Stuck in Neutral: When Parish Evangelization (Still) Fails

It has been five years since the four-day United States Convocation of Catholic Leaders on Evangelization was held in Atlanta.

It has been nine years since Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, was released.

It has been twelve years since Pope Benedict XVI established the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.

It has been nearly 40 years since Pope St. John Paul II coined the term “the new evangelization,” with its “new means, new expressions, new ardor.”

It has been 47 years since Pope St. Paul VI offered the post-Vatican II church’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Evangelization in the Modern World.

So why are our parishes shrinking, and our younger generations missing in action?

Why does parish-based evangelization so often fail? Why do well-intentioned parishes seem to be stuck in neutral, spinning their wheels, and digging themselves deeper into the dirt ruts of a road to nowhere?

Obviously, not all parish evangelization efforts fail, and we can’t be reduced to calculating all spiritual growth and outreach. Spiritual challenges are not data spreadsheets. Yet when 47% of our youngest adult generation mark “none” to the question “With which religious tradition do you identify?” — when in the 1970s, the age of Evangelii Nuntiandi, it was in the lower single digits — these numbers are hard to read as anything but evangelical failure. The way our parishes offer Jesus Christ to the people of the United States in 2022 is increasingly stalling, to the point of nearly needing a rebirth of Christianity rather than a renewal of it. Yet people who know Jesus Christ is our hope want others to know him as well, and some parishes genuinely have tried to reach out.

What happened here? And how do we become evangelizing parishes that successfully evangelize?

A change of the age

In the 1970s and onward, Catholic Christians unpacked the richness of the Second Vatican Council in beautiful ways (albeit with inevitable missteps as well). The Second Vatican Council was designed to be a pastoral response to the modern world, and often honored and embraced the optimism of a globally connected humanity full of rich possibilities for human flourishing. Few countries champion that optimism quite like the United States, a nation built on the modern notion of the human being, “life, liberty, and happiness,” and the potential of human solidarity in freedom.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the fulfillment of the modern age. It collapsed, even as we were embracing it. We’re now in a thoroughly postmodern, post-Christian age. Msgr. James Shea’s book From Christendom and Apostolic Mission (University of Mary Press, 2020) articulates this cultural shift well, and reminds us that we Christians are in an apostolic age. The great danger parishes face is not postmodernity, or the challenge of the apostolic call. The greatest danger is that parishes do not fully grasp the postmodern mission field and how we all need to adapt.

Funneling the evangelical response

But the Holy Spirit, working in his people, has not been asleep. Powerful initiatives have been launched in the Christian communion as well as in the Catholic Church.1 Evangelical processes, communities, methods, consultation groups and initiatives have re-lit the flame in many struggling parishes and ministries, and transformed lives. The grass roots have been busy.

But then again: look at all the teeming options. There are three problems with this abundance of riches. First problem: The sheer volume of apostolates and ministries can’t be absorbed and assessed by busy church staff. Especially prior to the pandemic, I used to call my email box “the daily firehose” — a rapid-fire series of evangelization programs served up to my inbox from every direction. Of course, sorting all this was much my job as a diocesan Director of Missionary Discipleship — without the many needs and requests that would come with a parish’s day-to-day existence — and even I was having a hard time keeping up. The volume of evangelization programs, even if they were all brilliant, made it impossible to choose what was most necessary. It was like trying to get a cup of water from a flash flood.

The second problem: The programs, good as they often are, are trying to sell their program to break even, and pay the people who are creating them. This is not wrong and impossible to avoid. “A laborer deserves his or her wages” (1 Tim 5:18), and I know personally that none of these initiatives are getting rich. I would even argue that many of these programs are necessary teaching tools for parishes. But immersed in a consumer culture, many parishes are tempted to treat the mystery of our call to share the Gospel as a problem to be solved by shopping. Whatever program landed in the shopping cart, the parish consumer could reasonably hope to fix the perceived problem — how on earth to do this thing called evangelization. Evangelization in an apostolic age is a call that cannot be answered by purchase. So the second problem is not the programs themselves, but when we treat evangelization itself as something we can buy.

The third problem: Even thoughtfully choosing one program or process is not going to instantly change our parishes, communities, or the postmodern world they inhabit, and people seem not to realize that. One reason is that parishes often think of programs as something implemented within standing ministerial divisions of the parish: youth ministry, or faith formation, social justice, or pastoral care programs. Evangelization is rarely even one of the divisions of ministry within a parish. But even if it were, evangelization was never meant to be divisional — and frankly cannot be a division within an apostolic parish. Evangelization is the joyful witness and work of the baptized — every single one of the baptized. And the people we encounter outside the parish walls are at different points in their spiritual journey: from hostility to indifference to hunger. We need to meet them at those different points, and that means to live out the Great Commission, our parishes need to embrace a transformation for full spectrum evangelization and discipleship. Full-spectrum evangelization may be initiated by a divisional ministry, but it is the work of everyone and to some degree every ministry present. One program or process operating within one divisional ministry can’t affect full-spectrum evangelization. And full-spectrum evangelization is what is needed for a rebirth of the apostolic parish rather than the renewal of our Enlightenment-based parishes.

