Angela’s Ashes is the autobiography of Frank McCourt, who describes his life in Ireland during the 1930s and 1940s. His family lived in a hovel with one bare light bulb and bedbugs, on a dirt lane, and shared one outdoor toilet with all the neighbors. Because dad was an alcoholic and seldom found work, they subsisted on unemployment payments. For many painful years the family lived on bread and tea.
In the early part of the film, Frank’s mother, Angela, loses her three babies—Margaret-Mary, Eugene, and Oliver—to “consumption,” the dreaded disease which plagued the poor. As I sat with my heart glued to the screen, I wondered how the McCourts would draw from the resources of their Christian heritage to persevere through the dark valley of suffering. In various scenes, the family addressed God by means of candles, veneration, and other sacramental rituals. Yet in their variegated approach, Jesus and the gospel were noticeably missing.
Who Are the Partially Evangelized?
Trials, such as the McCourt’s, can be illuminating. They often display the substance of one’s character, or lack thereof. But struggles aren’t the only metric for identifying the nature of one’s faith. Other measurements include generous giving to ministry, gospel witness, and spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading, and participation in a local church. The last of these is especially revealing us as we consider the contours of religious commitment in the United States.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, there are more than 132 million Americans who identify with the mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions. We are told by sociologists of religion that three of every four of these individuals neglect church participation, meaning there are more than 99 million men and women in this category. While these people generally describe themselves as Christian, they are in fact only “partially evangelized,” as the person and work of Jesus remain absent or ancillary to their life. Despite exposure to the Christian tradition, the gospel (and its effects of new life in Christ, respect for the authority of Scripture, and an active commitment to outreach) is conspicuously missing. This is precisely the need that evangelicals are poised to serve.
Engaging the Partially Evangelized
Let me introduce you to a partially evangelized person. Under the portico on Via Cavazzoni, I met Rosa in northern Italy. Because her café was directly across the street from my residence, I visited often. Given Rosa’s outgoing personality, it was easy to discuss God, especially when I learned that she and her husband haled from Catania, Sicily, my grandparents’ hometown. In much of southern Italy, there’s a social Catholicism well-acquainted with cathedrals, rosaries, and festivals. Rosa described these customs at length.
The cannoli, cornetti, and Napoletani rivaled the artistic quality of the Sistine Chapel. Before biting into something lovely that I couldn’t quite pronounce, I asked Rosa about her relationship with Jesus. Her answer was fascinating. “My spiritual beliefs are private,” she said. “The Bible I don’t believe because it was written by men.” She also had some rather pointed words for the Catholic clergy. Finally, and for most of her answer, she described a certain Sicilian parade dedicated to the patron saint of fishing.
Having established a bit of rapport with Rosa, I possessed enough relational currency to ask a few follow-up questions. So I started:
Chris: “Now that’s a fish parade I want to see! I wonder, is the cross of Jesus depicted in any particular way?”
Rosa: “Yes, Monsignor Giuseppe carries the crucifix, elevated high for everyone to behold.”
Chris: “And what’s the significance of the crucifix?”
Rosa: “It shows the death of Jesus Christ wearing the crown of thorns with drops of blood marking his face.”
At this point in the conversation I asked Rosa a few simple questions intended to elucidate the love and justice of God and the personal significance of Jesus’ passion for Rosa in particular. It was brief but meaningful. My goal was to connect the dots between Rosa’s limited understanding of the Christian story and the particular truths of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and inaugurated kingdom. There was no dramatic conversion, but I would like to think that she was in some way drawn closer to the Savior.
The Opportunity Before Us
Reflecting upon my conversation with Rosa brings to mind a few principles for serving the partially evangelized with the gospel. The sequential ordering of these points is not essential beyond the first one.
The initial step must be to recognize that we ourselves, despite our theological pedigree or best intentions, are partially evangelized, and desperately so. Let me assure you, the word desperately is not for rhetorical affect. There is, even on our “best” days, a sizable disparity between the holiness, peace, and love of Christ and our pattern of life. We are entirely dependent upon God, and, therefore, we must proactively “evangelize” ourselves, remembering the old life that is now behind us and the new creation that has come.
Each morning when I awake, I must preach the gospel to myself (after pouring a cup of coffee, that is). It is a privilege, as God’s sons and daughters, to enter the Father’s presence in the name of Jesus and remind ourselves that we are no longer defined by sin and shame, but, rather, by the perfect righteousness of Christ—although our sins be as scarlet, they are now white as snow. We also remind ourselves that God has poured forth his Holy Spirit into our hearts for us to embody and proclaim the good news to the world. In short, we can’t effectively evangelize others until we have first evangelized ourselves.
Second, it’s also necessary for us to see the partially evangelized—to the extent that such people ignore new life in Christ, the Bible, and ministry—as eternally lost. In this vein, one of my favorite quotes comes from the French theologian Yves Congar, who said of the missionary statesman Angelo Roncalli, “Here was the secret of his personality: he loved people more than power.” Such men have a way of seeing others not as a means to an end, but as those for whom Christ died. I also think of Francis Schaeffer who, according to his student Lane Dennis, would shed tears when describing those outside of Christ. This is exactly right.
Third, the leading edge of our approach t should be gradual and relational. Sometimes when we think about evangelism, we limit it to a particular method. For many, it’s the crusade approach made popular by D. L. Moody or Billy Graham. Accordingly, we think of evangelism as a full-blown gospel presentation that begins by explaining the human problem of sin, necessarily culminating in an invitation for one to receive Christ.
I don’t know about you, but most of my gospel encounters don’t allow for a full-orbed sermon. In a crusade, the goal of the evangelist is to clearly present the entire message and urge someone to make a decision. (There is a reason why the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s magazine is named Decision.) However, if you define all evangelism encounters this way, what happens when you have two minutes to talk to a colleague beside the water cooler during break? How do you witness to the checkout person in the supermarket, or to a family member who knows what you believe and is utterly disinterested in hearing any more sermons? The answer is—you don’t. You don’t say a thing. We can’t share in that kind of way without completely alienating ourselves; therefore, we don’t share at all. The outcome is the same as hiding our lamp beneath the proverbial table.
This principle is especially relevant to the partially evangelized because, at least in my experience, embracing the gospel is usually a process. This is not for a moment to minimize the fact that conversion is based upon the regenerative work of God; but it is to acknowledge that God often leads people through an existential journey in which they travel from darkness into the light. What we need, therefore, is to learn how to plant seeds of gospel truth that help the partially evangelized move from the borders of Christian tradition to the center, one incremental step at a time.
Finally, and most fundamentally, pray for the partially evangelized. What is now only a trickle of Christian identity, God desires to make a raging river of faith (Ezekiel 47); what is a small cloud, God wishes to develop into a torrential rain (1 Kings 18:44); what is a modest-sized lunch, God will multiply a thousand times over into a feast (John 6). Indeed, this is our hope, according to the life-changing power of the gospel.