When the kerygma isn't enough: Why many young 'nones' aren't ready to hear the Gospel
Jul 3, 2019
Editor's note: This is the fourth in a five-part column series written by Sacred Heart Major Seminary and Catholic Biblical School of Michigan researcher Tamra Hull Fromm about the impact and choices of young adult “nones” — those who profess no religious faith — in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Additional columns will be published on a weekly basis.
In his pastoral letter Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Vigneron defines evangelization as “proclaiming the good news of Jesus to those around us.” (1) This good news is known in the New Testament as the kerygma: a simple, radical, countercultural and joyful message of the Gospel.” (2) He then charges “all preachers and catechists to learn the art of proclaiming the kerygma and to reflect on how to make all their preaching and teaching more kerygmatic.” (3)
But what if unchurched young adults or “nones” are unable to understand this kerygma? Can the kerygma be proclaimed too quickly without suitable preparation?
In this article, I will explore the cultural background of young adults and how this might impact their reception of the kerygma. I will then explain the meaning and role of pre-evangelization. Finally, based upon the narratives in my doctoral study, I will illustrate the message of the encounter (as pre-evangelization) to unchurched young adults.
Cultural background of contemporary young adults
Archbishop Vigneron asserts that the western world has been gradually abandoning its Christian foundations over the past few centuries. (4) He mentions several philosophies as “false religions” that have contributed to this decline, namely “scientific fundamentalism,” “moralistic therapeutic deism,” and “secular messianism.” (5)
I agree with his assessment and would propose four additional ideas associated with the postmodern culture in which today’s young adults have grown up: 1.) the lack of objective truth, 2.) the demise of the metanarrative, 3.) relativism, and 4.) individualism.
First, belief in an objective truth generally means that one truth exists and applies to all individuals. For Catholic Christians, Jesus Christ is the Truth (John 14:6) and the Church is the pillar and foundation of this truth (1 Timothy 3:15); this message is essential to the kerygma. A lack of objective truth, therefore, means that truth depends on the individual and his or her unique background and circumstances; so, what is true for one person might not be true for others. Thus, the kerygma becomes only one among many possible narratives. Similarly, appealing to God or the Church as the source and authority of objective truth might be nearly as problematic.
Second, if there is no objective truth, young adults might become skeptical about metanarratives, a term that can be described as an overarching story that claims to explain various events and gives meaning by appealing to universal reason. (6) Christianity may be considered an example of a metanarrative. Thus, a kerygmatic message that is proposed prematurely might be immediately rejected.
Third, a lack of objective truth often leads to relativism, which means that knowledge, ethics and beliefs are conditioned by the culture, time, and circumstances. If all religious beliefs are perceived by young adults as relative, I suspect that a dogmatic proclamation of the kerygma could be viewed as lack of tolerance of another’s choice of belief system or even a form of proselytism.
Fourth, contemporary young adults are often described as having grown up in a hyper-individualistic culture, which places an excessive focus on the individual and his or her desires. Religion or spirituality becomes not only the individual’s choice, but its tenets must also resonate with and make sense to the individual. (7) This might explain why young adults choose from a smorgasbord of beliefs or spiritualities without being tied to a religious denomination.
The above cultural characteristics might also impact both how knowledge is received and how events or phenomena are perceived. Previous generations of young adults, for example, often came to a knowledge of God and faith through transmission of information by an external authority or practices passed down through family or culture. When these sources of knowledge are either absent or viewed skeptically, young adults might come to an awareness of knowledge of God and religion primarily through individual experience.
Finally, given the growing secularization of American culture, the unchurched young adult might simply not have an adequate language and context to understand the kerygma from an intellectual standpoint. In his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis stresses the importance of not assuming “that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness.” (8)
Evangelical Tim Buechsel concurs that when Christians use terms such as “salvation,” “Son of God,” “sin,” and “resurrection” in a post-Christendom world, they presuppose that their hearers grasp their meaning. (9) Jean Twenge argues that some young adults possess a strong sense of externality, meaning that they do not believe they are in control of their circumstances. (10) If this is true, young adults might not attribute a personal, moral responsibility to their own acts and thus have difficulty in understanding the concept of sin and the need for God to save them.
To illustrate the lack of religious literacy in our own backyard, I share a story from one of my students. She recently told me that she and her husband were shopping for a Nativity scene in a home improvement store. In response to their request, the young tattooed clerk announced over the public address system that someone was looking for statues of “a lady and a baby.”
