In these days of great cultural and ecclesiastical decline, we need all the faithful Catholics we can get. Protestant converts to the Catholic Faith can be a great encouragement to the Church and help us see afresh the familiar features of the Faith. They can also be reinforcements in the defense of the Faith. We have from baptism a mandate to evangelize, and Protestantism is one of the fields most ready for harvesting.
But how can we evangelize our “separated brethren”? Here are ten things you can do:
1. Befriend Them
A person is more likely to welcome and consider information from a friend than from an acquaintance or stranger, so the most effective evangelism is rooted in friendship.
There is another important reason to befriend potential converts from Protestantism: Protestants risk the loss of friendships and family when they convert to the Catholic Faith. Although we don’t live amidst the heat of the sixteenth century, there remains the residue of anti-Catholicism in western societies. Many fear or hate the Catholic Faith for reasons both doctrinal and political.
When I was received into the Church, one family member said the news struck them the same way as if I had announced I had joined a cult. For them, the Catholic Faith was a perversion of Christianity, not its fullest expression. For other friends and family members, the problem with my conversion was not so much with Catholic spirituality and belief, but with Catholic politics. On issues like human sexuality, abortion, contraception, and marriage, Protestants have largely acquiesced to contemporary culture, making the Catholic Faith seem at the very least unmerciful and old-fashioned and at worst patriarchal, colonialist, and anti-science.
Potential converts might be wondering whether they will be accepted, whether they will fit in, whether they will feel like a fraud. They need to know that if their conversion results in the loss or strain of important relationships, there are new friends and family waiting to embrace them. My wife and I can say that our newfound Catholic family—the Church—has been overwhelmingly supportive and kind. Our new friends made visible the invisible spiritual bond we have in the communion of saints.
Yet there are days in which we still feel isolated and lonely, having lost relationships that were so significant for so much of our lives. So, begin your evangelism by befriending Protestants, which will not only help them receive your challenges but also help them know that beautiful friendships await them.
2. Invite Them to Catholic Events
The first time I attended a Catholic Mass was in high school. I was dating a Catholic girl and we agreed to attend each other’s churches. I remember being warned by parents and grandparents about how non-Christian the Mass was going to be. I remember being told that the pope was the anti-Christ. When I went, I found it surprisingly meaningful and Christ-centered. While I still thought Catholics were mistaken, I no longer thought they weren’t truly Christian.
For a semester, I attended a Catholic university and was struck by the college students who would wake up early to go to daily Mass. I couldn’t even get to 8 a.m. classes! That was a witness to a form of devotion I knew I didn’t have, and so I had to face the fact that Catholics may have a real faith, a faith deeper than my own. Looking back, these early encounters with Catholic worship made me more receptive to Catholic claims.
When I went to seminary, a Catholic student—none other than Ascension author Dr. Andrew Swafford (author and presenter of Romans: The Gospel of Salvation)—befriended me, gave me books from Dr. Scott Hahn (the way to a seminarian’s heart) invited me to lectures at the local Catholic seminary, and a Mass with Cardinal Arinze. His wife Sarah Swafford taught my wife how to pray the Rosary. Through these encounters with the Catholic Faith, devotion, and worship, some of the misconceptions I had about the Faith were dissolved. This meant that when I struggled with my faith, I saw the Catholic Faith as a resource. Later on, when I was coping with the loss of my father and the challenges of being a father, I turned to attending Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral and seeking retreat and spiritual direction at a Benedictine monastery, Pluscarden Abbey.
The more you can do to breakdown the strangeness of the Catholic Faith, the easier it becomes for a Protestant to see themselves practicing it. A great way to do this is by following the example of the Swaffords. Invite your Protestant friends to Catholic events, like a talk at the parish, a spiritual retreat, a parish study or small group, a holy hour, or a Mass. Start a parish Bible study with the great programs from Ascension and invite Protestant friends.
3. Highlight Your Personal Relationship with Christ
I grew up hearing about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus. This is very important to evangelical Protestants (for progressive Protestants, social justice takes the place of a personal relationship). I heard many sermons and lessons about how Catholics are focused on lifeless statues or icons, rigid rituals, formulaic prayers, and devotional exercises while Protestants develop a very personal dialogue with Christ in their hearts.
When evangelizing evangelical Protestants, highlight the ways in which you experience Christ personally not just objectively. Evangelicals worry that Catholics keep Christ external and distant and never experience him as an interior presence. Some would go so far as to say Catholics have a pagan relationship to Jesus when they only seem to relate to him through created objects like icons, crucifixes, rosaries, or sacraments. So, Protestants need to hear that you too experience Jesus as a person who speaks, consoles, and leads you through personal prayer and Bible study.
