Are We Too Nice When We Evangelize?

Much has been said lately about how to do evangelization. I’ve contributed a bit to that myself. Now I begin to think that, instead of always stressing niceness, it might be good to give tough religion a try.

That idea was inspired by a reading of Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian and pastor executed by the Nazis near the end of World War II for  involvement in the plot against Hitler. Metaxas’s book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson), is a tad too worshipful for my taste, but it contains a wealth of information about this iconic religious figure of the 20th century and, best of all, quotes generously from his writing.

As in this description of what he found while doing post-doctoral studies in the early 1930s at Union Theological Seminary in New York: “In New York they preach about virtually everything, only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

As that suggests, Bonhoeffer, an intellectual from a well-off, highly cultured family, was no wimp. Welcomed back to New York in 1939 before the outbreak of hostilities, he could have spent the war there safe and secure. But he chose to return to Germany in the conviction that he belonged with his people during what he knew would be their darkest hour. For the Nazis to have killed him with the end of the fighting in sight was an act of malevolence serving no purpose but revenge.

The circumstances of his death aside, Bonhoeffer may be best remembered now for his scathing comments on “cheap grace.” That was the name he gave to the delusory self-justification many Christians bestow upon themselves with little support for it.

His view of abortion also deserves recalling today. In his Ethics, Bonhoeffer makes the point that quibbling about the personhood of the unborn is an evasion of the real issue: “The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”

As might be expected, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on evangelization are consistent with his thinking on most other things. In a paper written in 1937 he said in part: “The proclamation of grace has its limits. Grace may not be proclaimed to anyone who does not recognize or distinguish or desire it….The world upon whom grace is thrust as a bargain will grow tired of it, and it will not only trample upon the Holy, but also will tear apart those who force it on them.”

Well-intentioned people, Catholics included, sometimes argue that for the sake of evangelization the churches should water down the gospel: a little trimming here, a little prudent silence there, and behold–those pew-sitters who disappeared years ago will come flocking back.

Maybe, but I doubt it. And even if true, how useful would this way of getting people back to church be? “The world upon whom grace is thrust as a bargain will soon grow tired of it.”

I’m reminded of something that somebody else, not Bonhoeffer, said: “If any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Mt 10.14). It might even be a good way to get their attention–which is how evangelization begins.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • JMC

    So true. Sometimes I think it’s the saccharine sermons that are in part what has driven so many out of the Church. I know I certainly hunger to hear more about the “woes” alongside the Beatitudes.

  • rosebud

    Thanks Father; for reminding us that there is no Thrill of Victory without the agony of defeating our sinful tendencies. But we can’t get others to even nibble at the necessary nutrition (Grace) unless it looks appealing. I was influenced by a religious ed teacher who attracted me with a gentle – yet solid assurrance. His nature reminded me of the saying; ” Ya gotta treat people ‘Jes like ya do mules; Don’t try to drive ’em, ‘Jes leave the gate open a mite and let ’em bust in.” I also see that when explaining pennance or payment due for sin, it’s vital to point out 2 Cor. 7: 10; “Repentance leads to salvation (fullness of Joy) not to be regretted…” This payment for sin is transformed/ sanctified into hope by being united with Christ’s sufferrring ; “He who knew no sin became sin for us…” 2Cor. 5: 21. With this understanding, we can then arrive at; “You will have trouble in the world, but take courage(Heart), I have overcome the world Jn. 16: 33 (Thrill of Victory).

  • James Stagg

    Right on! Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Arrowood

    I think we’ve already seen the negative effects of trying to make the Gospel more palatable – we’ve made it irrelevant.

    I just saw a very effective marketing strategy for an exercise program that repeated frequently the message, “This program isn’t for whimps. If you’re looking for an elliptical machine with a built-in television, then this program isn’t for you! This program is only for people who want results from their exercise and who aren’t afraid of working hard to get them.”

    What if we approached our faith the same way? Because it’s true! Our faith comes to us through grace, but Jesus invites us to cooperate with grace and that means hard work. But the results are glorious! That’s the message our evangelization should be communicating.

  • Chris

    We have sugar coated vice, heresy, false teachings, dissent. Just proclaim the gospel as Jesus did.