I am concerned that Catholic Christians, both clergy and laity, will only denounce these cultural shifts that have impacted young adults and then stick their heads in the sand. But merely shaking our heads in disapproval keeps us from understanding the reality of their world and might prevent us from adapting our message and approach — or what is often termed “inculturation” in many papal documents on evangelization since Vatican II. (11)
I suggest that the American Catholic Church’s challenge in relating to unchurched young adults bears a strong resemblance to a similar situation confronted by the Church more than 50 years ago in Asia, which was then considered mission territory. Two priests — Fr. Alfonso Nebreda, who had spent time in the Japanese missions; and Fr. Pierre-André Liégé, a French Dominican who had worked with young adults in France during the same era — argued that many people were becoming “impenetrable to evangelization.” These phenomena had drawn attention to the need for greater study on how to prepare the nonbeliever to become receptive to the kerygma. A “pre-evangelization” was proposed as necessary “in order to make [the unbeliever] accessible,” “arouse interest” and “dispose” the person to hear and appreciate the message of God. (12)
During a catechetical gathering in Bangkok in 1962, the term “pre-evangelization” was formally recognized. Three stages in the conversion process that normally characterize the journey of the adult to faith were defined, i.e., pre-evangelization, evangelization, and catechesis proper.
Pre-evangelization was defined as a necessary “stage of preparation for the kerygma which, taking man as he is and where he is, makes a human dialogue possible and awakens in him the sense of God, an indispensable element for opening his heart to the message.” Evangelization as a specific second stage was identified with the kerygma or “the dynamic heralding of the substance of the Christian message, having [as] its goal personal conversion or initial acceptance of Christ as the Lord.” Catechesis, in turn, was understood as a third phase that “systematically develops the message [heard or received] … with its goal … to initiate [the human person] into Christian life and build within him a Christian personality.” (13)
As Archbishop Vigneron echoes, “After two thousand years of development of doctrine, we are used to focusing on the need to transmit Catholic teaching on faith and morals in its fullness. This is indeed essential, but it does not come first. The proclamation of the kerygma must precede catechesis, because people are ready to receive the Church’s doctrine only after they have heard the kerygma and responded in faith.” (14)
However, he does not mention pre-evangelization as a preparatory stage. I would argue that, because the landscape has changed, the paradigm for evangelization might also need to change.
Methods of pre-evangelization
So what is pre-evangelization? Scripturally, Paul’s address to the Greek Gentiles on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31) is often touted as a model for engaging a non-Christian culture. However, those who are seeking a one-size-fits-all strategy might be disappointed. I offer here several understandings of this preparatory phase for the kerygma, based on both Catholic and Protestant methods.
One of the most recognizable methods of pre-evangelization in both Catholic and Protestant denominations is the use of apologetics. The term “apologetics” comes from the Greek word ἀπολογία, meaning a kind of speech of defense. Apologetics may focus on natural theology to prove the existence of God, stress the validity of certain historical events or evidence of miracles to prove Christianity, or demonstrate to nonbelievers that their worldview cannot explain the inconsistencies between their experience and reality. Each of these approaches tends to appeal to the intellectual or cognitive.
Another method of pre-evangelization centers around relationship-building through conversation. Sometimes known as presuppositional apologetics, this approach encourages the evangelizer to identify fallacies in the other’s set of beliefs, ask probing questions to stimulate uncertainty and reveal barriers to the Gospel, and finally to “correct” the person. Facts about Jesus (which are defined as “objective evidence”) and reasons for belief are then connected to the individual’s perception of the practice of the Christian faith (defined as “subjective experience”).
Still, another method might be what is termed “functional apologetics” or “Good Samaritan service.” When we attempt to address the physical and social needs of others, they become more open to us as persons. (15) This is clearly a more relational rather than cognitive approach to pre-evangelization.
Fr. Nebreda’s method of pre-evangelization begins with the reality of the nature and experience of the person as an individual, hence pre-evangelization should be solidly centered around the other. He encourages the believer to move outside of his or her own worldview to both meet and respect the person as he or she is and seek “to appreciate the position of [the] hearers — to see through their eyes and feel through their hearts.” (16) Language must be adapted and tailored toward the unchurched. Rather than trying to prove the self-evidence of the truth of Christianity, Fr. Nebreda suggests that the evangelizer encourage the nonbeliever to talk and ask questions. (17) The purpose of this query is to stimulate a dialogue. He believes the first “obstacles to dialogue with an unbeliever are not merely theoretical or intellectual, but rather prejudices that put [Christians] in a doubtful light as persons.” (18)
Pre-evangelization in action
In my study, pre-evangelization was modeled primarily by the witness’s lifestyle, openness to share his or her faith, a personal invitation to a church or RCIA program, answering questions, and general conversation.
Three young adults particularly alluded to an attraction to the witness’s behavior or lifestyle. As Carrie mentions, “It wasn't even religion that started it. It was the way that they treated each other.” (my italics)
Similarly, Ray regularly observed his military bunkmates:
It was just living next to them for so long. And they just … every day talking about it. And every night, going to bed, they'd be taking time out to pray … which you don't really see a whole lot of in the military because people tend to keep to themselves. But they were not very into hiding it. They were very open about it.
