Evangelization is proclaiming the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ to others. We evangelize using both our words and our actions. It's the most central mission of the Catholic Church and her deepest identity. It's also the calling of every intentional disciple of Christ.
The word "evangelization" comes from the Greek word euangelion meaning "glad tidings." This is why we call it the "Good News." Evangelization involves sharing the Good News of the gospel message, also known as the kerygma. The word "kerygma" comes from a Greek word meaning "proclamation." Put it all together, and evangelization is about proclaiming the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ.
So what is this Good News?
In the beginning, God created us in His own image and to be in a perfect loving relationship with Himself (cf. Genesis 1:26-31). Sadly, sin entered the world, just as sin enters each of our own lives. Because of our sin, an eternal death penalty hangs over our heads (cf. Romans 6:23). Yet the Lord did not turn a blind eye to our sinful condition, but sent His only beloved Son Jesus Christ to earth to save us. He took the sins of all humanity onto His own shoulders, suffered, and died on a cross (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). After three days He rose from the dead, freeing us from our sins and offering us eternal life if we choose to accept His mercy and love.
Evangelization is often confused with proselytizing, but it's not the same thing. Proselytizing is an attempt to convert someone from one religion or belief to another. This may sound like a common understanding of the term evangelization, but it misses the mark. Proselytizing often involves persuasion at best and unwelcome coercion at worst. Its primary end is simply a change in religious affiliation.
Evangelization, on the other hand, is an invitation to eternal life through a relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ. The difference is that this invitation requires a free will response. It cannot and should not be forced upon any individual. Love cannot be imposed on us, we must choose it. Therefore, evangelization is sharing the Good News with others and inviting them to respond by entering into a personal relationship with the Lord.
Before ascending to the Father, Jesus commissioned the disciples to preach the gospel to every person on earth (cf. Matthew 28:16-20). These last words of Jesus were not only a command, but a declaration of our identity as the Church. It has been said that the Catholic Church is not on a mission, the Church is a mission. We are mistaken if we define the central identity of the Catholic Church as anything else.
"Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize..."
Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi
All that we are and all that we do should be in service to this mission of evangelization. Unfortunately, we're largely failing in this arena. If we were to walk up to random people on the street and ask them to describe the mission of Catholic Church in one word, they should respond, "Evangelization!" That's not the case right now. Let's take it a step further and ask random fellow Catholics to describe our mission in one word. Would we all choose "evangelization"? Or would we use use words like, "catechesis," "sacraments," or "community," to name a few? These are important, but they are not our mission.
Our mission is to share the gospel and make disciples. If we do not champion evangelization as our central mission, then we run the risk of allowing other less important priorities to occupy most of our time and energy.
"I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church's energies to a new evangelization... No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples."
Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio
Those of us who are believers are not meant to remain only believers. Each and every one of us is called to become intentional disciples. We sit at the feet of the Master and learn from Him. We train and discipline ourselves through prayer, sacrifice, the sacramental life, and more. We deepen our personal relationship with Christ in and through the Church. And we share the Good News with others.
Sometimes we mistakenly divide ourselves into two camps: disciples and evangelizers. But in reality, all disciples are called to evangelize. In fact, we cannot call ourselves true disciples if we don't take up the banner of evangelization in our own lives. We may feel ill equipped to share our faith, but our relationship with Jesus is the first and foremost qualification. We just need to get started and continue to deepen our knowledge and faith over time. Trust the Holy Spirit to fill in your "gaps" for now, and He will give you the words you need to speak (cf. Luke 12:11-12).
There is a popular belief among many Catholics that to evangelize we need only live out our faith. Then others will see the example of our lives and be inspired to follow Christ, too. We often cite St. Francis' (alleged) quote, "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." The implication is that as long as we live out our faith, we don't need to talk about it. But this is only half the picture. Effective evangelization requires us to not only preach the gospel with our actions (witness), but also to be ready to speak about Jesus (proclamation).
Our witness is the example of our lives as disciples of Christ. All that we do should be for Him, through Him, and in Him (cf. Colossians 3:17). This witness becomes the foundation of our evangelization efforts. With it our words are given credibility. Without it we risk sounding like hypocrites.
For example, you could preach to a friend the importance of loving one's neighbor, of forgiveness, kindness, and love. If you have consistently shown your friend the love you preach, they are more likely to believe you. But if you have often been inconsiderate, rude, and callous towards your friend, you come off as a hypocrite, and they are unlikely to listen to anything you have to say about the Lord.
Our proclamation is the words we speak about Christ. Being able to speak to others about the Lord is an essential component of evangelization. It is not optional. Responsible discipleship requires that we prepare ourselves to talk to others about our relationship with Christ.
"Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope..."
1 Peter 3:15
Our words give context to our actions. Without our proclamation, our witness looks merely like kindness and being a "good person." Unless we tell them, how are people to know that the way we live is a direct result of a personal encounter with Jesus?
Together, our witness gives our proclamation credibility, and our proclamation gives our witness context. In other words, the way we live proves that what we say is true, and what we say gives meaning to the way we live. This is how both witness and proclamation should comprise the whole of our evangelization efforts.
We often confuse evangelization with apologetics, and we set out to convince people to follow Jesus. This is why many of us feel scared and unqualified to share our faith. We perceive it as a battle of mind and will. But evangelization is not heady apologetics or savvy marketing. When we make sharing our faith too cerebral, it's likely to look more like proselytizing instead. True evangelization is proclaiming the gospel in word and deed that others may be attracted to the light of Christ in us, and inviting them to embrace that light in their own lives.
On one hand, it's true that we have a responsibility to consistently deepen our knowledge of the Lord. This will certainly help us as we evangelize. But the first and most important aspect of evangelization is not what's in our heads, but what's in our hearts. Our personal relationship with Christ is our principal qualification to evangelize. In other words, if you've met Jesus, you're qualified to introduce others to Him.
And that is the essence of evangelization: introducing others to Jesus Christ. We do this by attracting and inviting them, not by convincing them through the systematic application of apologetics. Again, knowledge of our faith is still an irreplaceable necessity, but it should not be the core of our evangelization efforts. This is because ultimately, evangelization is the work of the Holy Spirit...
"The Holy Spirit is the protagonist of evangelization." He initiates, He directs, He completes. Our role is to pray for opportunities to share our faith with others, and to be ready to seize those moments as they arise. The Holy Spirit will lay the groundwork. He will give us the words we need to speak. He is in charge of the entire process.
It's vital that we always remember our place in the process of evangelization. We are mere instruments of the Holy Spirit. If there is any growth, any conversion, it is because the Holy Spirit is moving in that person's heart. We do our best to proclaim the gospel, but in the end the Holy Spirit decides what happens with it (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
This should fill us with apostolic zeal and courage! We are being given the opportunity to participate in the Lord's work of salvation! He calls us to be His instruments, but He takes the full weight of the work on Himself. He requires only our willingness to cooperate with His divine plan.
Evangelization is the mission of the Church and it's every disciple's mission as well. We are all called to proclaim the gospel in our words and actions, and to invite souls into a living, personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the work of the Holy Spirit and blessed are we to participate in the work of salvation!