It is coming. Among the largest religious media blitzes in U.S. history—-scheduled to air more than 400 times during a three-week run—-these commercials will depict humanity's experience of hopelessness before presenting redemption in Jesus Christ as the answer. Millions will view them on major television networks from December 16 through January 8. The program is called Catholics Come Home.
The primary audience—-men and women who grew up Catholic, and are now inactive or “lapsed”—-is 27.5 million strong, according to the Pew Forum. They constitute roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population, making them the second-largest religious demographic in America behind Roman Catholics at 77.7 million and ahead of the Southern Baptist Convention (at 16 million plus). These former Catholics are among your church's elders, nursery workers, and often compose a sizable portion of your congregation.
The Message of Catholics Come Home
If you have watched one of the commercials or visited the website, you were probably impressed by the “evangelical” tone. It is unmistakably warm and inviting with a refreshingly clear focus on the person of Jesus. These programs are the fruit of the Second Vatican Council's vision for mobilizing the laity for outreach (see the encyclical, Evangelii Nuntiandi, by Pope Paul VI), along with recent statements such as John Paul II's Redemptoris missio and the current agency dedicated to evangelism.
While the Vatican's agency is generally aimed at combating the global threat of “de-Christianization,” the activity of the New Evangelization in America seems to focus on returning lapsed Catholics from a particular place. A clue to the identity of this destination can be found in the “Answering Your Questions” section of the Catholics Come Home website. Here, apologetic canons take aim at specific doctrines such as “Bible alone” and “faith alone,” with arguments marshaled for papal authority and auricular confession. Protestants, especially evangelicals, are evidently the group in view. With 15 million former Catholics now worshiping in Protestant churches in America, this concentration is not surprising.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote an article for Christianity Today on the history and purpose of Catholics Come Home (shortly afterward, a member of this outreach staff graciously sent me a CD and tract urging me to return home to mother Church). The movement is a fascinating story of a Catholic layman, Tom Petersen, who applied his expertise in the field of advertising to his renewed Catholic faith. Summarizing his strategy, Petersen explains:
Each of our television commercials invites people to come to CatholicsComeHome.org, where they are given the opportunity to learn (or relearn) the truth about the Catholic faith, find their local parish and return home. As our site says, coming home to the Catholic Church has never been easier!
The $3.5 million worth of campaign ads are queued to air during programs such as “60 Minutes,” “Today,” and “NBC Nightly News,” primetime shows such as “NCIS,” and major college football games on the Dish Network. About this schedule, Petersen speaks with evangelistic zeal: “In our 2,000-year-history, the church has never run a nationwide campaign like this.”
The Opportunity before Us
I want to persuade you that the next few weeks represent an extraordinary opportunity for evangelism and discipleship. I think, for instance, of several churches where I have recently enjoyed ministry and fellowship—-in Southern California, Louisville, South Bend, New York, and here in Chicago—-places in which 50 to 60 percent of the congregations are formerly Catholic. I envision the profusion of conversations that will spring from these ads. In the office, among neighbors, on campuses and, perhaps most predictably, at dinner during Christmas, the question will be asked, “Have you seen those commercials?” So the opportunity begins.
A faithful, missionally minded response will require pastors to model the proper attitude. We should resist the intestinal compulsion that causes many of us in the Reformed tradition to immediately implement the rhetorical howitzer whenever we broach the topic of Catholicism. Yes, we must be concerned with clarifying doctrinal error and offer a faithful answer for our redemptive hope. But, as Scripture admonishes, we do so with “gentleness and respect, having a good conscience” (1 Pet 3:16). Governed by the “grace and truth” character of Jesus himself (John 1:14), this attitude is committed to sharing the message of grace with a gracious posture and voice.
Engaging the Conversation
Evangelicals often fall on one side or another of the theological horse. On one side, some Christians categorically reject the notion of sharing the gospel with Catholics. The mere suggestion that we should articulate the good news to Catholic friends opens a can of worms labeled “proselytism,” which is tantamount to sheep stealing and injuring the body of Christ. On the other side of the horse some seemingly cannot visit the Catholic/Protestant intersection without lambasting the pope, Mary, and launching an arsenal of anti-Catholic invectives. Hopefully, we can agree that both of these approaches fall short of our missional calling.
As for the first of these concerns, proselytism, let's be clear that communicating the gospel is a nonnegotiable for every Christian. In the opening chapter of Acts, Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). In other words, sharing Christ is more than something we do; it is what we are. There is, in a sense, ontological significance to our witness. Therefore, we say with Paul, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).
Moreover, data shows that most Catholics don't have a firm grasp on the gospel. The recent survey by sociologists at Catholic University, led by William D'Antonio, bears this out. They reported that a whopping 88 percent of Catholics in America believe that “how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is Catholic.” This is precisely what Catholics, such as Peter Kreeft at Boston College, have been saying for years:
There are still many who do not know the data, the gospel. Most of my Catholic students at Boston College have never heard it. They do not even know how to get to heaven. When I ask them what they would say to God if they died tonight and God asked them why he should take them into heaven, nine out of ten do not even mention Jesus Christ. Most of them say they have been good or kind or sincere or did their best. So I seriously doubt God will undo the Reformation until he sees to it that Luther's reminder of Paul's gospel has been heard throughout the church (Ecumenical Jihad, 36).
So let's proclaim the gospel with the utmost passion and clarity. But the manner in which we do it is also important. Kindness, meekness, and gentleness must attend all that we say.
Over these upcoming weeks, when we are confronted with conversations about the Catholics Come Home commercials, let's use missional wisdom. There is much in these ads that we can affirm: the problem of sin, the splendor of Christ, humanity's need of forgiveness, new life, and family bonds in the church. These commercials tee up the evangelistic ball for spiritual topics. In fact, they set us up so nice and high that any duffer with a driver can hit it. But God help us to swing at the correct target. Don't swing at the Catholic Church; swing at the message of God's redemptive grace and drive it deep into the hearts everyone who will listen.