The personal invitation to attend church or begin the RCIA process seems to be a crucial factor. Carrie describes a gentle yet not pushy invitation from her mother-in-law:
It was last summer. She had one of those bulletins from our church. At our house, she was flipping through it. She saw the RCIA section and she goes 'if you're interested in learning more about our faith, you don't have to convert or anything, but you can just go to these classes once a week and just ask your questions. There's someone there. There's a group of people there to support you. They're all at different stages of their lives but they're all going through the same things. And you'll probably get something out of it.’
In seven cases, the participant portrays the witness being approachable and receptive to answering questions about religious matters. At this point, the participant might be termed a “religious seeker” who is actively engaged in the pursuit of knowledge from another who is perceived to be trustworthy and informed.
Corey’s mother-in-law was instrumental through her openness in answering questions. As he relates:
She would help explain things to me … she had this really nice big book that she gave me, that I was able to read up on it … She was a key part, just explaining things so I understood them and the reasons why. If I had questions, I would go to her and she would give me an unbiased reason. And that really intrigued me.
Likewise, Kevin’s in-laws:
If I have any questions, they help me. Along with his family … they never pressured me, but … if I've ever had questions, they're always … they're very open about helping me out.
In my study, the young adults seem to ask many questions when they are in a seeking mode. The lay witness is clearly approachable and willing to listen to the questions and can explain a religious belief or concept, along with providing what are judged as reasonable and understandable answers. Sometimes the witness provides resources (e.g., a spiritual book, Bible) at an appropriate time; however, he or she is decidedly non-coercive and respects the individual’s freedom.
Seven participants indicated a conversation with the witness or witnesses as being insightful or important in their early spiritual journey. Frequent conversations served to expose the participant to religious vocabulary and facilitated a comfort and trust between the witness and nonbeliever. As seen with the personal invitation, the young adults in this study appear to be open and receptive to a conversation about spiritual or religious topics. However, none of the young adults mentioned a debate or argument about the truth of Christianity or Catholicism within the context of the conversation.
And, interestingly, very few of the participants in my study remembered the witness explicitly speak about Jesus, and only one young adult mentioned a witness using the word “sin:”
She wasn't really afraid to announce her faith in front of others … she wasn't afraid to say to people, ‘Don't do that, it's wrong, it's a sin.’ … that kind of intrigued me, I guess, a little bit.
The above observation, of course, does not mean Catholics should avoid talking about the Gospel with unchurched young adults. However, it might suggest that a conversation that includes the kerygma was not the most critical or impressionable moment of the participants’ early conversion experiences. Rather than truth being imposed or even proposed, it is experienced as a seed.
In my final article of this series, I will draw some conclusions about how the Church might respond to this research on pre-evangelization and young adults. I will address my recommendations in light of the parish environment, the role of the laity in secular settings, and also in regard to ecumenical collaboration with our Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters.
- Unleash the Gospel (UTG), 3.1
- Pope John Paul II, On Catechesis in Our Time (Catechesi Tradendae), §25; quoted in Marker 2.2, UTG. Archbishop Vigneron further describes the kerygma in terms of four essential elements: (1) the loving plan of God for human beings; (2) sin and its devastating consequences, especially separation from God; (3) God’s answer to our predicament in the sending of his Son for our salvation; and (4) the response this gift calls for from every person: to repent of our sins, believe in Jesus and be baptized, so we can be filled with his Holy Spirit and live a new life in his family, the Church.
- Marker 2.2, UTG.
- Section 3.3, UTG, 3.3.
- For more information, see Section 3.3, UTG.
- Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 101; Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), p. xxiv.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 486, 507.
- Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel (Frederick, MD: The Word Among Us Press, 2013), §34.
- Tim Buechsel, ‘One size fits all? Uncovering multiple conversion avenues for effective evangelism’, Doctor of Ministry dissertation. Paper 44 (2013), pp. 163, 175. http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/dmin/44 Accessed 23 November 2018.
- Jean Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before (New York: Atria Paperback, 2014), pp. 182, 196-199, 185.
- See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), §854 which references John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, §52-54.
- Johannes Hofinger and Theodore Stone, eds., Pastoral Catechetics (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), p. 148.
- For a detailed description of the results of this catechetical conference, see Alfonso Nebreda, ’East Asian Study Week on Mission Catechetics,’ in Lumen Vitae, 17, 4 (1962), pp. 717-730.
- Marker 2.2, UTG.
- This method is identified with Evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch; see Donald G. Bloesch, Theological Notebook: Volume 3: 1969-1983: The Spiritual Journals of Donald Bloesch (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005), p. 291.
- Alfonso Nebreda, Kerygma in Crisis? (Chicago, Illinois: Loyola University Press, 1965), pp. 50-51, 53.
- Nebreda, Kerygma, p. 106.
- Nebreda, Kerygma, p. 120.