There are four models of evangelization: and you need three

The grass roots have indeed provided the Church in America with multiple beautiful options for moving forward in a postmodern age. It’s intriguing that in an age that has striven to create leadership space for laity and honoring all the baptized, the Holy Spirit ignited so many Catholic and other Christian laity to take the first steps forward on evangelization in a new world. Every single apostolate has moved forward, often dramatically, at least one insight or method of evangelization. Through them, the Gospel has been shared, and individual lives have been changed.

But if we are speaking about fostering a community of disciples that reaches out to those who have not yet heard the good news — or goes out and seeks the lost sheep — then we need more than one model of evangelization in play. Each parish is assigned a geographical area as its mission field. Even in the most homogenous area, there is great spiritual diversity as to where people are on the path. We can’t even assume that people in the parishes are far along the discipleship path, since it’s possible to show up but not be open to cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We’re attending to the “late in the day” evangelization of the initiated as well as those unchurched outside our walls.

In this age of grass roots creativity and initiative, there are four parish-based evangelization models that have arisen in the past 40 years. I should also say: there is no other way to do parish-based evangelization than through these four models. Together, they cover the spectrum of the discipleship path of every human being, from the one who has never heard of Christianity to the one who is initiated and seeking to grow closer to Christ. I argue the models are as follows:

  • The radical hospitality / first proclamation model. This model seeks to invite, welcome, and offer human friendship to a space for conversation about life’s deepest challenges — and offer the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord in the midst of that friendship and challenge. This model is prototypical pre-evangelization, moving into evangelization territory.
  • The small group spiritual multiplication model. The vital greenhouse of the small faith-sharing group has been long recognized and honored. Spiritual multiplication is newer — the recognition that these small groups need to be able to replicate themselves to reach new people. The short version is that small groups cannot remain for the super-Catholics, but need to become normative through a parish, and spread. This model is an evangelical catechesis and discipleship, moving into apostolic work model.
  • The organizational mission (re)focus model. This model recognizes that any parish, in order to serve others, must focus and prune for fruit. Specifically, the parish needs to recommit to the Great Commission and organize as if that were the main charge — because it is. But until a few decades ago, everyone in their parish boundaries may have been Christian, or even Catholic! The mission field has changed, so the parish implementation of mission needs to be adjusted as well; and that includes mindset, paid positions, and energy investment. This model tends to be embraced by those who recognize restructuring as necessary to effective apostolic work.
  • The divine signs and wonders model. This model leans on the reality that the power and presence of Jesus Christ does lead souls to openness and conversion, through recognizing an inbreaking of the Lord and the inspired witness of others. The boom of charismatic renewal since 1967, the increasing prominence of eucharistic adoration in parishes across the United States, and the success of promoting personal witness are examples of signs and wonders in the United States — and parishes that embrace these signs and give platform for witness see results in a deeper faith and a willingness to share with others. This model works in different ways across all four movements of the discipleship path: they awaken pre-evangelization, convict for evangelization, strengthen desire for catechesis and discipleship, and inspire apostolic work.

I suspect the reason some parishes have been stuck in neutral, failing at full-spectrum evangelization, is that they are often attracted to one model and not the other three. Of course, this happens for very human reasons. Perhaps one parish loves offering community hospitality and pre-evangelization, or another loves Eucharistic adoration and has a committed devotion, but neither considers the combustive power of doing both. Also, it can be a real effort to get even one model operating when a parish culture has put no value on evangelization for decades. After that first effort, and perhaps some real success, evangelization wanes because the other models have been ignored (or are unknown). Parishes keep doing the same thing, the soil wears out, and the fruit thins. They simply don’t know to move on by adding attention to another model.

I often use the humble analogy of creating a table. A table is useful and sturdy when it has four legs. You can create a usable and sturdy table with three legs. But you simply can’t create stability with two legs, or just one; indeed, at that point it isn’t even a table. Or if you prefer the car metaphor (“stuck in neutral”): four-wheeled cars move more smoothly, and faster, than three-wheeled contraptions. Bikes move, but not as fast and with more effort. Unicycles . . . you get the idea.

