Why Are Evangelicals Beating Us?

Evangelicals at Hillsong Church in Baulkham Hills, Sydney, Australia
Photo Credit: Ben Rushton

Before I was Catholic, I was Anglican. But before I was Anglican, I was Evangelical, and I have a secret. My secret is that Catholics were the easiest targets to pull out of the Church, and convert to Evangelicalism. Sadly, a good number of the Catholics I pulled out (when I was an Evangelical) went on to have a strong anti-Catholic streak, much worse than anything I ever experienced as a cradle Protestant. I don't believe I put this anti-Catholic streak into them. I think it developed on its own, organically, from having left the Church and a natural human tendency to want to justify that.
So the question is why? Why are so many young Catholics converting to Evangelicalism? And why do Evangelicals so easily pull our young people away from the Church?
The Modernity answer is clueless. This assumes that it must be the praise music, guitars, drums, and emotional worship that does it, along with a happy, non-judgemental, "I'm okay, you're okay" pop-psychology preaching. This retro-1970s solution is not only tired and worn out, it's also inaccurate. It isn't the music, worship style, and pop-psychology message that pulls young Catholics out of the Church. Nor is it these things that make Evangelicalism so successful. For four decades now, we Catholics have been redesigning our parishes, and renovating the mass, to appeal to this mindset. It's not working. It never worked, and it never will work. Because it misses the mark entirely. It seeks the solution to the problem in aesthetics and sentimentality. Neither aesthetics nor sentimentality were ever the problem to begin with. Not only does it misdiagnose the problem, but the proscribed cure is worse than the disease.
The Traditional answer is a bit closer, but still misses the mark. Traditionals assert that the problem is poor catechises and bad liturgy. They would have us believe that if we would just go back to the pre-Vatican II Church, things would be better. There is, of course, an element of truth to this, and we certainly would be better off with more traditional liturgy and catechises, but that alone isn't enough. My Lutheran forefathers, from long before Vatican II, easily converted Catholics as well, and some of them even bragged about it, as late as the 1950s. Not all was well within the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II, and I assert the Church needed some of the reforms of Vatican II desperately. Yes, I assert that Vatican II was necessary -- but incomplete and far too vague. As a result, this lack of clarity and closure from the council opened a door to something far worse. Like Pope Benedict XVI, I assert that the public message of the council was hijacked by the media, and as far as the public mind was concerned, it was made into something it was never intended to be.
When it comes to the question of why young Catholics are leaving the Church, Traditionals overshoot the answer, and the Moderns shoot in the wrong direction entirely. Both are missing it. That's because the answer is so simple that both could easily hit it, if only they knew exactly where it was. Where is it? It's right at their feet actually. It's literally under their noses.
What is it?
It's simple really. Evangelicals are kicking our tails because they teach their people how to have a personal relationship with God the Father. That's what we're missing in the Catholic Church.
You see, there is nothing in that message that is anti-Catholic. In fact, it's probably the most Catholic message there ever was. Jesus came to atone for our sins, so that we may all have a relationship with God the Father as he does. With the Holy Spirit indwelling us, and receiving the physical body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we are brought into the Trinity, literally elevated right to the Father's throne, and given the opportunity to know him and love him -- personally.
For some strange reason, however, most of our priests and catechists stop there. They explain the mechanics of how it works, this theosis or divinisation of the Christian, but then leave the implication of that message almost completely untouched. Most Catholics today couldn't tell you the first thing about what it means to have a personal relationship with God the Father. The Holy Spirit indwells us, the Holy Eucharist feeds us, and we are brought into the Holy Trinity literally body and soul, only to be left standing at the foot of the Father's throne not knowing what to do next. We speak with him in one voice during the "Our Father" prayer, and then we are silent. Please tell me, what kind of relationship grows in silence? What kind of a marriage exists when a husband and wife never speak to each other? That's what we are lacking, and that is why Evangelicals are kicking our tails with young people. It has nothing to do with the loud music, laser beams, fog machines, or non-judgemental message. It has everything to do with the fact that Evangelicals have unwittingly stumbled onto a Biblical truth that Catholics have for too long ignored, or just taken for granted. These Evangelicals are teaching our youth how to have a personal relationship with God the Father. We Catholic parents have prepared our children for this through the sacraments, only to have them stolen away from us at the last moment, because somebody else taught them the meaning of it all before we did. Here's the irony folks, Evangelicals are so successful because they're using our own message against us. They've taken the core message of Catholicism, a message that many of us forgot, claimed it as their own, and are now using it to clobber us.