At the same time, don’t shy away from the objectification of Christ in the Church, but talk about how it actually enhances your experience of Jesus. Despite my upbringing, it wasn’t until I became Catholic that I really felt I knew Christ as a distinct and divine person, one who addresses me beyond my thoughts and feelings. The problem I had was that my personal experience of Jesus started to feel a whole lot like an alter ego. This is the danger of making the relationship to Jesus entirely subjective, entirely interior.
One of the great strengths of the Catholic Faith is that by objectifying Jesus through the Church, icons, saints, clergy, and sacraments, Jesus is distinguished from myself and therefore can become a true friend, not just an extension of myself. When you talk about praying the Rosary, discuss how you see or hear Christ as you meditate on the mysteries. When you talk about saints, talk about the things Christ did to and through them and explain how their experience of Christ personalizes Christ to you. When you talk about receiving the sacraments or adoring the Blessed Sacrament, remember that your experience of Christ there is more profound than any evangelical experience of spontaneous prayer or personal Bible study.
4. Lead with the Moral and Social Teachings
Over the last half century or so, the focus of Catholic apologetics to Protestants has been on trying to convince Protestants that the Catholic Faith is biblical. This makes sense. Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church on the assumption that the Bible is the only authority in the Church and that certain Catholic doctrines and devotions cannot be found in Scripture. If you can prove that the Bible teaches certain doctrines that only Catholics believe, then you’ve shown them they must become Catholic.
Yet scriptural literacy has been in decline and there are now so many different ways of reading Scripture among Protestants that biblical arguments aren’t as effective as they once were. While it is still worth showing the scriptural basis for the Catholic Faith, I think more and more Protestants are searching for moral truth and are finding their own traditions inadequate. Like all of us, Protestants are staring down the increasingly impossible challenge of trying to raise faithful and moral children in a neo-pagan, anti-religious, and immoral society. I believe they will start to feel the weakness of Protestantism on morality more and more and will be searching for a more robust tradition in which to raise their kids.
Talk to Protestants about the Church’s account of natural law and virtue. When talking about family life and parenting, cast the Catholic vision. Explain the riches of Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Tell them about the Church’s consistency on pro-life issues and contraception. Discuss the Church’s social teachings on economics, environmental issues, and human dignity. The Church speaks truths that are desperately needed and deeply attractive, and I think Protestants can become open to the truthfulness of the Catholic Faith by seeing the integrity of her moral and social teachings.
5. Recognize that the Catholic Faith Feels Superflous
You need to be aware that a lot of what Catholics believe and do seems unnecessary to Protestants. Most Protestants don’t walk around wishing there were saints to whom they can pray or a priest to whom they can confess. They don’t usually feel their belief in Christ entails Marian dogmas. They don’t usually wish that their worship services climaxed in transubstantiation. Most Protestants feel like their relationship with God is complete and that they have all they need. Successful evangelization of Protestants needs to show not just the biblical, historical, and theological basis for these, but how they are integral to the kind of relationship Christ seeks to establish with us.
6. Not Just a Personal, but a Familial Relationship!
One of the ways you can show the necessity of Catholic devotions and dogmas is by making clear to Protestants that salvation is not just about a personal relationship, but a familial relationship with Christ. The “excesses” of the Catholic devotional life are the result of the extravagances of family love. At the heart of the Catholic Faith is a vision of salvation as adoption, as becoming children of God. God has become our father and his son our brother through Jesus Christ. All those who have faith in Christ are united into a heavenly family, the love of which is more lasting and profound than the love of our earthly families.
We are not meant to be merely God’s servants or even friends, but his children. In the beginning, God creates humans in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), language that is later used to describe the father-son relationship between Adam and Seth (Genesis 5:3). Over and over, God enters into relationship with humans through the family, from Adam and Eve to Joseph and Mary. If we receive the eternal Son of God and walk by his Holy Spirit, we receive the “right to become children of God” (John 1:12) and “the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5). Family, then, is at the heart of salvation, and we are invited to see God not just as a judge who issues our pardon but as our father who welcomes us home (Luke 15:11-32).
Thus, the Eucharist is not just a worship style or preference. It is the moment on earth when we are returned to the likeness of God. For God is eternally the Father’s offering of himself to his son through the eternal generation and the son’s reciprocation through the eternal procession of their Holy Spirit. If we are to be like God, we must offer ourselves as living sacrifices which is our proper worship of God (Romans 12:1). This is the Eucharist. We are caught up in the eternal self-offering of God through the Sacrifice of the Mass in which we, offering our unworthy selves to God, participate in Christ’s perfect self-offering to the Father on the Cross. It is through the Mass that we are enculturated into the Trinity and made more and more God’s children.
