When Catholics Visit Your Church…


Whenever I speak at churches on the topic of talking with Catholics about the gospel, there is a particular question that normally emerges:

How can Protestant churches engage Catholics (and former Catholics) on Sunday morning?

It’s a difficult question to answer, since we seldom think of Catholics as a people group who possess a distinct culture. And yet, that is precisely what we encounter among our Catholic friends and loved ones–particular values and priorities which emerge from a collection of customs, ethnic practices, and traditions. Therefore, in the interest of presenting the gospel with clarity, I would like to recommend that we observe the following principles in gathered worship:

1. Avoid using cheesy clichés from the evangelical subculture

We evangelicals are marketing champions. We can baptize American pop culture into the Christian realm faster than you can say Testamints®. When it is done responsibly, we call it “contextualization.” Yet all too often it happens at the expense of God’s holiness and feels like we have reduced the Lord of Glory to a product. Whether we are employing a hackneyed phrase of dubious theological substance or a general ethos that speaks of divine realities with flippancy, we must remember that God is the Almighty One who abides in unapproachable light and therefore deserves the utmost reverence.

2. Offer page numbers of your sermon texts, if you have pew Bibles

Many Catholics have not had the opportunity to study the Bible. When first stepping into a Protestant church, some of them will hardly know the difference between the Old and New Testaments, much less where to find a certain chapter and verse. Offering page numbers of your sermon texts is a simple courtesy that enables former Catholics to follow along. I can remember my first visit to a Protestant church on my native Long Island where the preacher had us turn to Romans before looking at Hebrews. In my biblically illiterate mind, I can remember thinking, Romans is written especially for me, because I am Italian; Hebrews, on the other hand, must be for my Jewish friends. I am certain that most Catholics are more knowledgeable than I was. But, then again, in some instances maybe not much more.

3. Speak of the Catholic Church with courtesy, especially at points of disagreement

Anti-Catholicism has a deep, abiding history in the United States. Even among good-natured Protestants, it is common to hear sharp invectives launched against the Catholic Church. Such an approach is wrong for several reasons: First, theologically, it fails to convey the redemptive character of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who was full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Second, it undermines relationships with our Catholic friends. Third, it ignores the fact that over the course of time the Catholic Church has accomplished great good in the world, whether translating Scripture, serving the poor, or protecting the unborn, there is much of the Catholic legacy for which evangelical Protestants can give thanks.

4. Explain biblical concepts and terminology in a way that is clear and accessible

It is easy for us evangelicals, particularly pastors, to speak “the language of Zion,” forgetting that many folks in today’s post-Christian world have not a clue what we are saying. It is fine to speak of “Adam Christology” or “the eschatological substructure of the parousia”; however, be sure to define such terms and offer a reasonable explanation of their meaning. Everyone benefits from clear communication.

5. Convey genuine remorse over the divided state of the church

In his book The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, Jaroslav Pelikan famously described the Reformation as a “tragic necessity,” recognizing that the 16th century Church needed reform. Yet the subsequent division struck a massive blow to the church’s integrity, particularly in the eyes of the world. This tragedy is something that pastors should recognize, faithfully looking forward to the day when Jesus will return to unify his Body.

6. Be serious about cultural engagement and uphold an ethic of life

The “incarnation impulse” of Catholic theology, in terms of tangibly manifesting God’s mercy, is a central value to many local parishes. Therefore, most Catholics are taught to put a high premium on practical forms of service, observance of moral imperatives, and advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable in society such as the unborn and elderly. It is, for instance, why we often see more Catholics than Protestants praying at abortion clinics. While our understanding of the relationship between the incarnation and the church is different from the Catholic position, we can nevertheless affirm the importance of embodying the love of Christ among the hurting and helpless.

7. Demonstrate that you believe what you believe

Hypocrisy is a problem in every religious context. It is a function of following a perfect God/man; we all fall short of his glory. Yet some forms of hypocrisy are egregious: Protestants condemn moral failure in the priesthood and Catholics point to the shameful behavior of some of our “televangelists.” For every critical finger we point, there are several pointing back at us. Therefore, whenever possible, we must take responsibility for our shortcomings and for that of our churches, avoiding hypocrisy on the personal and corporate levels.

8. Express reverence and authenticity when you pray

Prayer is serious business. We all know this, and yet sometimes we evangelicals appear to saunter into God’s presence, express a few platitudes of praise, throw down some personal requests, and conclude in Christ’s name. Yes, Jesus called his disciples “friends” three times in John 15, emphasizing the personal nature of their faith. At the same time, John the Apostle, when confronted by the risen and glorified Christ, fell down as a dead man (Rev 1:17). Our prayers should reflect both of these realities, joy and a fearful sobriety.

For more on this topic, checkout Chris’s new book, Talking with Catholics about the Gospel. You may read the introduction here.

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