We are to have a relationship with Our Father in Heaven. That's what it's all about. That's what the Church is all about, the Sacraments, the Eucharist, the Saints, the liturgy, the hierarchy, all of it! It's all about having and growing in a personal relationship with God the Father. It's about knowing him as "Our Father," as our Abba (meaning our "Daddy"), and learning to love him as Our Daddy. Jesus said if you've seen me, you've seen the Father. So we learn to know the Father by learning to know the Son. Yes, it really is that simple. And yes, it just doesn't get any more Catholic than that!
Yet for some reason, this core of our Catholic Christian faith, this essential kernel of what makes us Catholic, is so neglected in our parishes, that when young Catholics today are asked about their personal relationship with God the Father, they just look at you with a blank stare. They have no idea what you're talking about.
How could this have happened? How could we have so carefully prepared them for a relationship with the Father, in both sacrament and catechises, and then forgot to tell them what it's all in preparation for?
Personal is not Private
Now I should stop here and clarify something. Personal does not mean private. Evangelicals often fail to differentiate on that. So much so, that many Evangelicals believe having a personal relationship with God is the same as a private relationship with God. In other words, they see no need for being part of a community. This is why a growing number of Evangelicals have stopped going to church entirely, and are now "worshipping God in their own way" outside of a traditional church setting. The apostles specifically commanded the early Christians to meet together, and not forsake their weekly gatherings to break bread (celebrate the Eucharist). Some of our misguided Evangelical brethren have taken their ideology too far here, and have become popes and bishops unto themselves, having created a "religion" of their own making, far more ritualistic than anything in Catholicism. It is, in their case, a religion of one.
You see, the New Covenant in Jesus Christ is not made with individuals. Rather, it is made with a group, or a community, specifically the Church. So our relationship with God the Father comes about because of, and through, our relationship with the Church. We must be active members within the Church, in order to realise and receive the full relationship that God intends to have with us. Those who have cut themselves off from the Church have put themselves in an impaired state. They cannot fully realise, nor fully receive, the entire relationship God wants to have with them.
Still also, a number of Evangelicals equate the word "relationship" with anti-religion. Under this false and ridiculous pretence, they assert that you can't have a relationship with God if you're involved in any kind of religion. Case in point; many of these Evangelicals would claim that Catholicism is too ritualistic, and therefore too religious. Thus, they would pontificate, that it's impossible to have a relationship with God when you're a Catholic, because Catholicism has too much religion. This of course is preposterous. God is the inventor of the most complex religion in the world -- Judaism -- with 613 commandments to follow. By making the assertion that God opposes religion, they are effectively claiming that God opposes himself. Jesus never opposed religion in the gospels, nor did he oppose ritual. Rather, he commanded his apostles to follow the rules of the scribes and pharisees. He just instructed them not to follow their hypocrisy. That, you see, was Jesus' biggest problem with the religion of his day. It wasn't the religion of Judaism itself. He was, after all, a good Jew. Rather it was the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his time, who made an outward appearance of religion, but obviously didn't believe or practise it. All throughout the New Testament, we are instructed to follow the "traditions" of the apostles, and yes, that means religious traditions. You see, religion (true religion that is) and relationship, are not opposed to one another, as some misguided Evangelicals assert. Both religion and relationship are actually complementary to each other.
Because of these abuses, within Evangelicalism, Catholics have a tendency to react in the opposite direction, rejecting the Evangelical message outright. They say it's about a relationship not religion, and then we react without thinking, saying "No! It's about religion stupid!" as we ignore the relationship part.
