Evangelization, Strategy, and the Primacy of Prayer

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

Evangelization of any kind always faces a challenge in confronting one's own dependence (or lack thereof) on God's grace. The present human condition is not always aware of the necessity of God's grace. The powerful, strategic ways that evangelization is often done—the books, the projects, the methods—don't always lend themselves to this reality. The programs we normally rely on to evangelize can often compete against the primacy of prayer, creating an illusion in our minds that this or that other "thing" is really "working."

Illusions of any kind are dangerous, but this one in particular is deadly. The sense that the whole task of evangelization is God's work is powerfully demonstrated in virtually every text in the New Testament. But what happens when prayer itself is called into question? What happens when prayer is thought ineffective? Hardly anyone involved in the work of evangelization would disagree with the primacy of prayer; but to what extent are we convinced that prayer is capable of doing what we thought this or that program would do?

Again and again when the great missionaries of this land, men like St. Junipero Serra, Fr. Garces and Fr. Crespi, went on their way, they went with this principle firmly rooted in their missiology: prayer is the means and method of mission.

All this comes to a head, for those living in Los Angeles in particular, when we put evangelization and mission within the larger story of God's pursuit of us. Missio Dei is the technical phrase for this sort of thing, but it is better spelled out in Jesus' own words to His disciples: "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you" (Jn 20:21). The story that our evangelization efforts find their proper shape within is the story of the Father sending the Son. It was not the dualistic expectation of those who thought that there was one mission over here (the Father sends the Son) and another one over there (the Son sends the Catholics).

When we put evangelization and missiology together with Christology, this is the sort of thing we get: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me" (Jn 13:20). Missiology, Christology, and now ecclesiology! These are the sorts of passages that challenge our more modern attempt to classify theology into a variety of subdisciplines. For St. John (not least for the other NT authors), there was no such thing as an ecclesiology that was divorced from Christology, nor a Christology divorced from missiology. The Father sending the Son (Trinity), the Son sending the Church (missiology), the Church being the Church (evangelization): these were not entirely separate issues for early Catholics as they often are for us today. The whole story was held together as one, even if later systematic theologians would come along and seek some form of organization and order.

We have thus approached what seems to me to be the heart of the issue. So long as we see these things as separate, we will continue to miss the story in which all these things are held together. Distinctions matter, but so does the story about God's great pursuit of us, and thus our great reliance on God to continue that pursuit of others through us. The extent to which prayer roots and grounds our evangelization is the extent to which we have understood that story.

Reading through (say) St. Paul, the Gospels, and Revelation, and indeed Genesis and Exodus, this is simply how the early Church was thinking. But more importantly, this is how the early Church was praying! And the reason the early Church thought in this manner was because they saw everything as a consequence of God's initiative. God would rescue the world through us, and thus prayer was the strategy (if you an call it that) that brought new life and fresh energy for all the other strategies, endeavors, and missionary activities.

Jesus and Mary, be with us on the way

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