Creating an apostolic parish is the same. You cannot change the culture, outreach, or focus of a parish through one evangelization process, even a very strong process. Becoming an apostolic parish requires a transformation that involves a steady, ongoing energy, commitment, and a full-spectrum plan. It is doable, and encouraging success can be made quickly. But to change the culture to be genuinely apostolic — it takes making three models of evangelization the center of parish life. And that won’t happen in a year.

But this is the good news, especially for parishes emerging from the pandemic: American Catholic churches do not need to fail. We do not need to be stalled. In order to share the Good News to a postmodern world, we need to be transformed into apostolic parishes (or as Fr. James Mallon coined, move “from maintenance to mission”). And the process is a doable one for people of faith: pray, make a plan that involves three models over time, and commit to the long haul. We can’t buy our way into evangelical success, and it requires more than tweaking or even creating a new divisional ministry (although that is often a necessary start). We need God’s grace to plan and implement, one step at a time, full-spectrum evangelization. Then, the gospel will be unleashed. God’s saving action will reach out and touch people from every walk of life. People will hear, believe, repent, and rejoice in their redemption.

And the bonus in this commitment to full-spectrum evangelization? Our parishes will be revived. And because of this, many families will be mended. Children will be welcomed. Our seminaries will grow. Religious life will be renewed. Saints will be born. Our discipleship will be deep, rich, and exciting. The world itself will be a more loving place. Instead of wringing our hands, we’ll be raising our hands in praise of what God has done in our midst. May it be so!

  1. To give a sense of the scope, let me name a few: Acts XXIX, Alpha, the Amazing Parish, the Bible in a Year podcast, the Catherine of Siena Institute, Catholic Evangelization Outreach, Catholic Leadership Institute, Catholic Missionary Disciples, Christ Renews His Church, ChristLife, the Coming Home Network, Cursillo, Divine Renovation Ministries, Dynamic Catholic, Encounter Ministries, Evangelical Catholic, FOCUS, Life in the Spirit seminars, RENEW, Saint Paul Outreach, Saint Paul Street Evangelization, Rebuilt Ministries, Renewal Ministries, Revive Parishes, Wild Goose Ministries, and Word on Fire. I am positive I am missing some important initiatives and I apologize in advance.
Susan Windley-Daoust About Susan Windley-Daoust

Susan Windley-Daoust, Ph.D. is Director of Missionary Discipleship for the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota. Prior to this position, she was an associate professor and chair of the Theology department at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. She is married to Jerry Windley-Daoust, and together they are raising five children. Her latest book is The Four Ways Forward: Becoming an Apostolic Parish in a Post-Christian World (OSV, Nov 2022). More of her evangelization work can be found at Creative Evangelization at


  1. very good article!
    as one nearing the completion of my Masters in Theology (Steubenville), this is practical and hopeful

  2. Avatar Tamra Hull Fromm says:

    Great article! I shared it with my students in the master level catechetics course at Catholic Distance University for their reflection.

  3. Avatar Fr Tim Smith says:

    I had a good chuckle at the line “we treat evangelization itself as something we can buy.”

    In my mail sorting routine as a parish pastor I would sort the envelopes and catalogs by dispensing every evangelization solicitation mailing in the recycling bin. Why do we sell so much evangelization junk? I will always remember my standoff with parish volunteers when i removed the Lighthouse Catholic Media CD distribution. Why would I stop this work of parish evangelization? I was able to win the argument by pointing out the fact that “no one has taken a CD in the past six months – I have counted them. I have access to every CD/ Bible in a Year/Podcast/ Catholic Youtube /Chaplet/ Rosary recording in the whole world right here on my phone and so does everyone else (raising my phone for a visual).

    There is comfort in purchasing evangelization gear – its a tangible way to express the interior desire to share the Gospel. Thanks for pointing out that the proclamation cannot be purchased. Not about all these solicitations – which part of the Churches Social Doctrine would best address all the consumerism?

    • Hello Fr Tim! You’ll be happy to know I just had a chat with my husband Jerry about this. (Everyone else, we all know each other!) I was thinking the life and dignity of the human person. St. John Paul II–the economy is made for man, not man for the economy. We are more than what we purchase, and we are not fundamentally consumers. We are sons and daughters of God the Father. Yet when we buy solutions and expect the purchase to solve spiritual woes, we become less than who we were created to be.
      My husband suggested he thought this was less a CST issue than a spiritual sickness, a kind of idolatry of mammon.
      Thanks for the good question! and FYI, I just got rid of my smartphone, so Lighthouse would be more appealing to me…but I definitely see your point, if people aren’t engaging the resources, then we’re doing it to make us feel good rather than to do good.