Chesterton posits that there are three steps to conversion. The first is patronizing the Church, wherein the sojourner does not agree with the Church, but does not disagree with it either. He imagines himself as an impartial, open-minded observer.
The second is discovering the Church, wherein he learns what the Church is about and finds "a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable." Finding such wonderful things and connecting the dots on what they mean, he realizes he can no longer be impartial.
And that leads to step three: running away from the Church. The man first saw that the Church was good, then he saw that the Church was right, and then he begins to feel the sting of thinking it is always and absolutely right and it has quite a few demands on how he lives his life.
In To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age by Bishop Robert Barron and John L. Allen Jr., Barron concerns himself especially with those first two steps of conversion.
In a post-9/11, post-Church abuse scandal, post-New Atheist world, Millennials have increasingly negative views of religion and no religious affiliation whatsoever (think "Spiritual but not religious" or other postmodern nonsense). It is Barron’s mission, then, to make the Church approachable, not by denying any evils within, but by showing that evil and corruption does not compromise or invalidate Christianity’s essential arguments. In fact, its essential arguments already account for and explain the evil and corruption within all of us. Human beings fail. "Are there evil Americans?" Barron might ask. Of course there are, but does that invalidate American ideals or the Constitution or our fundamental philosophy? Of course not.
The book highlights Barron’s work with his Word on Fire ministry which seeks first to open the doors to the Church and create the impartial observers in Chesterton’s process. Creating those impartial observers in such a hostile world begins not with the culture war, not with bludgeoning people with blunt doctrine and strict demands that are absolutely incomprehensible without grasping the fullness of Christ’s message. It begins with the undeniable, transcendent Beauty that Christianity has birthed through all its centuries. The art, the architecture, the literature, and above all, the lives of its most devout.
While there are devils in the Church who commit evil despite its teachings, there are martyrs who sacrifice everything because of them. Are more people drawn to Christ after hearing doctrines and rules listed without context? Or are they more drawn to Christ after hearing about Maximilian Kolbe who was interned in Auschwitz, who suffered beatings and lashings, but continued acting as a pastor to those with whom he was held captive? Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to be sacrificed in the place of a man with a wife and children, and who approached his death with calm and peace because of the Church that formed him and the Christ that loved Him? Which is more compelling?
Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are those things upon which the New Evangelization is built. And that’s Bishop Barron’s mission. Address the evil, but promote the forgotten beauty.
Barron’s method is important not only for those who specifically want to make disciples for Christ, but also for those who deal in practical truths. For someone like myself and this website, wanting to convert men first to recognizing the goodness of a virtuous life, these are very important lessons. They are lessons in diplomacy. Not in watering down the Truth, but in making people open to hearing the message and then baptizing them in undeniable beauty so that they have no choice but to believe and to change.
I’m a very disagreeable person, as I’ve mentioned, and I have no problem hearing blunt truths and unreasonable demands, so that’s the approach I gravitate toward most easily. But I do have to admit that it’s usually the least effectual. It’s the sowing of seed on rock that the parable describes. Hard truths that don’t take hold.
Barron inspires me to break up the rock and expose the soil beneath so that truth can take root in every man who reads and can grow into something that transforms them. This book has informed and transformed the way I’ll do what I do moving forward, and I would recommend it to anyone with any kind of evangelistic aims.