One thing you can say about Pope Benedict XVI: he really believes this stuff! The paper, “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church,” proclaimed last June that all the world needs to hear, believe, and obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as articulated by the Roman Catholic Church. This past month, he announced to Roman Catholic mission workers that they need to be proclaiming that Gospel message far and wide, not in deed only but in words as well (see p. 6). True missionaries preach the Gospel, aiming to bring converts into the faith, he said.
Benedict XVI did not invent evangelistic missions for the Roman church. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II coined the term “new evangelization.” In Redemptoris Missio, he said, ” … the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.” (1990, p. 3)
Then again, his own predecessor, Pope Paul VI, wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize …” (1975, p. 14).
None of the Popes invented evangelism. Enthusiastic believers did. Even before Jesus issued the Great Commission, thousands of his followers, amazed and thrilled by his ministry and message, spread the word far and wide, even disobeying his sometimes command to “tell no one.”
Let nobody doubt the power of influence that’s exerted by passionate, convinced converts. Least of all, let no Presbyterians doubt. But there, my friend, is where we have a problem, just as the Roman Catholic Church has a problem. Long identified with the majority population, long comfortable in our cultural surroundings, we are longtime inheritors of the faith of our parents, grandparents, and their progenitors; most of us don’t share the conviction of the converts or the passion of the newly persuaded. Indeed, we see the pointing, scolding finger of the Apostle John as he utters to us an echo of his word to the Laodicean Church: “Lukewarm!” (Rev. 3:16)
What can we do — where can we go — to break the cycle of mediocrity, of mere intellectual assent, of lukewarm believing?
What we can do is to go to a place conceived, built, and maintained by a handful of energetic visionaries: a Presbyterian camp or conference center. They have been built to pull us a short distance away from our familiar environments, to disrupt the humdrum patterns of our existence, to soften our concrete mindsets, to reintroduce us to the pristine world God created, and to confront us anew with the promises and claims of the Gospel.
Many a second and third generation Presbyterian has been converted in such a place — maybe not from unbelief to belief, but from bland assent to bold evangelism; from being a take-God-for-granted pew squatter to becoming a heart-strangely-warmed mission co-worker. Many a flaming believer has returned home with a passion for proclaiming the good news of God’s mercy and love.
What’s more, many a lonely, disconnected church attendee has found a path into genuine congregational friendships by attending a church retreat.
It’s working. In spite of rumors of their demise, in this their 100th year, many of our camp and conference centers are growing and expanding. Some of their programs are burgeoning. For example, the upcoming college conference at the Montreat Conference Center will host more than 750 registrants! And many of them will be sent back to school with hearts aflame, hands equipped, and voices tuned to proclaim the Good News.
We may dispute some aspects of his theology, but Pope Benedict XVI really believes that stuff — enough to want to evangelize the world. Many a camper, conferee and retreat alum has also become a convinced convert, a true believer — in the best sense of those words. Many have become the leading evangelists, the great proclaimers of the Gospel in our day. May they increase.