When I read the recent results from a Barna Group report suggesting that just under half (47%) of Christian Millennials think it’s wrong to evangelize, I confess I felt a bit like the Apostle Paul, trying his best day by day, letter by letter to show his brethren that the promises to Abraham extend to all the world. At the time Paul was writing, of course, the story of God’s promises to Abraham was well known. Paul went to such great lengths—in his epistles to the Romans and the Ephesians, in word and deed, in every breath he took and every tear he shed—to drive home this point: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him” (Rom 10:12). Again, “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also…” (Rom 3:29).
But swirling around these and many, many more passages about the worldwide implications of the promises to Abraham, fulfilled in and accomplished through Jesus the Messiah and the Catholic—let’s not forget, universal—Church, we have Paul’s equally pressing concern: “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Rom 10:14). Some Catholics today answer Paul like so: “Well, through the natural law, of course.” No doubt, the natural law is important, but Paul is thinking of bigger (and better?) means to accomplish the task at hand: “And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?” (v. 15).
We need preachers of the Gospel, not just good natural law thinkers. That is why the recent study by Barna Group is so concerning.
What’s going on here? And what has caused it? It is no coincidence that Paul confesses the need to preach the gospel within the context of God’s promises to Abraham. It’s easy to forget, but we do well to remind ourselves (especially in light of the Barna Group study), that God made promises, not just to Israel, but through Israel (Gen 22:16-18; see Sir 44:21). Paul, and the other early Catholics for that matter, were convinced that Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, has fulfilled—precisely in and through the Church—the worldwide promised blessing to the nations through Abraham’s seed.
For Paul, the apostolic mandate, the conclusion to the story, the way the narrative works itself out is through the Church’s mission to the Gentiles, the evangelization of the nations. Whatever else we might want to say about the Barna Group study, the one thing we must say is that 47% of Christian Millennials are truncating the story of the Bible by suggesting that evangelization is wrong.
What sort of story are they reading? Better yet: What kind of story are they living?
Suppose we react to the Barna Group study like so: we lay the blame at the level of culture; it’s the pluralistic society that’s the problem. Suppose we say, Millennials are just consumed with the thought that all religions are the same. Millennials are distracted, malformed, misinformed, don’t really believe, lazy, and so on. Yes, yes, and yes. Generalizations, however, are just that: generalizations. As a Millennial myself, I’d like to think that I’m at least one exception to at least one of the above accusations. It’s hard to generalize any group of people, let alone an entire generation. However, with such a high number (47%), one is pressed to make some attempt. But let’s do something more: What’s at the root in Barna Group’s findings?
We’ve all heard about, or even witnessed directly, the crisis of catechesis. We’ve heard that Millennials often prize tolerance above truth, and that most people today see all forms of evangelization as intolerant, and thus wrong. That’s not surprising. But think about this next point: Was there any culture more pluralistic—not least religiously pluralistic!—then that of ancient Rome? So long as no one went around claiming there to be a new king (i.e., the Christians), all gods and goddesses were welcomed and worshiped. We all need a gentle reminder from time to time of just how pluralistic first-century Rome was.
This meant, after all, that Paul was under the same kind of intense pressure to stop short of the mission to the Gentiles, stop short of evangelizing of the nations, stop short of God’s great promises being fulfilled. In at least one occasion that we know of, that pressure was brought to bear on Paul by the Pope himself (see Gal 2:11-21). Peter was himself, lest we forget, at one time part of the 47%—although he was influenced, not by Roman pluralism, but by the “Judaizers” who thought there was no fellowship with, and thus no mission to, the Gentiles (and that’s another article for another time).
So Paul found himself in the midst of a pluralistic society, facing all kinds of the same obstacles to evangelization—not unlike the challenges and temptations we are facing today. Jesus could be worshipped, but don’t go around, you Christians, telling us that he’s the only god (not least that has something to do with our politics; that is, don’t be trying to make him king). Sound familiar? This pluralistic society put Paul under intense pressure to halt his missionary impulse enflamed by the story of the Scriptures reaching its final stage.
