course, will have a much more simple understanding of what that means, but that’s not our concern. Recent popes have encouraged this kind of terminology, and if we use it, we’re going to connect with Evangelicals in a much more meaningful way. It will give them some assurances that we are Christians in the way they understand Christianity as a relationship with Christ. The concept has strong support in Catholic theology and is backed by the popes…
- “It is necessary to awaken again in believers a full relationship with Christ, mankind’s only Savior.” – Pope Saint John Paul II
- “Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” – Pope Benedict XVI
- “Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we truly become Christians.” – Pope Benedict XVI
- “Being a Christian means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.” – Pope Francis
Evangelicals error, sometimes, in thinking that there is some kind of imposed opposition between the terms “religion” and “relationship.” They error in thinking that the two are opposites and it has to be one or the other. This error is easily correctable, however, when you tell them that religion is just how we publicly express our relationship with Jesus Christ. Most Evangelicals will accept that correction fairly easily. Again, Evangelicals excessively worry about things that might be a distraction from having a personal relationship with Christ. If, however, we can demonstrate to them that the various facets of Catholic religion only strengthens our relationship with Jesus, it will help to ease their fears.
This means that in dealing with Evangelicals, and just in daily life anyway (as it’s in our best interest), Catholics should regularly talk about their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” This, of course, should not be to the exclusion of our relationship with Mary and the Saints, but we have to remember that our relationship with them is BECAUSE of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Without Christ, our relationship with Mary and the Saints would be impossible, and our relationship to them only points to Christ anyway. In the end, everything is about Jesus Christ, and that’s not just Evangelicalism. It’s also good Catholic theology!
How does one have a relationship with Jesus Christ? From a Catholic perspective, it’s fairly simple. All relationships are built on communication, and this is how we communicate with Jesus Christ as God Almighty.
- Go outside and look at nature. This is God’s handiwork and art. Appreciate it. Contemplate it. This is God, the Creator of all things, talking to us.
- Go to mass at least once a week, minimally, and listen to the Scripture readings and the homily. Pay attention to the liturgy and receive communion worthily. This is God, the Redeemer of all things, talking to us, and your participation in the mass is also you talking to him. (Optionally, you could read and study the Bible too. While this is good and admirable, it is not necessarily required.)
- Go home and pray. Pray often and about everything. Feel free to use structured and disciplined prayer if you like (Office, Rosary, etc.), but casual and spontaneous prayer (using your own words) is extremely important too. Keep that prayer channel of communication open with God, and feel free to ask the Saints to pray with you. This is you communicating with God.
- Go back to #1 and repeat.
Evangelicals need to understand this, and the only way they can understand it is if they constantly hear us talking about Jesus. While this should come naturally to us, Catholics sometimes have an aversion to “Jesus talk” because it makes us sound like Evangelicals, and that tends to spook us. However, I would like to point out here that all this “Jesus talk” is about the only thing Evangelicals got right, as far as Catholic theology goes. Nothing makes them sound more Catholic than their “Jesus talk,” and in truth, that’s how we should sound too.
I think the problem modern American Catholics deal with is the whole Evangelical/Fundamentalist thing. We’ve been burned by Fundamentalists too much, and because many of us don’t have training of how to deal with Evangelicals (or in my case, experience of having been one), we can’t tell the difference between and Evangelical and a Fundamentalist. I assure you, however, they are very different people. It’s an entirely different mindset, that results in an entirely different practice of Protestant Christianity. Evangelicalism is more laid back and non-judgmental. Fundamentalism is more tightly-knit and condemning of every expression of Christianity that is not their own.
The Pro-Life Movement
The recent Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs v Jackson case, which overruled Roe v Wade, has opened up a gigantic window of opportunity for Catholics to associate with Evangelicals in the Pro-Life Movement. While that opportunity has always existed in the past, and many Catholics have taken advantage of it, the overturn of Roe means the real work of the Pro-Life Movement has only just begun.
In the years ahead, the Pro-Life Movement not only has to fortify the Pro-Life sentiment in Life States that already outlaw abortion, but it will also have to work toward outlawing abortion in states that only restrict it, and try to flip the pro-abortion sentiment in abortion states. This means the Pro-Life Movement needs to grow in the years ahead, and that means Catholics and Evangelicals will be working side-by-side in this process.
So the best way to get in contact with Evangelicals, interact with them, and in some cases even evangelize and convert them, is to get involved in the Pro-Life Movement. There are, of course, other areas of ministry where this can be done too, such as in helping the poor and disaster relief. However, the biggest opportunity is in the Pro-Life Movement.
Occasionally, Evangelicals will invite us to their churches. The solution to this is to tell the truth. We simply let them know that as Catholics we have to go to mass instead, because that is required of us whenever we worship God, but they’re welcome to join us in prayer at mass if they like. I promise you, some will accept your offer.