The Catholic message is simple. It's not an either/or thing. Catholic Christianity is about having a personal relationship with God the Father, made possible by the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Our Catholic religion is complementary to this, and in fact, it strengthens this relationship and facilitates it. In turn, our personal relationship with God strengthens our religious practise, and gives it more meaning and purpose. Relationship and religion are not an "either/or" thing. Rather, they are a "both/and" thing. Our Catholic religion complements our personal relationship with God, and likewise our personal relationship with God complements our Catholic religion.
Intentional Discipleship
Having a personal relationship with God the Father means becoming an intentional disciple of Jesus Christ. Now exactly what does that mean? - "intentional disciple?" It means making a conscious choice, daily, by your own free will, to learn everything you can about Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, for the purpose of applying these things in your life, all for LOVE of him.
A disciple is more than just a student. A student is merely a learner, meaning somebody who goes to school, learns something, and then goes home to carry on with his life. A disciple, on the other hand, is much more than that. A disciple is somebody who lives with his teacher, talks to him daily. Shares meals with him regularly. Sleeps in the same house as him, and spends every waking hour with him. A disciple is one who is totally dedicated, 100%, to learning and living everything he can about his teacher, to the point of becoming just like his teacher, in the very spitting image! That's a disciple! Far too many Catholics are students and not disciples.
This is what we must do as Catholics. This is how we beat the Evangelical juggernaut at it's own game, because you see, it was never really their game to begin with. It was our game all along. We just forgot how to play it. The Catholic Church is the Church of monasteries and convents. It's the Church of clerical celibacy and religious vocations. It's the ultimate in having a personal relationship with God through intentional discipleship.
What does this mean for the average lay Catholic today? It's simple really. We don't need to join a monastery or convent. We don't even need to join the priesthood, and we don't need to take a vow of celibacy, unless of course these things are one's individual calling! Rather, what we need to do is simply CHOOSE to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We need to CHOOSE daily, on a daily basis, to learn everything we can about Jesus and try to become like him in every way we can, within our own limited means, and station of life of course.
Obviously, if we're married, we need to stay married and love our spouse. Obviously, if we're employed and holding down a job, we need to do that to support our families. Gallivanting off into the wilderness to pray is not what I'm talking about here. Rather, I'm talking about making a conscious choice to spend the rest of our days learning about our Master, and trying to emulate the virtues he taught us. All the while, like anyone in a relationship, we need to talk to our Master regularly and personally. This is where Catholics have a hard time. We're very comfortable reciting the "Our Father" prayer and saying the prayers of the Holy Rosary, but we seem to have a hard time just talking to God one-on-one in a very honest and personable way. Yet it is necessary.
Here's a suggestion. Open your daily prayer time with God by reciting one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be. Then just start talking to God. Tell him about your day. Tell him about your trials, worries and frustrations. Then tell him about all the good things that happened too and what you're thankful for. Granted, he knows all this stuff already, but the truth is, he likes hearing it from you. He wants to know your perspective. He likes hearing your voice! After all, he made your voice. Right?
Uniting the Catholic Factions
Today, the Catholic Church is more divided than its been in centuries, and as I've said many times, it is in real danger of schism. The Moderns would like to take the Church in one direction, while the Traditionals would like to go back to the way it was. While I personally tend to lean toward the Traditional mindset, I am forced to admit that some Modern innovations aren't necessarily bad, and might even be helpful.
However, bickering between the two main factions isn't going to solve anything. What will solve a whole lot of things is if we all get back to what Catholic Christianity is really all about. It's about having a personal relationship with God the Father, because Jesus Christ made that possible, and allowing the hierarchy and sacraments of the Church (the Church Jesus created) to lead us deeper into that relationship with the Father. That's what it's all about! I believe if we all started focusing on that, we could unite the Catholic factions, fulfil the lost intentions of Vatican II, and show the Evangelicals what it REALLY MEANS to have a relationship with God.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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It is actually BauLKHAM HILLS dont forget the "s" my mother grew up nearby.. But my problem with Hillsong is their Prosperity gospel.They have a Conference every year and Catholics and Anglicans attend along with Hillsong attendees. However guitars and modern songs will not change things. It is the never changing Gospel to an every changing world that will.

