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A Simple Way to Engage Catholics with the Gospel

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Of all the groups with whom evangelicals struggle to share the gospel, Roman Catholics are, sadly, often high on the list. While our many theological agreements give us common ground, our significant disagreements can make us feel combative or they can cause us to avoid the discussion altogether.

However, rather than getting into arguments about Mary and the Pope, rather than debating about purgatory and the rosary, what if you could sit with Roman Catholics and discuss biblical passages about Jesus Christ—who He is and what He has done for us?

I’d take that scenario any day!

Years ago, when my wife and I served with Cru in Rome, Italy, we experienced exactly what I just described. On a weekly basis, we gathered in the home of one of our Roman Catholic friends for what we called a Reading Group of the Gospel. My wife and I, together with four Catholic couples, would spend a couple of hours focusing on Jesus Christ as he is set forth in Scripture.

Our text for the Tuesday night gathering would be the Gospel passage that would be read at the Catholic Mass that coming Sunday. (The Catholic Church publishes a liturgical calendar that indicates an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, and a reading from one of the four Gospels for its daily Masses. Our Reading Group would simply consult this calendar to know the Gospel text for our gathering.) As an example, meeting on Tuesday evening, we would pull out our calendar, turn to the upcoming Sunday, note the reading of the Gospel for that Sunday Mass, and that would become our passage for discussion.

Let’s say it was Luke 19:1–10, the story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus. We would read the passage, then pause for a time of silent reflection. We would read the passage a second time, followed again by a pause. We then would follow a simple Bible study method: Observation. Interpretation. Application. Prayer.

He [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1–10)

The following is an abbreviated example of how our Reading Group of the Gospel might unfold: the questions are examples that the leader might pose to the participants, and the notes (in parentheses) are for the leader to know in which direction to steer the discussion.

Observation
Who are the characters in this story, and what do they say and do? (Make sure the participants carefully observe how the text presents the characters)

Do you understand what a tax collector was in those days? (Help the group see that as a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have been viewed very negatively by the culture)

Why did Jesus tell Zacchaeus to come down? (Focus on Jesus’s emphasis that he must stay at Zacchaeus’s house)

After Zacchaeus hurried down from the tree and received Jesus joyfully, why wasn’t the crowd as happy as Zacchaeus? (Make sure the participants grasp how sinful Zacchaeus was, and how upset the crowd was because of Jesus being the guest of a “sinner”)

What does Zacchaeus do after he receives Jesus? (Help the group see how serious Zacchaeus was about Jesus and how different a person he was after encountering Jesus)

According to Jesus, “salvation” came to Zacchaeus, so what is salvation? (Be sure to clear up any possible misconceptions that salvation is about cleaning up your life so you can meet Jesus, and do so by focusing on the flow of this story: first Zacchaeus meets Jesus, then the change comes)

Interpretation
What are we to learn from the character Zacchaeus? (Focus on the radical change of life due to him receiving Jesus)

What are we to learn from the character Jesus? (Make sure the participants understand Jesus’ radical mission to seek out the terrible sinner Zacchaeus)

What are we to learn from the character “the crowd?” (Help the group see that following Jesus may set off an angry reaction by certain people)

Where in this narrative do we find the “big idea” or “take away” of the story? (Guide the participants to articulating in their own words the “big idea” of verse 10)

In this story, how do we see Jesus coming to seek and to save the lost? (Make sure the group grasps the initiative of Jesus seeking out Zacchaeus and the salvation that follows from Zacchaeus’ joyful reception of Jesus)

Application
Is Jesus coming to seek and to save you? (Depending on their readiness to be open and share with the group, prompt each person to express the way(s) in which Jesus is working in their life)

What does God want you to do or believe or be in response to this narrative? (Emphasize that each of us must respond personally to what God is saying in this story)

Prayer
Would anyone like to pray? (It may take weeks or even months before anyone in the group feels comfortable or even capable of praying, and when someone does, expect a very simple prayer like “God help me to be like Zacchaeus”)

[Leader:] Jesus, thank you for coming to seek and to save us, because we are lost without you. Amen.

This abbreviated example of how our conversation might unfold gives you a glimpse into the dynamics of a Reading Group of the Gospel. Some points to underscore:

  • The focus is on who Jesus is and what he does, because the group members are largely ignorant of him.
  • The discussion centers on the text of Scripture through a simple Bible study method of reading the text, observation, interpretation, application, and prayer.
  • If the participants go to their Catholic Church that upcoming Sunday, then they’ve already immersed themselves in the Gospel reading for that Mass.
  • If they come to our Reading Group the next Tuesday evening and say something like “Well, my priest said X about this text, but you said Y about this text,” the proper response is “But you’ve read and studied the text, so what does the Bible say?” There’s no need to get into a fight about the priest’s authority versus our authority. What matters is the authority of the Bible. The question we want them to focus on is What did we learn about Jesus from the Bible?
  • If they raise a concern like “I’ve always been told that the Bible is very hard to understand, so we need to be careful reading it,” the proper response is, “But we read and study the Bible together, and we don’t find it too difficult to understand, do we?” What matters is the clarity of Scripture: God intends for us to understand the Bible, and we are indeed able to understand it. We promote this approach to Scripture by actually reading it ourselves and thinking through what it means.
  • It will probably take months before group members will begin to grasp who Jesus is and what he has done for them. Don’t get discouraged by the lack of apparent progress at the start. And don’t rush the process: you want to make sure the participants understand essential matters about Jesus so that the gospel becomes clear for them. It’s nonsensical and wrong to push them to pray to receive Jesus and accept the gospel if they don’t yet know who Jesus is and what he has done for their salvation.

I hope you will experience the joy of helping your Roman Catholic friends and neighbors embrace Jesus Christ through reading and studying the Bible together with them!

Gregg Allison
Dr. Gregg Allison is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has 18 years of ministry experience as a staff member of Campus Crusade (Cru), where he worked in campus ministry, as well as serving as a missionary in Italy and Switzerland. He also co-pastored a church in Lugano, Switzerland. Dr. Allison is currently a pastor at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves on the Leadership Council. Books Dr. Allison has authored include: Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine; Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church; Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment; The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants after 500 Years; The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms.
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