[Editor’s Note: Mark Hart, a longtime Executive Vice President at Life Teen, is behind the popular Bible study programs, T3: The Teen Timeline (for teens) and Encounter (for pre-teens), as well as Altaration (a program about the Mass for teens). He is now the main presenter for The 99, a new system for evangelization from Ascension Press. He spoke to Charles Camosy about evangelization and young people, as well as what The 99 is all about.]

Camosy: People talk about “the nones” and “deconversion” nearly everywhere I go. What do you think is primarily responsible for these trends?

Hart: Anyone who’s worked with youth in the last 20 years has seen this trend happening. We’re living in, most likely, the first truly post-Christian age with a higher percentage than ever of people self-identifying as “none” – one who has no religious preference.

This is the byproduct of several things plaguing this “Gen Z” culture: 1) Disengagement of the previous two generations in organized religion; 2) A repudiation and rejection of authoritative structure; 3) An increasing mistrust of ecclesial authority within the Church (largely due to scandal); 4) A desire to look elsewhere for moral guidance; 5) The advent of social networks and the modern internet.

Not only have headlines and perceived perceptions of hypocrisy within the Church turned people off to organized religion, the advent of social media, YouTube, and internet, has given a voice to all people to espouse their own ideologies, philosophies, and theologies, or lack thereof. These voices compete for airtime with these youngest generations, and although Gen Z is able to internalize far more digital information than older generations, they are not yet equipped to discern which voices are worth listening to. Correspondingly, the loudest voice often gets the most attention because we live in a soundbite culture.

On top of that, fractured families, the rise of pornography, and living in an increasingly screen-based culture – where deep and meaningful relationships, once fostered through the faith and the Church, have been replaced by digital and virtual relationships. As parishes have continued to shrink in size and participation other opportunities and options for spiritual guidance continue to grow the normal mindset of the Catholic or Christian family. Those mindsets have dissolved helicopter parents and given way to free-range parents who don’t want to force their religious beliefs on their children. Rather than seeing it as their moral obligation, modern parents believe giving their children the freedom to decide what to believe and if they want to go to church or not is the highest form of respect.

Catholics have been talking about the need for a new evangelization in recent years, but why do you think we were so late to the party compared to our Protestant brothers and sisters?

Even when John Paul II began using the phrase “the New Evangelization” the Church was not quite sure all that it entailed. The belief was that we first had to evangelize those who are already in the pews and do better “evangelization catechesis” – reach in before we reach out.

I think one of the reasons that it seems like Catholics are running behind is we’ve always relied on a few different “safety nets” that either intentionally or unintentionally keep parishioners in our pews. We’ve used the “safety net” of Sacramental prep, of liturgical celebrations such as Christmas, Easter, or Lent and other feasts that exist in the Catholic subculture. Through parochial schooling and devotion to the generational support of specific parishes. Through Catholicism as a cultural background; i.e., Someone’s an Italian Catholic or an Irish Catholic. They self-identify as Catholics, even if they don’t darken the door of a church.

Mark Hart. (Credit: Ascension Press.)

While we’ve developed this “safety net,” many of our Protestant brothers and sisters started to realize that they had to create more impactful and meaningful programs. Their Sunday followers did not have that Sunday obligation (under fear of mortal sin) that the Catholics had for so long, so not having that forced them to ask hard questions. “Are we fulfilling the spiritual, emotional, and relational needs of those people coming to worship on Sundays or do we have to try things a different way?” And since Catholics are locked into a liturgical model, which is beautiful because it’s the Source and Summit of the faith, we always just believed that people will continue to attend to fulfill their Sunday obligation, to fulfill their sacramental obligations, and to remain part of the community.

But over the last two to three decades, involvement in sacramental prep has dwindled, and we’ve seen a disconnect and ignorance as to what’s really happening within the Catholic Church, that many Catholics have left the Church looking for more inspiring and more engaging interactions of faith. And they found those in some of the Protestant churches. Not because the Catholic Church is lacking, but because in recent years we have not done a great job in evangelizing and catechizing Catholics as to what’s truly happening behind the sacramental veil.

You have a new evangelization initiative called “The 99.” Can you say more about what this is intended to do?

I’m so excited about this new initiative called “The 99.” It really is designed to help not just a person or a family but an entire parish: To engage those who have left the Church, to re-engage those who come but might need to go deeper, or to re-establish a deep relationship with the Lord and with the parish.

“The 99” is more than a resource. It’s actually a system and a strategy for parish-wide evangelization.

It comes in three components:

1) A Master Class Series. Each master class is designed in a group meeting format where those ministry leaders, the ones sold out for the Lord, can grow in education. These Master Class videos, executed by some of the finest Catholic evangelists today, offer practical pointers and insights that train and retrain humble and zealous souls in the art of evangelization. From “the art of invitation,” “to how to craft your witness,” “to how to invite someone who’s fallen away,” these videos are designed as a meeting format, offering ample time to talk, pray, discuss, envision, and strategize as a parish and re-engage in a purposeful way.

