At a conference my sister met a missionary who was working with people in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The atheist government there had banned all foreigners. They had especially banned religious workers from having contact with the indigenous tribes. If trespassers were found, they were imprisoned, tried, and executed.
The missionary—we’ll call him Edward—decided to live in the jungle just across the border from the country where he had been called to work. He took excursions across the border to meet with the tribal peoples he had befriended. On one trip he was caught by the government troops. They took him to a deserted village in the jungle and threw him into a well.
Down in the well Edward did the only thing he could do: pray. He prayed for three days, and finally he heard a voice calling him. He looked up to see a white man peering down into the well, calling his name. The man threw Edward a rope and pulled him out. He spoke with an English accent and wore a white suit and straw hat. The rescuer politely indicated the road out of the jungle, wished Edward a good day, and then strode off into the jungle himself.
Edward had never seen the man before, and it seemed impossible that another white man would be anywhere in the area. Was the mysterious Englishman really an angel who delivered Edward from death?
Faith stories work
Everyone in the Church is buzzing with the term “the new evangelization,” but many don’t know what the term means or how they are to evangelize. You can take courses and read books on the subject. You can adopt new tricks, gimmicks, and techniques. They are all well and good, but the simple fact is that the new evangelization is not much different from the old evangelization. We may have new technologies for communication, but what we are communicating is the same: We are communicating our faith stories.
What do I mean by a “faith story”? The story of Edward’s deliverance from the well is a faith story. A faith story is any account we share about how our Catholic faith has been real in our lives. It may be a dramatic miracle story, or it may be a down-to-earth story about an answered prayer, an unexpected grace, or a simple blessing.
Why are faith stories the cornerstone of evangelization? Because people are hungry to hear about the reality of God’s work in the world. We all need to be catechized properly and learn the truths of the faith. We also need to learn how to behave as followers of Jesus Christ, but more than these doctrines and rules, we also need to hear about the firsthand experiences of those who are walking with Christ.
Faith stories evangelize because they remind people of the reality of God in ordinary life. God is not a theory. He is alive and active in the world. Jesus Christ is not a dead historical figure. He is alive and active in the world. The Holy Spirit is not a theological idea. He is alive and active in the world, and faith stories show us how that is true.
In the beginning…
…there were faith stories. Stop and think about it for a moment. The largest part of sacred Scripture consists of faith stories. One way to understand the Bible is to see it as one great saga of the relationship between God and humanity. From Adam and Eve to the patriarchs and prophets, coming to fulfillment in the Gospels and continuing with the adventures of the apostles—the Bible is one long, exciting, and thrilling faith story.
The story of God’s love for his rebellious children continues in the history of the Church. For 2,000 years we have been telling the faith story of the people of God. Through the history of the Church and the lives of the saints, we have shared how God is at work in the world.
One of the problems with the modern Church is that we have forgotten how to tell our faith stories. We try very hard to catechize our children, but the Catholic faith is more than just memorizing statements about certain truths. The faith is more than simply absorbing and adopting a set of rules and regulations for life. As Popes Benedict and Francis keep reminding us, the Catholic faith is first and foremost about a living encounter with Christ the Lord.
Begin where you are
In any journey the place to start is where you are. That seems obvious, but we often look so far into the future with our dreams and ambitions that we fail to remember that everything great starts small. The place to start sharing your faith story is here and now.
A faith story needn’t be some great miracle or spiritual success story. It might be a simple thanksgiving. When I was a boy, I went to a prayer meeting every Wednesday night. The pastor would invite anyone to speak, and each week one old fellow would stand up and, with tears in his eyes, say, “I just want to thank the Lord for my dear wife Flossie!” That’s all. That was his faith story. It was powerful and memorable because it was from his heart, and it was real.
Talking about your faith may feel strange at first. That’s because our faith is the most intimate part of our lives. You may be embarrassed and fear that your family and friends will mock you. They probably won’t. Most people are longing to discuss their faith, and they will be grateful that you opened the subject. As you open up to share your faith, they will share theirs; in this way the faith spreads and grows.
Sharing faith stories is the simplest and most effective way to build up the Church and evangelize. Preachers, teachers, writers, and broadcasters do a good job, but the most effective evangelists are ordinary people who, like St. Andrew, meet Christ the Lord and then, with joy and enthusiasm, say to others, “Come and see!”