Why do Catholics pray to saints? Because we are made children of God through the eternal Son of God. Christ becomes our brother. All those who have Christ as their brother are now our brothers and sisters. This family we call the Church. This spiritual family, the New Testament tells us, is stronger and more real than our own biological family. Thus, we seek communion with our spiritual brothers and sisters in heaven whom we will one day see. We venerate their relics for the same reason we cherish keepsakes left behind by our family and friends after their death.
Why do Catholics regard Mary as their mother and seek to relate to Christ through her? Because Christ is our brother and so she is our mother. Because by the power of the Holy Spirit she gave us Christ and Christ gave her to us (John 19:27). Do we realize that God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, was nurtured and consoled by his human parents, especially the Blessed Mother? Do we see that this means salvation isn’t just about God’s gift to us, but our consolation of and gifts to God? She can teach us more about her son than we can ever know on our own.
You see just how intimate the relationship with Christ is in the Catholic view. Catholics seek not just a personal relationship with Jesus, but a familial relationship with him and his spiritual siblings. This is a message that our increasingly isolated and lonely society needs and wants.
7. Show the Biblical Roots of the Catholic Faith
As we said above, Scripture is the sole authority for most Protestant traditions. Your evangelism can be enhanced by being able to show the biblical sources of the Catholic Faith. You can learn a lot from Sonja Corbitt’s Fulfilled: Uncovering the Biblical Foundations of Catholicism and Scott Hahn’s Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots.
Want to help Protestants see how the Mass is biblical? Check out Dr. Sri’s A Biblical Walk through the Mass. Follow along with the series on the parts of the Mass by Jeff Cavins and my own series here on Ascension’s blog. Want to show why the Catholic belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become Christ’s Body and Blood? Listen to this video from Dr. Brant Pitre and read his book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.
Want to help Protestants recognize that the Catholic dogmas of Mary’s immaculate conception and queenship of heaven are rooted in Scriptural accounts of Mary as the New Eve and Ark of the Covenant? Check out Dr. Pitre’s book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary.
The role of angels and saints? Dr. Scott Hahn’s Angels and Saints: A Biblical Guide to Friendship with God’s Holy Ones is excellent.
While you’re at it, ask how Protestants know what is in the Bible? How do they know authoritatively what Scripture is? There isn’t a passage of Scripture that specifies the Bible’s table of contents. We only know the books of the Bible because of the Church’s Tradition. And by the way, the canon of the early Church had all seventy-three books of the Catholic Bible.
8. Highlight the Tradition
Protestants are becoming more and more open to the history and Tradition of the Church. Modern society has soured and failed to make good on its promises of peace and prosperity. Modernity has discredited itself with its relativism and resurgent tribalism. This has led many Protestants, whether consciously or subconsciously, to rethink the reliability of the Tradition from which the modern world sought to free itself.
There is a wave of evangelicals becoming Anglicans and there is a great desire among millennials for liturgical worship. Over the last three or so decades, evangelicals have emphasized the need to read Scripture in dialogue with the Tradition and the importance of recovering traditional theology.
Why? One of the reasons may be that we live at a time of rapid change and stress, and Protestant roots are proving too shallow. People are seeking something stable and enduring. Connection with the Church throughout history is reassuring while time-tested, universal doctrines and devotions anchor faith in our stormy times. The consistent witness of the Church throughout history can be powerful attestation of the Catholic Faith in our times.
9. Anticipate and Gently Refute Protestant Objections
Protestants will ask you questions. Be ready. Also, make sure you expose the weaknesses of the Protestant perspective at the right time. Here are some resources to help you better understand and anticipate Protestant objections to the Catholic Faith as well as expose the problems with Protestantism:
- Trent Horn, The Case for Catholicism: Answers to Classic and Contemporary Protestant Objections
- Devin Rose, The Protestant Dilemma: How the Reformation’s Shocking Consequences Point to the Truth of Catholicism
- Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians”
In his manual on how to read and teach the Scriptures, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) stated that the goal of all Christian teaching must be the same as the goal of the Scriptures, namely, love for God and neighbor. As St. Paul says:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”1 Corinthians 13:1
Without genuine love for God and for those we seek to convert, all our efforts will be annoying and confusing.
When it comes to evangelization, we need to keep charity as the source and aim of our actions. The way we stay rooted in charity is prayer. Prayer is the work of love. Prayer can keep us humble before the work of the Spirit and grounded in the love of our Protestant brothers and sisters. Prayer will keep us focused on the joys of friendship and prevent us from indulging in the thrill of winning arguments. Prayer will help us grow in love for those we seek to convert and attune us to their concerns and needs.
Prayer can also keep us patient. Conversion can take a long time. It took almost a decade for my conversations with Andrew Swafford to bear fruit. Sometimes you are called to plant a seed while another will water. Stay rooted in prayer and continue to fall in love with your Catholic faith and you will become a great witness.
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Dr. James R. A. Merrick is lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, reviews editor for Nova et Vetera, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.