“Ask a Priest: How Can I Evangelize My Atheist Friends?”

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Q: I have some close friends who are atheists. We get along great, and I love them dearly! They know I’m Catholic as I’ve talked about going to Mass, Lent, choir and avoiding eating meat on Fridays. I don’t hide what I am, but I’m not overly loud about it. I felt that by being a good influence and being close to God, my example might be a way to evangelize. However, reading the Bible and hearing the portion about telling people when they are sinning … that sort of thing gives me a lot of anxiety. I’m a very awkward person and am bad with timing on things like this. Also, my friends sometimes seem to be defensive when the conversation strays too close to religion. I’m not sure what to do. Am I supposed to vocally evangelize them and point out their sins? I feel like I struggle with my own sins enough that I feel like a hypocrite. Would you provide me with some guidance? Is there a way to go about evangelizing and helping others find God without being so direct? If I joined my local RCIA group to help others to join, would that count as helping to evangelize others? – M. 

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your interest in evangelizing your friends.

You are asking the right questions, and fact that you are feeling unsure about this area of evangelization is an invitation from the Lord to begin to understand more completely this dimension of your life.

When trying to evangelize atheists, we need to start with some basics.

First is our prayer life. We need to pray for those whom we are trying to bring closer to Our Lord.

Second is our example of charity.

Third is our depth of thought. This doesn’t mean that we have to be rocket scientists. But it helps if we come across as thoughtful and logical and willing to dialogue.

Those are three quick points to keep in mind.

It is good to remember that evangelizing means living an integral dimension of our lives as Christians. It should be part of what we do day by day. We should want to share our faith with others.

Evangelization isn’t the same as proselytism. The latter is when we try to recruit people to our cause. That isn’t what evangelizing is about. It’s more a sharing of our faith in a gentle way, with an eye toward helping people learn about Christ and drawing them closer to him.

There is no simple formula for evangelizing. Rather, it involves a complex set of factors. Let me throw out a few suggestions for your consideration.

First, to share the faith, it helps to understand it well. This you can do by serious reading. There are lots of resources for this, among them:

— RC Spirituality (this site), which helps people in their prayer life as well as in their ongoing formation.

— Catholic Answers (https://www.catholic.com/), which has a wealth of apologetic material.

— Publishers such as Ignatius Press, OSV, Ascension Press, Sophia Institute, etc., which offer hundreds of fine books.

Second, you might focus on material that helps you deal with evangelization specifically.

The book Go! 30 Meditations on How Best to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself, was written precisely to answer the type of questions you raise: What is the missionary dimension of my Christian identify? How am I supposed to live it out? What does “evangelization” really mean for me?

If you read that book, 30 short chapters, one per day, you would find a lot of light.

Third — and this is more for your sake — you want to step back occasionally and ask yourself how your relationship with your atheist friends is going. Are you changing them for the better? Or are they changing you for the worse?

Here, it might be good to network with faith-filled people too. Being in community with believers can strengthen your own faith.

The idea here is that you don’t want to get worn down by the atheists around you, or to let their lack of faith hurt your beliefs.

You mention the RCIA. The RCIA can be good for learning about the faith if the program is well run. The quality can be uneven. That is why I recommend those publishers and websites, which are pretty solid.

As for correcting your friends: it might be good to go easy here, since they don’t sound as though they are ready to hear corrections. They need to discover the richness of Jesus first.

I hope some of this helps. Count on my prayers.

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