But how did Paul ignite the early Catholics to resist pluralism and to evangelize? How did he change Peter’s mind? And how might Paul respond to the Barna Group study showing that 47% of devout Christian Millennials think it’s wrong to evangelize?
Further, what is the question to which the mandate to evangelize is the answer? Or, to put it another way, what is the narrative flow of the Bible to which the conversion of the nations is the final chapter? These—not combating religious pluralism or accusing Romans or Greeks of being bad natural law thinkers—were the sort of questions that concerned Paul the most. What concerned Paul most, and thus what ought to concern us all the same, is the actual story of the Bible. How does the story work? How does it end? And if we are in the final chapter, which Paul believed had in fact been inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who does it involve, and why?
Here’s the much more concerning part of the Barna Group study. The Millennials in questions weren’t just your less-than-average, second-rate, not up to snuff Church goers—these were practicing Christians, committed Christians, Christians who have already undergone initial evangelization. This is why I set out at the beginning to bring up Paul. Let me be quite clear: if it were a study that inquired into nominal and non-practicing Christian, those ‘believers’ who don’t take the faith seriously, I would have (a) not been surprised at all (‘just another one of those’) and (b) written a critique of pluralism in general.
Unfortunately, that’s not what we have here.
‘How can one hear without a preacher’ is true and good and all the rest. But the problem is that Millennials don’t want to preach, they don’t want to evangelize, they don’t want to go out to all the world. They even think the whole thing is wrong! Given what has been said thus far, we might think of Paul asking this question: Don’t they know how the story works? Don’t they know about Abraham, about the covenants, about God’s plan to rescue and redeem the world?
What about the covenant at creation, with creation, for creation? What about Noah and the renewal of the creation covenant? How do the promises of Abraham work themselves out with Moses and Israel at Sinai, and David in Jerusalem?
Paul, with everything he has to say concerning the need to preach the Gospel, is assuming something fundamental and developed in the opening chapters of Romans (1-9) all the way up and into, as well as providing the proper context for, chapter 10. It concerns the story of Israel and the world. Paul is not just making the case that ‘well, we need preachers’ (Rom 10); but rather the much larger point that ‘preachers need the story of Israel’ (Rom 1-9). Or, to make it sound more relevant for us today, this: 47% of devout Christian Millennials need the story of Israel to know why it is they need to preach (saying nothing about what it actually is they are preaching).
Given this, we might at times be tempted to give these Millennials Romans 10:14- 15—see, we say, we need to preach; Paul says it, so we do it—saying nothing of what Paul has been building on leading up to that point. The reason why we need preacher (chapter 10) is because of everything Paul has said in chapters 1-9, which is to explain how the story of the Bible plays out. We must say it again: Romans 10 comes after Paul has spilled nine chapters worth of ink on the story of Israel and the promises given to Abraham, and the implications of those promises as they have been fulfilled in and through Jesus (and Jesus’ Church; see Ephesians).
Before we start telling Millennials that they need to preach and evangelize, we might do well to tell them the story of Israel, of Abraham, of God’s rescue operation for the world through Abraham and the covenant promises. Given this larger story of salvation history, we might begin to gather up the 47% and remind them of how the story actually works, and how the need to preach to the nations ends up fulfilling the promises given to Abraham for the sake of the nations. How can one hear without a preacher? They can’t. How can men preach unless they are sent? They can’t.
But—and here’s the point—how can Millennials know they are to go forth preaching if the story about Jesus, the apostles, the Church, has no reference to Abraham, the story of Israel, and the nations—namely, without reference to the larger story of the Bible? They can’t. And when it comes to evangelizing: they won’t.
Within the biblical story, Abraham shows up on the scene precisely as the answer to the world’s problem outlined in Genesis 3 with clear implications drawn out through chapters 4-6. It is through Abraham’s family that the nations will be blessed. We all need a fresh reminder of how the story works. That was Paul’s ministry. It ought to be ours as well. Then, and only then, will we all feel the call to evangelize, which is to say this: to bring the story into its final stage, which is to say this: to bring the nations into the one worldwide family of Abraham, the Catholic Church.
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