I would like to quote heavily your article for our church bulletin. Giving you credit, could i have permission to do so? (Also, how would you like the credit to read?)
Shane Schaetzel said…
Yes Richard, you have permission. The credit could read something like: Shane Schaetzel, CatholicInTheOzarks.Com

Assuming that works on your end.
You are reaching a similar conclusion that I have come to but in a different way. For the last seven years I have been engaged in what the Church calls the "New Evangelization." In my pastoral work and study, I have sought to learn what it is and put it into effect. But I am finding that much of what is done is highly problematic for a few reasons.

First, it is not only un-theological, it is at times anti-theological. This is the reason why so many in the Church have latched on to the throw-away phrase from a low-level papal exhortation "Missionary Disciples." The New Evangelization has a thin theological foundation. Few people are called to be missionaries and there is much more to being a Catholic than the foundational discipleship. Most lay people are called to and want to do apostolate - witnessing through friendship, conversations and actions rather than missionary preaching.

Second, in the documents and work of the New Evangelization, there is little to no mention of the Father and the Holy Spirit. It is often only about Jesus. It is as if there is a new Trinity - Jesus, Jesus and Jesus. But, as you say, what the Evangelicals are offering is a relationship with the Father (through Jesus in the Holy Spirit). That would be a shock to most Catholics who are part of the NE.
And that is what the Catholic Church should also be focusing on.

I would take issue with references to God the Father in the Mass - The great majority of the prayers of the priest are directed to the Father. The Eucharistic prayer especially is - Te igitur clementissime Pater. . . . . There is also the "relationship" with the Church - that is there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church - and our hope of salvation is assured only if we remain in the barque of Peter.
johnnyc said…
This is a silly way to put it. They are not beating us.....they are not winning. What you have to realize and what the Catholic Church is afraid to say due to false ecumenism is that protestants lose when they separate themselves from the Church that Jesus founded, the Catholic Church. I just heard today Bishop Barron praising Billy Grahamn as an example of proper evangelization. What the heck?! How many Catholics has Grahamn's preaching led from the Catholic Church.

Then we have those in the Church promoting the protestant notion of a 'personal relationship' with Jesus. You can not have much of a relationship with Jesus without His Church......the Sacraments He instituted for us (I will be with you always) and His teachings (if you love me you will obey my commandments). Any relationship with Jesus that does not include His Church is really just someone seeking a personal Jesus. Indeed Jesus Christ and His Church, the Catholic Church are One and the Same.
Shane Schaetzel said…
JohnNYC, actually I don't think it's the wrong terminology at all. Evangelical Protestants are CLOBBERING us, and it's been going on for a very long time. Currently, in the United States, for every 2 converts who enter the Catholic Church, over 10 cradle Catholics leave. Of those who leave the Catholic Church, about half became Evangelical. The rest become "spiritual but not religious" entering the "none" category. Less than 2% become Anglican/Episcopalian. Only 3% leave the Catholic Church because marital issues (divorce). 27% leave because of scandal (sexual abuse, etc.), while the remaining 70% leave because they just lose faith. That's staggering! Meanwhile, mass attendance is abysmal....

45% of WW2 generation
20% of Baby Boomers
13% of Generation X
10% of Millennials

However, it was found that among Catholics who said they had a personal relationship with God, through the Church of course, the correlation between mass attendance was much higher, and they were much less likely to leave the Church.

