By Steve Givens
Chris Stefanick believes we often fail in our efforts to evangelize for one simple reason: We don’t speak clearly enough about the power of Jesus to transform lives. “To be really effective in evangelization, you have to make clear what Jesus made clear,” he said in a recent interview with Catholic Digest. “Jesus said, ‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete’ (John 15:11). The best thing that’s ever been offered to humanity is life in Christ.” Stefanick, 43, is the founder and president of Real Life Catholic, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reengaging a generation through evangelistic outreach events called “Reboots.”He is an author, syndicated columnist, and a regular on Catholic television and radio. He lives in Denver with his wife, Natalie, and six children, ages 6–20. He serves as a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth, and his live talks reach more than 85,000 people per year.
Q Where were you raised? Tell me about growing up in your family and your early faith
A I was raised in north New Jersey, with an older and a younger sister and great parents who, when I was in eighth grade, dragged me against my will to a retreat that changed my life. So I love coerced religious experience for kids. The thing that changed my life wasn’t necessarily [what was said in] the talks; it was the people in the room. I remember specific faces and the joy of the Lord on their faces. I wanted what they had. Before that retreat, I looked up to my secular rock gods. I wanted to be those guys. I was drinking after school on a regular basis, and my goal was to mess around with girls. That was where my headspace was at a very young age. Instantly [after that retreat] my heroes changed from Slash and Guns N’ Roses to St. Francis, Padre Pio, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa. Total instant transformation. I love how the first Christians called them-selves “the living ones.” I instantly saw all the secular icons I had for myself as dead. Zombies.
Q What drew you to this work and ministry?
A Joy. I think Jesus was propelled by an inner sense of joy, and that’s contagious. When it overflows in you, you just have to share what’s inside of you. So my discernment wasn’t really thought out. I was just compelled. I just knew I was going to spend my life serving God and sharing what he put in me.
Q That sounds like the early disciples who just left their nets and followed Jesus. True for you?
A That’s the best kind of discernment, when you don’t have to think twice. You’re just doing what you are and it’s springing naturally from you. A tree grows, a bird flies, and a “Chris” does what I’m doing. That’s how I received my call as a kid. Obviously, the conversion experience lasts for a long time, and it took a long time to untangle myself from bad habits and vices, but the joy kept growing and growing.
Q What would you say to people who want to get into ministry?
A Just do it right now. You rub shoulders with people every day. People sometimes feel like they need to put on some other persona to do ministry. Real ministry is effective when you are just being who you are. You don’t need anyone’s permission to do that or fit in any other molds. When I got into professional ministry, I wondered if I should be the next Scott Hahn, the next Jeff Cavins, the next Matthew Kelly, the next whoever. God was always saying, “Yeah, be the next Chris Stefanick. Be who you are.”
Q What does being a “real-life Catholic” mean to you?
A This is really about living life to the full. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10) is my favorite Scripture. A lot of people ask, “What does this have to do with real life?” This is why we often fail in evangelization. People get into the faith if they’re interested and then ask, “What do you guys have for me?” Very often they get a lot of theological information dumped on them. That can be wonderful, and personally I geek out on Catholic theology, but I think the vast majority of people are asking questions like, “How will this make my life better?”
Q How would you respond to those who say they don’t want anything to do with the Church because of recent scandals?
A I’d say, “I can’t blame you for saying that and thinking that, but if you can cut through the noise with me for a minute, let’s talk about what this Catholic faith is all about. It’s about the Gospel message and the best news ever, and that’s as effective and compelling as it’s been for 2,000 years.”
Q What’s the idea behind your book, I Am _____ : Rewrite Your Name–RerouteYour Life (Real Life Catholic, 2018)
A Often we go through life on autopilot — without ever thinking about what we’re thinking — and all too often the thoughts in our heads are self-defeating. We think that we are limited by our past mistakes, defined by our past sins or abuse. These are the kinds of things we often don’t realize we are thinking about ourselves that prevent us from living life to the full. If you disagree with God about your destiny, your worth, or your value, you’re the one who is wrong. When it comes to the thoughts in our heads, we have a role to play. This is about taking captive those thoughts that are self-defeating and replacing them with thoughts from the Word of God about your worth, dignity, value, identity, and destiny so you can live life to the full. The way you label yourself while you’re talking to yourself and the things you think about yourself are the core thoughts that shape how you act, and how you act shapes how your life pans out. You just can’t afford to get that wrong.
Q As you travel and stay busy with all your ministry responsibilities, what keeps you grounded and keeps Christ at the center of your life?
A Nehemiah said to God’s people when they were about to go home to Israel after exile and rebuild their destroyed city, “Rejoicing in the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). This wasn’t a Pollyanna statement; it was a call to battle. When I face the battles of everyday life, I know what’s going to make me strong, and that’s the place I have to strive to stay in, that headspace that converted me when I was a kid. I know that’s what makes me effective in ministry, not the words I use. It’s the headspace St. Paul kept when he was waiting to get his head chopped off and wrote to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). The fuel for me is the basic stuff of Christian life. It’s making sure I’m fed with the right fellowship, with the right time in prayer, with prayers of praise and gratitude, with sober living. Instead of turning to X, Y, and Z (insert your favorite vice here to take the edge off), I’ve got to turn to things that feed my soul and make me wake up spiritually.
Q What’s your two-minute elevator pitch to someone who is seeking to change their life and is considering how God and the Church fit into that?
A Jesus is the answer. There are a lot of changes you can bring about in your own life, but when you live in a relationship to him, the change he brings about is bringing you from dead to alive. There’s a saying that Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good; he came to make dead people alive. To be really alive is to live in a relationship with him. So you have to start making time for prayer; [you] have to start picking the right friends to hang out with; you have to look for those little opportunities for service. These are the things that, over the course of 10 or 20 years, put your life in an amazing direction.
Q So how do we connect with Jesus now?
A A young adult asked me at a recent event, “How do you explain that Jesus did so many amazing things 2,000 years ago and doesn’t now?” I responded by asking, “Do you let him do anything for you now?” Jesus has revealed everything we need to live life to the full. He’s given us all the fuel we need through his Church. If we’re going to sit on our hands and not engage [with] those things, we just lost our right to complain that he’s not doing anything for us. If you want to live an amazing life, you have to make time for it. If you want to live different, you got to live different. Then you’ll find Jesus.