Ecumenism in Service of Evangelization … Not a Question for Many
by Paulist Fr. Michael McGarry
August 2, 2016

Over many years of ministry, I have noticed that few are the religiously committed who embrace both evangelization (mission) and ecumenism. For at first glance, evangelization means converting others to one’s own Christian family. And, at the same glance, ecumenism means not inviting the other to one’s religious family. Rather one values where that person – usually a believer in a particular tradition – finds themselves. In most common perception, far from partners, evangelization and ecumenism are opposites:  if you work for one, you cannot be in favor of the other.  

In theory, of course, this opposition between evangelization and ecumenism need not be the case.  For, as Jesus spoke on the eve before He died, unity, the visible unity of His followers is precisely in service of mission, of evangelization (John 17:22f).  To bear witness as one before an unbelieving world is not only helped by, but requires, a unified witness.  So evangelization and ecumenism should be allies. 

Let’s turn now to our present North American situation.  Recent books distill and describe for us what is happening around us: the shrinking of all religious communities, especially by the Millennial generation.  (See Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America; Christian Smith and Kari Christoffersen’s Lost in Transition; and James Emery Smith’s The Rise of the Nones, in addition to the numerous Pew Studies chronicling the alarming exodus of Millennials from the Churches and Synagogues.)

Actually, Millennials are not leaving the Church.  Rather, once they reach college or leave home, even if church membership had been part of their upbringing, Millennials in increasing numbers simply stop going to church and their emerging adulthood finds them happily outside any Christian community.  It’s not that they ponder a religious commitment and reject it.  Nor is it the case – unlike many in my Baby Boom cohort – that Millenials have specific complaints about the institutional Church (e.g., married clergy, women clergy, sexual constraints) which, if “rectified,” would find them eagerly asking for their Sunday offering envelopes.  In fact, there are many churches that offer all the “necessary reforms,” and they are bleeding as bad as, if not worse than, more traditional churches. Church attendance (shorthand for a more complex reality), for a larger and larger percentage of Millennials, is simply not appealing.

Charles Taylor’s magisterial, but for some of us, opaque A Secular Age has opened our eyes to the new postmodern, post-Christian reality of contemporary North America.  (To understand and to grasp Taylor’s insights, I highly recommend James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor).

Evangelization and Ecumenism

So back to evangelization and ecumenism.

In my experience, ecumenical leaders’ gatherings often resemble a class reunion of folks who graduated from high school in the 1960s and 1970s — which isn’t bad in itself.  Indeed it would be “ageist” to complain that our ecumenical leaders are “of a certain age.”  But for ecumenical officers, practitioners, and theologians to meet regularly without noticing that there are no replacements for them in the ecclesial ranks is to bring to mind a tired cliché of our time:  persons busy about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Or to quote from the Canadian “theologian” Leonard Cohen: “Everybody knows that the boat is leaking.”  The effort to work for the unity of a smaller and smaller group of Churches seems to me to ignore our common plight.

It must become, I suggest, the effort of ecumenists to address how their specialty actually advances the evangelizing mission of the Church.  That is, how does our ecumenical work help the persons in the pews to work towards the conversion of those without any religious commitment to be followers of Jesus (and this not in the service of provoking “transfers” from Evangelical Christianity to Catholic Christianity or from being lukewarm Presbyterians to red hot Orthodox or from being a good Jew to being a good Christian).  

No, I would propose that the foremost ecumenical task of our day is to ask how we Christians, and how we Christians and Jews, can work together to make our denominational commitment subservient to our religious commitment to the God of Abraham and Sarah, to the God of Jesus.  Less abstractly, I suggest having our ecumenical and interreligious meetings address some of the following issues as more pressing than, say, “justification,” “who can be admitted to communion,” “apostolic succession”:

  • What is the Millennials’ presence in our congregational experience?  What postures, styles, and language help Millennials be present in our congregations and what are simply lures or gimmicks into the Church?
  • What might “denominational evangelization” look like such that we, as neighbors, might pledge ourselves to it?  That is, when speaking with someone inquiring about the faith, might it be more humble and honest for us to say that other religious congregations in our city address issues in ways that reflect the inquirer’s interests more closely, and for us to direct them there?  To give a personal example, I remember one such searcher who came to me with questions about the church as a place for her personal relationship to Jesus.  Without going into the longer version of the story, I felt that her religious language, still of a searcher, might find a more natural home and resonance in the local evangelical church … to which I directed her, giving her that church pastor’s name.
  • Would our ecumenical and interreligious commitment help us be in conversation with a Jewish seeker by sharing with that person the name and contact information of the local rabbi – a personal friend – to suggest a conversation with him/her as part of their exploration of a Christian church?

That is, how does our historical moment, with our evangelizing and ecumenical commitments, call us to work in cooperation in our outreach to Millennial brothers and sisters?  Many of them are not interested.  And that’s our challenge.

Fr. Michael McGarry, CSP, is director of the Paulist Center in downtown Boston, MA.  He is past president of the Paulist Fathers.