I think you might want to go back and read my essay a little more carefully. What I am NOT advocating is a personal relationship of the Evangelical model, where it's all just "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus" on our own terms. If anything, I am repudiating that. Rather, what I have advocated is an understanding that good liturgy, good catechises, and reception of the sacraments (i.e. the function of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ) actually facilitates our relationship with God the Father, as we undergo Theosis, being brought into the life of the Trinity.

This is a totally Catholic concept, and it blows away the Evangelical idea of "Jesus is your buddy" kind of relationship. We are sorely lacking in teaching this, and as a result, the Evangelicals are killing us (stealing our kids away) with our own message, albeit they have a watered-down version of it.
David Sharples said…
A new Evangelization requires that we believe in the Church, sadly most don't today, and they disbelieve what is "not taught", namely the sinfulness of contraception.
When we see preaching on the sinfulness of contraception, we'll know we've turned the corner.
Shane Schaetzel said…
Sadly, in our culture, I wonder if it will take a calamity of uncontrolled infertility, by either mass chemical or viral infection, before Americans will finally come to realise how sinful artificial contraception is.
VRS said…
Of the three answers proposed ("Modernity," bad catechesis/VII, relationship) do you think these things might actually fit together rather than be mutually exclusive? Something like, people aren't learning the Faith really, they want a relationship with God (but haven't been taught about how to do that), and the better/trendier music and lights etc. at Megachurch Inc. make them feel like they are filling that hole while they are being told about it there.
Rob said…

Thank you for writing this. I have been thinking about this for years and you said it better than I could have, and have come to very similar conclusions. I am a convert to the Catholic faith, and the catalyst for my conversion was a personal encounter with The Lord. What nurturers my Catholicism, after 20 years, is an ongoing personal relationship with The Lord. I appreciate the prescribed prayers in the Church--rosary, novenas, Our Father, etc--but it's almost as if many Catholics are AFRAID to get too close to The Lord, and take solace in a removed kind of formalism that keeps God at arms-length.

I attend a non-demoninational men's bible study early on a weekday (in all honesty, the only reason I do is that no Catholic church in my area has one, and if they do it is like at 10am or something, and I work)--these Evangelicals are good, committed, intentional people that know their bible, live their faith and make their personal relationship known to others. I'd say a third of their church are ex-Cathoilcs who WANTED a personal relationship with The Lord but were told ever so subtly by the Catholic church that "you don't need that, we have the sacraments and the mass". So they left, and they left at an invitation to leave and join a community of people to whom having a personal relationship with The Lord was not weird, but WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT!

Similar to what Fr. Steve said, I am ready, willing and able to be 'sent into the field as a harvest-worker' in the "New Evangelization", but I feel even then that the sacraments/sacramentals are there...the TRUTH is there...the beauty is there...but the people living a "personal relationship" with The Lord in the CC who are not afraid to share that with others via witness is sorely lacking. I don't know what the answer is, but I love my Catholic faith and I want others to know the joy of Truth, I try to evangelize on my own and with individuals in one-one-one settings, but the institutional support for intentionally making disciples....well, it just seems like the Catholic Church is shrugging their shoulders. I personally am hitting resistance at my parish, like something akin to evangelizing does not fit the 'culture' of Catholicism, and am getting discouraged. But I continue to pray that God will uses me. I think these Evangelicals are seeing the chinks in our armour and exploiting it, but they will never have the fullness of Truth, but I can tell you from my experience--they REALLY want people to know Jesus, especially via a personal relationship. What is it about Catholicism that is so resistant to that idea? Why is it so scary? Because all the saints had it. All the disciples had it. The Lord says in Mt 7:21-23: "Not everyone who says to Me, Lord Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord Lord did we not prophesy in Your name , and in your name cast out demons, and in you name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you, DEPART FROM ME YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS."