WHEN (not if, but when) some Evangelical takes up your offer, make sure you explain in advance that the mass is about worship not entertainment. It’s for God not for us. If we want to be entertained in a Christian way, we go to Christian music concerts instead. Mass is for worship, where we do what God wants, not what we want. This is extremely important that it be explained this way. Evangelicals are highly accustomed to be entertained in their worship services, with catchy music, emotional expressions, and interesting homilies (sermons). If you don’t tell them what to expect in advance, and why our method of worship is different, they may reject it as “boring.” However, if they understand the basic premise that it’s all about worshipping God, not about entertaining man, then they’re more likely to find some interest.
Always sit in the back of the church when going to mass with evangelicals. This will allow you to answer their questions without disturbing others, and it also allows them to see how the whole congregation is participating in the liturgy. Resist the temptation to explain everything, or make them follow along in a missal. It’s more important that they just experience things, without worrying about “keeping up” or “knowing what to do.” This is how we let the Holy Spirit do His job.
After mass, ask them if they heard or saw anything that was confusing to them, and be prepared to answer questions. If you don’t know the answer, don’t worry. Just say; “That’s a very good question, let me get back to you on that one.” Then consult with a priest to find the answer, or look in the Catechism if you know how to use one. Usually, a knowledgeable priest, deacon or seminarian will suffice.
WHEN (not if, but when) the time comes when your Evangelical friend is ready to join the Church, simply set up an appointment to talk to the priest. Evangelicals sometimes feel intimidated about going to an office. So, if this is the case, ask the priest of he would be willing to meet the two of you in the main part of the church building, or in the cafeteria, or even in the church gardens. The objective might be to keep things a bit informal, thus making your Evangelical friend feel more comfortable. Sometimes, if your priest has time, and is willing to do so, you could set up a lunch date to talk about things with the three of you, and offer to pay for your priest’s lunch. Whatever it takes to make the Evangelical feel more comfortable is your goal. This is not needed for all Evangelicals, but it is true for some.
Last but not least, after your Evangelical friend has expressed interest in joining the Catholic Church, make sure he/she has a copy of the Baltimore Catechism #4. This, in my opinion, is the BEST Catholic catechism ever produced. Also, consider my first book as a supplement for specific Evangelical questions.
This is how we evangelize the Evangelicals.
This is a very thoughtful and sensitive piece Shane and as an Evangelical who was raised Catholic, I read this with great interest. I was raised in the Catholic Church and became an Evangelical about 25 years ago. How and why this came about is atopic for another time. One thing you write here was striking to me. If I may quote you, “(Optionally, you could read and study the Bible too. While this is good and admirable, it is not necessarily required.)”. As an evangelical I find my study of God’ Word absolutely crucial to my walk with Him! I don’t think I ever opened a Bible when catholic and I believe it to be a significant shortcoming of Catholicism. My late mother and I talked at length about Catholicism and Protestantism and even in her later years I shared with her things I found in the Bible she knew nothing about.
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Yes. I struggled with this comment when writing the essay. Here’s why…
As a former Evangelical, my inclination is to say that Catholics should spend more time studying the Bible privately. Truth be told, we should. But that’s the operative word — “should.” It cannot be placed on us as a requirement. As much as I would like to put a heavier emphasis on it, I came to the realization that if I did that, it would come across as requiring more for salvation than God does.
This is why I phrased it the way I did — as “admirable but optional.”
In the end, Bible study, as good and admirable as it is, simply is not a requirement for salvation, or even being a good Christian. It is strongly recommended, but not mandatory.
Catholics hear a hefty dose of Scripture during the Mass. So it’s not like we are deprived of it. Whether or not people are paying attention during those readings is another matter.
We have to admit that there was once a time when most people where illiterate, and before the age of the printing press, the concept of owning a personal copy of the Bible was unthinkable. How did regular Christians get by back then? The Catholic Church is old enough to collectively “remember” these days. And because of that, the Church does strongly encourage Catholics to read and study the Bible, but it does not lay Bible study on Catholics as a mandate. The Church teaches that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” and this teaching implies that if you can read, and you have access to a personal Bible, you should study it. But once again, the Church cannot lay this down as a mandate, lest she be adding to the gospel more than Christ requires.
I would be negligent if I failed to mention here that the pastors of the Church have gotten much better about offering Bible study classes, and citing chapter and verse of various passages in their homilies. This goes back to the Church’s emphasis on helping people to know the Scriptures. That’s not to say these things didn’t exist before. They did. It’s just that these practices are more widespread now. People are people though. Some act upon the prompting of the Church to study Scripture more. Others do not.
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