“My friend Mark Shea had an experience that speaks volumes about the spiritual literacy of twenty-first-century Americans. He was at work when his coworker’s radio began playing Joan Osborne’s “If God Was One of Us.” Mark’s coworker looked thoughtful for a moment and then said, “Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a story?” Mark said, “What?”
She replied, “Suppose God became a human being. Wouldn’t that make a great story?”
The woman speaking was a college-educated professional living and working in the heart of one of the great urban centers of a nation ostensibly filled with Christians. She was genuinely surprised when Mark explained that her “story idea” was in fact the Great Story that has dominated Western history for 2,000 years.
We must be clear: The purpose of evangelization is not waking up a generic “faith.” Evangelizers seek to bring people to an encounter with the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and risen from the dead. Our own personal witness can help illuminate and make living, compelling, and believable aspects of Jesus’ story, but it cannot take the place of Jesus’ story. As Father Cantalamessa preached in front of Pope Benedict and the papal household:
To re-evangelize the post-Christian world it is indispensable, I believe, to know the path followed by the Apostles to evangelize the pre-Christian world! …
… The preaching, or kerygma, is called the “gospel”; the teaching, or didache, instead is called the “law,” or the commandment of Christ that is summarized in charity. These two things, the first — the kerygma, or gospel — is what gives origin to the Church; the second — the law, or the charity that springs from the first — is what draws for the Church an ideal of moral life, which “forms” the faith of the Church. In this connection, the Apostle distinguishes before the Corinthians his work of “father” in the faith from that of the “pedagogues” who came after him. He says: “For it is I, through the Gospel, who has begotten you in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 4:15).
Therefore, faith as such flowers only in the presence of the kerygma, or the announcement. “How are they to believe” — writes the Apostle speaking of faith in Christ — “in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” Literally, “without someone who proclaims the kerygma” (choris keryssontos). And he concludes: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17), where by “preaching” the same thing is understood, that is, the “gospel” or kerygma.
If Christian faith flowers only in the presence of the kerygma, what does that mean for our pastoral practice? How is our generation to believe without someone who proclaims the kerygma? We can no longer presume that people around us already know the story. On the contrary, we have to presume that (a) many don’t know the basic facts of the Story; (b) a good deal of what they “know” may be wrong; (c) they don’t know how the parts of the story fit together to make a whole; and (d) they don’t know what the story means for them personally. Nor do they know what it means for their family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, or the world.
To be sure, telling the story requires that we respect the religious and spiritual situation in which each person finds himself. We must be sensitive to the tempo and pace at which people move through the stages of pre-discipleship. We must absolutely respect their consciences and convictions. But we still have a duty to provide opportunities for them to make a real spiritual choice to follow Christ. We must respect their right to hear the Story.”
(Weddell, Sherry. Forming Intentional Disciples Chapter 10)