February 2010 Evangelization Exchange – Boucher

Let’s Scrap the Word ‘Evangelization’

by John J. Boucher


Why not scrap the word ‘evangelization’ and call it something else?” With all the American cultural baggage hanging on this word evangelism (i.e. TV evangelists, street corner preaching, in-your-face confrontational challenges, financial fraud, attacks on Catholicism, and proselytizing), it just confuses people. Catholics don’t understand difficult theological and scriptural words like “evangelization” (Greek: “proclaim the good news”). After all, we got along fine without this word in the Catholic Church before Vatican Council II (1965). Why don’t we just deep-six it now? Couldn’t we best counter all negative images—by total disuse of the word “evangelization?” Surely, we can come up with a more palatable word or words!

BUT, if we give up on the word evangelization, if we decide to only use something simpler or user-friendly, what are some important things might we lose?

Evangelization is scriptural. It comes to us from key passages of the New Testament that reveal who Jesus Christ is, what his mission is, what he has done for us, and what he will do for others. (Matt. 28:18-19; Lk 4:43; Mk 16:15; 1 Cor 9:16).

Evangelization is at the heart of Catholic Church teaching. “We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.” (Pope Paul VI, Evangelization in the Modern World, 14)

Evangelization is the primary mission of the laity. They “fulfill their prophetic mission by evangelization, that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life. For lay people, this evangelization acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 905)

Evangelization is an ecumenical necessity. All Christians share a common mission and commission from Christ. Evangelization gives us opportunities to dialogue about proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. It has brought many Christians (mainline protestants, evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Catholics) to work together across denominational lines in a common witness to Jesus Christ in parts of the world. Evangelization has become a bridge between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches. Surprisingly, Catholic evangelization has in some places been a bridge between different Christian denominations that don’t usually talk to one another.

Is disuse of the word evangelization our best way to handle misunderstandings, misuses, or abuses? If we give up on evangelization, what other misunderstood, misused, or abused Greek words should we stop using?

Will we surrender the word “Bible” (Greek: “many books”) because reading scripture within the original historical context takes too much extra study, or because at times we interpret passages incorrectly? What about ditching “catechesis” (Greek: “to echo the Word”) because Catholics don’t want to learn how to live faith in an active and conscious way as adults? Shall we also cease using the word “Eucharist” (Greek: “thanksgiving”), because the majority of Catholics don’t seem to get what it means, and as much as 75% of us don’t go to Mass in a regular way? Do we stop using the title “Jesus Christ” (Greek: “the Lord saves through the anointed one”) because new age spirituality has co-opted this title, redefining the savior as “not God,” but just as a god among gods,  a “spirit-guide,” or a highly evolved human being who can lead us to individual or group enlightenment?

Can the misunderstanding, misuse, or abuse of the word evangelization in our culture(s) only be cured by disuse of it? Would not a better approach be to help our people to grasp the Catholic understanding of evangelization, in season and out of season, whether it is convenient or inconvenient? (cf. 2 Tim 4:1-5)

Copyright 2010, John J. Boucher. Used by permission.