COMMENTARY: 10 reasons why evangelicals should read Pope Francis

(RNS) Pope Francis on Tuesday (Nov. 26) released his first apostolic exhortation since his election in March. The message, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), challenges Catholics — both laity and clergy — to pay more attention to evangelizing the world.

While most American evangelicals do not usually read papal pronouncements, it would be a shame if we did not familiarize ourselves with Francis’ newest document, for there is much in it that evangelicals could embrace:

1.  “Evangelii Gaudium” is loaded with biblical citations.  Evangelicals love their Bibles. So, apparently, does Pope Francis. I counted 205 references to the Old and New Testaments in this document. In fact, the document might be described as a long sermon on the implications of the “Great Commission” found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 28.

2.  “Evangelii Gaudium” distinguishes between the “primary” and “secondary” aspects of church teaching.  The evangelical understanding of the Christian faith focuses on the atoning work of Christ on the cross above all other doctrines. Think, for example, of Billy Graham — the closest thing evangelicals have to a saint. Graham probably has his convictions about particular church doctrines, but his ministry tended to play down these distinctions in favor of a gospel message that transcended differences. In the same way, Francis challenges his church to make evangelism — the proclamation of the message that God and God alone has saved us from the consequences of sin — a  priority over those “second aspects” of faith, which are important but do not “convey the heart of Christ’s message.”

3.  “Evangelii Gaudium” is countercultural in nature. Evangelicals have always enjoyed a place of privilege in American life. In other words, they have not lived through the kind of persecution that the first-century Christians experienced. Sometimes evangelicals forget that it was often during these times of persecution — when Christians promoted a message that challenged the paganism of the Roman Empire — that the church experienced significant growth. Francis calls the church to resist the forces of consumerism, capitalism and greed that have come to define American life.  Such materialism drowns out the voice of God and offers “pleasures” that cannot bring true joy in this world. Christians need to stop modeling their habits after the world. There is a lesson here for the evangelical middle class in America.

4.  “Evangelii Guadium” celebrates the dignity of the human person. The idea of “Imago Dei,” or the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God, has long been a fixture of Catholic social teaching. Evangelicals share this Catholic view of human dignity, but we have too often failed to take seriously its implications for the way we engage in society, politics and culture. Here Francis returns to his critique of consumer capitalism by arguing that the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest lead us to forget about the dignity and worth of human beings who suffer under such a system. As he writes: “Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not news when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”  Evangelicals should take heed.

5.  “Evangelli Gaudium” defends family values. Ever since the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s, American evangelicals have been talking about “family values.” When they use this phrase they are normally referring to their opposition to abortion and gay marriage and their defense of the traditional nuclear family. Francis would certainly agree with this understanding of family values, but “Evangelii Gaudium” offers a defense of the family that is a bit more sophisticated. He describes a “profound cultural crisis” facing the family. Parents are not passing along the faith to their children. Marriage is defined more by emotional satisfaction and the “feelings and momentary needs of the couple” than it is by “obligation assumed by spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life.” Individualism weakens relationships within the family and “distorts family bonds.”  This is a pro-family message that evangelicals can believe in.

6. “Evangelii Gaudium” calls for a Spirit-inspired evangelism.  At times Francis sounds like an evangelical clergyman explaining the techniques of “personal evangelism” to his congregation.  He exhorts his followers to make face-to-face encounters on the street with neighbors or “complete strangers.”  He teaches them how to initiate a conversation about the gospel. He shows them how to introduce Bible passages into such a conversation, how to seek the help of the Holy Spirit in the process of witnessing and how to share stories about “the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself for us, who is living and who offers us salvation….” Billy Graham could not have put it any better. If the Catholic Church takes Francis seriously, we evangelicals may have some competition on the street corner.

7.  “Evangelii Gaudium” connects the spread of the gospel with personal piety.  Evangelicals have long preached about the need for personal piety cultivated through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, Bible-reading and other practices. These disciplines provide the spiritual resources necessary to preach the gospel to the lost. While the popular piety of Catholics often looks quite different from the way evangelicals practice their spirituality, Francis makes sure to remind the church that the “people’s mysticism” is a “legitimate way of living the faith” and provides the source of “missionary power” in the world.

8.  “Evangelii Gaudium” encourages the practice of apologetics. In the last 50 years evangelicals have started ministries to defend Christianity against the outside threats of atheism, so-called cults and the rational thinking of the scientific community. Evangelical apologists take seriously the New Testament exhortation to “be always ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Francis sees this kind of apologetics ministry as crucial to the advancement of the gospel in the professional, scientific and academic world.  As he describes it, “This means an encounter between faith, reason, and the sciences with a view to developing new approaches and arguments on the issue of credibility, a creative apologetics which would encourage great openness to the gospel on the part of all.” Christian scholarship should be directed toward the primary mission of the church.

9.  “Evangelii Gaudium” calls for Sunday preaching that is heartfelt and inspiring.  The proclamation of the Word of God will never be the central focus of a Catholic Mass in the way that it dominates most evangelical services, but parish priests should still spend considerable time crafting their weekly homilies. Francis sounds like a preaching professor at an evangelical seminary as he exhorts priests to dissect the biblical text, pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit and apply the teachings of the Bible to the everyday lives of the people in the pew.

John Fea is chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.  He is the author of "Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past."  Photo courtesy Messiah College

John Fea is chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He is the author of “Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.” Photo courtesy Messiah College


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

10. “Evangelii Gaudium” challenges Christians to live sanctified lives. Francis wants his church to live holy lives in the wake of their conversions. Catechism should not just be about teaching dry doctrine, but it should also invite new converts into a process of Christian formation defined by love for others and love for God. The Christian life can be a beautiful thing, he suggests, as Christians allow “the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate” within their hearts.  How could evangelicals disagree with these sentiments?

While evangelicals and Catholics will continue to have their theological differences — differences that stem back 500 years or more — we just might find some common ground in the words of Francis.

(John Fea is chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.  He is the author of “Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.”)

KRE/MG END FEA

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