2) “The 99 Experience.” This experience is intended to almost take the place of a parish mission without the cost of a typical mission. “The 99 Experience” offers quality video catechesis fitting of the most seasoned Catholic evangelist but also re-establishes the parish leaders as just that – the leaders. Within the parish, the videos are a supplement to the rest of the night when they’ll be gathered with opening prayer, music, personal reflection time, and small group discussions/ journaling time.

Designed in a way to easily invite people on the sidelines – who don’t come or are intimidated by the Mass experience – this is an opportunity to reach them in a high-impact, low intimidation way. Within this environment, people will more easily find the freedom to pause in the stress of life to ask some of those deeper questions: “Is there really a God? What’s my mission in life? And what’s my mission within this church?”

It is designed for people of all ages to hear – or re-hear – the basics of the Gospel message. But, more importantly, to be able to process and pray about how God has been reaching out to them in their life and how He seeks to be in a relationship with them again.

3) “The 99 Handbook.” A physical journal every family or couple can take home and read, discuss, and pray through together at the end of “The 99 Experience.” Designed as a way to come together over coffee or a drink with some other friends or peers as parish small groups or one-to-one. They can ask these deeper questions and process not only God’s role in their lives, but their role in the Church.

The three components of “the 99” are specifically created for those souls who may think they’re part of the 99. They may think that they’re part of the Church, but the more we start to examine and realize that we’re, rather, constantly the one that’s running, constantly the one with the ups and downs of life, who are “on the lamb.” The idea behind “the 99” is to acknowledge where we are at and to slow down long enough to allow God to get those arms around us again.

It is interesting that it has a focus on the parish. Why do people who are already in a church community need to be evangelized? Don’t people normally think of evangelization as some version of “going out to all nations”?

Most of the time, we may not really feel they need to be evangelized. We may look around and say, “I’m not perfect, but at least I’m going to church.” The gospel is clear: We’re being called to constant, daily conversion. God is not calling us to a one-time conversion, but often times as Catholics, we sometimes can go through the motions and show up for Mass physically, but miss out mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Going to church does not make saints – the same way that just sitting in the garage does not make me a mechanic. We must be docile to the Spirit and put ourselves in line with God’s will.

Evangelization is indeed about going out to all the nations, but the first step of evangelization is in your own life. Now, I know this is difficult. It is difficult to reach out to friends, family, or coworkers who have fallen away. We might feel as though this makes us “self-righteous” or “preachy.” We might second-guess ourselves or feel awkward or ashamed by the recent scandals in the Church. But our call is not to remain silent. Our call is to evangelize those who are in our immediate circle who God puts in our lives. The end of the Gospel proclaims it is our mission to go out and baptize the nations yes, but that begins one step at a time, one relationship at a time, and “the 99” is really just built to help us figure that out. God put those in our lives around us for a reason and they are the ones that God seeks to engage through us. If we do not engage those closest to us, how is the Church as a larger entity going to do so?

At least in my experience as a teacher and speaker, there seems to be a gap between the kinds of challenges young people who aren’t in a church community face and the kinds of challenges that older people who are in a church community face. How do you think about reaching out differently to these two different groups of people?

Saint Paul was very clear in First Corinthians, “When I was among the Jews, I spoke like a Jew. When I was among the Gentiles, I spoke like a Gentile.” He strategically varied his tone and message based on his audience, but St. Paul was also very clear to say, “but I never abandoned what I knew. I never abandoned who I was.” He would change the articulation of the message, but not the message itself.

We can learn a lot from that strategy. Yes, the needs of a teenager outside the Church are dramatically different than the needs of a middle-aged person within the Church, but at the end of the day what we’re all desiring more than anything else in our relationships is love, validation, and mercy. We’re all broken and in need of God’s love and mercy, but also in need of Truth and of light in a culture filled with darkness.

So how we articulate the terminology we use might change between young and old, but at the end of the day it’s about relationships. People aren’t going to remember one specific talk or one specific video, but they’re going to remember experiences, encounters, and relationships. So, whomever you’re talking to, in the Church or out of the Church, this premise holds true: if the person that you’re speaking to does not genuinely believe, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you care more about their soul than just being heard, it does not matter what you say.

Evangelization is really not as complicated as we make it. It’s showing those souls that God puts in our lives that we care about them and we care about their ultimate joy, their eternal happiness. We are to become a living witness to the joy and the glory and the love and the mercy of God. That’s the challenge of evangelization. We should first draw near to God, then step out of our own comfort zones, and then, last and most important, trust the Holy Spirit to fill in the gaps.

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