So often when I’m out on a speaking engagement people will tell me about their relatives who have left the church to join an evangelical sect, and they express their bewilderment and frustration at not being able to answer the evangelical’s challenges.
The problem is complex, but underneath it all is the fact that the Protestant and Catholic view the Christian faith from a very different perspective and they have a whole different set of priorities and have a different authority system and use a very different vocabulary. Furthermore, the Catholic usually senses that this is true, while very often, the Evangelical is not aware of it.
Thus, the Evangelical will say something like, “Have you ever accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” not realizing that this is actually a specialized sort of language peculiar to his type or religion. To the Catholic it sounds as odd as it might be for the Evangelical to be asked, “Are you in a state of grace?”
So what to do? I advise Catholics first of all to be aware of the underlying culture and language gap, and not to accept it on the Evangelical’s terms. You can ask them to define their terms, “What exactly do you mean by ‘accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior?” If they can explain it, that helps the Evangelical to move away from cliches and discuss the faith from a new perspective. Secondly, I suggest that the Catholic agree with the Evangelical about everything, but then clarify it from a Catholic perspective.
So, the Catholic, when asked, “Are you a born again Christian?” should say, “Yes indeed! I was born again in baptism and faith in Christ.” On this one you can quote the very chapter from John’s gospel (ch.3) which is where the term ‘born again’ comes from, and show how the Lord says you must be born ‘of water and the Spirit’. This won’t really satisfy the fervent Evangelical–indeed it will probably frustrate him, but it does you both good because now you’re in a real discussion.
This tactic, of accepting their challenge, then turning it allows you to put the Catholic point of view without being ugly. Another example is when the Evangelical will try to engage you in a Bible verse shoot out. It seems to you that they know their Bible backward and forward, and some of them do. However, in fact most of them don’t. They just know certain proof texts which they take out of context. Call their bluff on this and say something like, “Look here. I’m not going to engage in swapping Bible proof texts with you. That’s not how we Catholics use the Bible. Instead we study the whole Bible along with the teachings of our church in order to understand the whole.” At the same time, Catholics who are engaged in apologetics should know their Bible and have some of the excellent resources (Pat Madrid’s books are especially good on this) in order to show that you do know the Bible and that it supports your faith.
The last point is to be positive and upbeat and loving. When someone says, “Why do you Catholics worship Mary?” Don’t go all defensive or ashamed, but bounce back with a big smile and say, “We don’t worship Mary, but we venerate her. However, I have a question for you. Why do you Protestants hate Mary so much?” The Protestant will then be wrong footed and say that he doesn’t hate Mary. You can then ask him just what he does think about Mary and why and once again you’re past the misconceptions and cliches and you’ve got yourself into an interesting discussion.