Great stuff, Shane, very perceptive. Please pray that The Lord might use me to be a worker, and to show me how to bring more back into the fold.
Rob said…
Shane, thanks. Truth be told I have joined the SPSE apostolate a year ago and have been trying to get a chapter going in our area through our parish, but was hitting some resistance (i can't believe the church politics, it's like watching sausage be made), and then our pastor left on medical leave and we're kind of in a state of flux right now. That's just an excuse though, really. I suppose I can start a chapter outside of our parish, just dont have anyone to evangelize with (2 min are needed), so praying for brothers to join me. I have been 'sitting on' the idea of street evangelization through SPSE for about two years but haven't actually taken the steps to just get out there and do it. I feel like the brother that tells the father he will go out into the field but then doesn't go. If I can ask, what do you think of the 'street evangelization' model? is it effective? does that even matter? is there a better way? i admire that they are not waiting around, but just taking an idea of 'getting out there' and running with it. you mentioned in one of your posts that we should 'just be Catholic' in our every day lives as the best means of evangelizing, so wonder how this kind of explicit public witness jives with that.

Love your blog!

Shane Schaetzel said…
In my opinion, street evsngelism has mixed effectiveness, but the good outweighs the bad enough to justify it.

There are other ways to help people find a personal relationship with the Father. You could help out at RCIA and simply share this message with new converts and the RCIA director. Of course it always helps to go to your priest first and get his backing. Some Catholics will freak out upon hearing this message, because it sounds to Evangelical-ish to them. So having the approval from your priest first will go a long way.
Jeff S said…
As a non catholic friend once put it " they are all joining the feel good, what's happening now churches."
James said…
I have been considering becoming a Catholic for years. I was raised a Lutheran, but I must admit I have attended church irregularly for a long time.

The process to become a Catholic takes far too long. Eight months of classes once a week just doesn't work for me, given the chaotic nature of my work. With many Protestant churches, the process is far shorter. I observe the Catholic community, read what I can, and want to take part. I love the idea of daily masses. But the length of time is a serious barrier to those with irregular schedules.

Any thoughts?
James said…
To add to my earlier comment: it seems the Catholic faith want you to understand all of the rational reasons for becoming part of the faith first, then be initiated. In my mind, that is the cart before the horse. Let the person establish a relationship with Jesus through the Church first, then give him or her all the background.
Shane Schaetzel said…
James, have you tried looking into an Ordinariate community. They are usually smaller and can get people into the Church much faster.


If nothing is nearby you, maybe consider talking to a Catholic priest at a local parish. Sometimes when RCIA just won't work out, they can schedule some one-on-one catechesis to expedite the process.
James said…
Thank you, Shane!
Dan said…
"Evangelicals are so successful because their [sic] using our own message against us. They've taken the core message of Catholicism, a message that many of us forgot, claimed it as their own, and are now using it to clobber us."

I just see this as a "give em' what they want” theology on the part of Evangelicals and those that gravitate to it. The biggest missing ingredient in Protestant teaching is the Eucharist, the real presence of God in our midst as given to us by Jesus. The additional sacraments of the Catholic Church are right in the Bible and give us the gifts of reconciliation and grace from God. I mention this because no amount of teaching a personal relationship with God without the sacraments can mean much. I discovered that for me, an appropriate and insightful Bible study program (Jeff Cavins' is outstanding) really brings the whole relationship between man and God into focus.

As beautiful and invigorating as a summer thunderstorm is, it is best observed and enjoyed with the protection of cover, not dancing out in the middle of a field.

Your point that "what we need to do is simply CHOOSE to be a disciple of Jesus Christ" is a bullseye dead center.
WPR said…
I'd love to be able to post this on FB, email to friends. Needs links.
Shane Schaetzel said…
WPR - Click the "Share" button beneath the advertisements.
As a former protestant, converted and brought into the Church by the Society of St. Pius X, I experienced the insufficiency of protestantism, the legalism of the Society, and finally, two years later, rediscovered my faith while attending an FSSP chapel and learning from folks like the Catholic Answers community, Dr. Scott Hahn, Bishop Barron and Fr. Schmitz. I have never known the love of God so deeply as I do now, not as a protestant or as an ultra-Traditional Catholic. Christ is here. Emmanuel, God with us...and you could not have put it better. Thank you.