Is Evangelization About More Than Conversion?

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” -Acts 2:1-4

You might have heard this story before from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples sit together in fear after Christ has ascended into Heaven. But, when the Holy Spirit comes to rest with them, they explode into a missionary blitz and begin their journey of bringing the Gospel to all the world — the same journey in which we participate today! Today this story is our base for a discussion of evangelization.

When we hear the word “evangelization,” it can be tempting to jump immediately to the topic of conversion. We might assume that to evangelize someone means to convert them to Catholicism, perhaps even to “score” them for the Catholic Church. But, the process of evangelization is more complex than that.

Don’t get me wrong — gaining converts to the Catholic Church is something worth pursuing. Sometimes at the Easter vigil during the baptisms of new Church members, I feel like standing up to cheer. And I pretty frequently pray for the conversion of celebrities like Charli D’Amelio and Justin Bieber. But, in the process of evangelization, to think of “scoring” souls for the Kingdom of God is to use the wrong lens.

To evangelize means to spread the Evangelium — the Gospel. And the Gospel is the Good News of God’s love for all the Earth! To evangelize someone is to share with him or her the crucial truth that God loves him or her, no matter what. When we share that love with others, we’ll be met with a variety of responses. Sometimes those we talk with might decide to convert to the Church. But, other times, they might reject the message of the Gospel and live their lives in opposition to it. If the latter happens, have we failed to evangelize them? Or maybe, is that the wrong question?

Looking back to Acts, we see the Holy Spirit empowering the apostles to go out and spread the Good News — to evangelize! They are able to go out as successful missionaries of the Gospel only with the help of the Holy Spirit. And this Spirit-led mission has a lot to say about our present-day emulation of those first apostles. Rather than asking “did we succeed or fail in evangelizing that person?” perhaps we should ask “did we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us?”

In the passage from Acts, we see a few crucial details that can help us in our efforts for evangelization. First, we see that the Holy Spirit comes to meet the disciples where they already are, even though they hide in fear. The Spirit inspires them to move from their fear and to step out into the world. Similarly, when we invite Him, the Spirit comes to us and inspires us to spread the Gospel, to step out of fear and into the world. That step might be a tough conversation with a friend who’s fallen away from her faith, giving a listening ear to a friend who has questions about faith, or saying no to a friend who suggests you act contrary to the Gospel. Christ knows that the task of spreading the Gospel isn’t easy — that’s why he sends us the Holy Spirit to move within us and to empower us in mission.

Next, we see that the tongues of fire appear to distribute and rest over each of the Apostles. Perhaps this is a moment in which the Spirit sanctifies the particular gifts that each of the Apostles brings to the mission of spreading the Gospel. The Spirit does the same for us — enlivening the particular things about each of us that make us special. In our mission to be evangelists, all we need to do to be ourselves! Others might see in our particular devotions and joys the life of Christ and the Joy of the Gospel, and they may even be moved to explore the Gospel for themselves.

Finally, we see that the Spirit allows the Apostles to speak in other tongues so that those to whom they minister might each hear in their own native languages. The Holy Spirit gives the Apostles not only the courage to spread the Gospel but also the means and concrete skills necessary to do so. He fills in the gaps between the skills the disciples have and what their ministry requires. When the Spirit gives us the skills necessary for ministry, He might inspire us to invest in a particular person, guide our words in a difficult conversation, or place on our hearts a particular grace for which to pray.

Bringing these three ideas from Acts into our discussion of evangelization, we might view evangelization in a new light: rather than considering it a process of scoring numbers for the population of the Church, evangelization can be seen as an opportunity to live in relationship with the Holy Spirit and to spread the Gospel by the Spirit’s power. As evangelists, rather than worrying about whether or not we’ve converted those around us, we might instead focus on whether or not we’ve acted as a vessel of the Spirit by which others might come to know the Good News of the Gospel.