The Examined Life
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The first (and most ignored) rule of preaching the gospel: “Know your audience.”

A friend’s birthday party occasioned one of the odder questions I’ve been asked lately: “Do you practice religion?” My questioner seemed genuinely curious—not hostile or incredulous—but I couldn’t help feeling as if I’d been asked how often I sacrifice goats. The stylish, 25-year-old woman represented the demographic brass ring for most churches, the coveted-though-AWOL, professional, single “young adult.” Yet she knew next to nothing about religion.

It’s the kind of party conversation I sometimes have when I give a truthful answer to “What do you do for a living?” But I’ve never really figured out just how to explain my faith to my unchurched peers. For them it’s just a quirky part of my personality. That’s not to say they don’t have the same needs that religion fills for me, they’d just never think an institution like Catholicism could fill those needs. As for me, I am often left feeling like I’ve missed an opportunity to give an account of Catholicism that isn’t focused on the media darlings of celibacy, abortion, sex abuse, or homosexuality.

The unchurched and seemingly uninterested masses are certainly not new, which makes it all the more surprising that as a church we are constantly missing the opportunity to reach them. On Christmas Eve this year, I went to Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and found the massive space absolutely packed—with tourists who probably hadn’t darkened a church door since their wedding, if ever. My family was among the few who knew the responses or tried to sing. Receiving puzzled looks in response to my offered hand at the sign of peace, I wondered if anyone had given thought to the fact that most of the people had no idea what was going on. Since, to my horror, the presider had mentioned the “violation of children” in his Christmas Eve homily, I felt certain the answer was no.

But that preaching gaffe at least offered an insight into why our message isn’t getting out among the young and trendy and the vacationers who flock to Fifth Avenue: We talk about ourselves too much.

Think about it: On the pages of both secular and Catholic press (including this column), we read a lot about intrachurch fights over things like sex, women’s ordination, the role of the laity, papal authority—as if these make up the content of our faith. It’s not that these issues aren’t important, but as evangelical tools they either make us look medieval to outsiders—what other church still has the equivalent of a monarch?—or, worse, hypocritical, carrying on about chastity while priests get perp-walked on TV. All this conspires to make religion irrelevant or corrupt in the eyes of many. The tragedy is that the gospel is anything but, and we all know why.

We have Jesus, for one, and his message of radical forgiveness, nonviolence, universal welcome, and love for the poor (and the rich, too). We have an astonishing history of educational and charitable action, smart and holy people, and thoughtful responses to the world around us. We have a communion of people from virtually every race, nation, language, and class; and around the globe they are doing amazing things in the struggle for justice, peace, and human rights. Talk about a story worth telling! Why aren’t we?

This season of Lent is supposed to be a time of conversion, literally turning away from some things and turning toward others. Perhaps this Lent we could turn away from condemning the unchurched culture around us for its alleged relativism, hedonism, and materialism. After all, we’re no less guilty of those same extremes—just read any newspaper.

We could instead spend this Lent crafting the gospel message our society needs to hear: that one’s value isn’t based on your job title but on the grace of being made in God’s image; that “beautiful” in God’s eyes doesn’t have anything to do with body mass index or a close shave but everything to do with compassion, mercy, and kindness; that with Jesus you never (never!) run out of second chances; that there’s a place for everyone—and we do mean everyone—in the reign of God, even if we don’t always live up to God’s vision.

My Christmas Eve preacher actually had the nugget he needed: “We Christians believe every individual life is holy.” Sounds like a good place to start.

Bryan Cones is associate editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the March 2008 (Volume 73, Number 3; page 8) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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