The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.* And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16–20)
Let me pull the most important bit out for you, even though, I’m sure you know it or have guessed it:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
Boil it down even more: Make Disciples.
That’s it. When it’s all boiled down, this is your parish’s mission statement. This is your personal mission statement. How’s your parish doing making disciples? How are you doing?
If your parish is typical, then the answer is “not so good.” In that case, let’s break down the mission statement to see how it could help us.
Some might object that our parish isn’t good at making disciples because not everyone is on board. Some may not even be obedient to Christ’s teachings. How did Jesus respond to that?
“When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.”
Some translations say, “Some doubted.” Yet in the very next sentence, it says Jesus gave them their mission. A failure to be a perfect disciple yourself is not an impediment to the mission. At least Jesus seemed to think so. Just get started. If you wait to overcome all doubts and make sure you’re all perfect disciples first, you’ll never begin. Move forward.
Others say, well, we have a lot of programs, but no one comes to them, except the people who always come to those kinds of programs. And Jesus says, “Go.” But, they reply, we’ve advertised in the bulletin and on our Facebook page and made announcements at Mass. Yes, but Jesus says, “Go.”
For one thing, programs don’t make disciples. Jesus didn’t make disciples through programs. He made disciples by inviting them personally. He went out to find them and call them by name. And so he tells us to do the same. “Go,” he tells us. Don’t wait for the people to show up. Go where they are, form relationships with them, true relationships, not just as a means to an end of getting a disciple notch on your belt, but because every person you meet is a wonderful child of God.
Jesus gives us the core message by telling us to “make disciples,” but what does that mean? In the beginning, it’s about being up front about your faith. Don’t hide it, but don’t necessarily wear it on your sleeve. Don’t be obnoxious about your faith, but let it be an organic part of your life. If you’re a sports fan, you probably don’t make a special effort to hide your fandom when a related topic comes up. If you’re a Patriots fan (and who isn’t?) and someone mentions professional football, you will probably want to talk about the Pats, what makes them great, how they did in their last game, how Tom Brady is the best QB in the game. But you probably won’t walk up to a stranger and immediately start talking about the Patriots out of the blue. You won’t interrupt a group of your friends hanging out on a Friday night as they discuss the movie they just saw with, “Let me tell you all about Tom Brady’s QB rating and why he’s better than Peyton Manning.”
What making disciples is about is living the life of discipleship ourselves, talking about our faith when it fits, inviting people to opportunities like, yes, programs at church or to Mass. Check in on social media when you go to Mass to show that normal people like you (you’ve got them fooled, don’t you?) go to church. Share interesting articles you encounter about your faith on social media. Not too many necessarily. How about just 10% of your social media posts?
Okay, that’s all fine for individuals so how does a parish make disciples? By training, forming, and encouraging disciples in the parishes to go out and do all these things. And then create the gateway opportunities for those disciples to invite others to come to. There are also structural ways to prime the pump. Have an effective web site and bulletin, send out welcome letters to people who’ve just moved to town, mail postcards to everyone in town with the Mass schedule. Create a parish library. That’s just a few ideas.
Jesus then gives us our mission field: “all nations”. But that’s the mission field for the whole Church. This is your parish’s mission statement and your personal mission statement so perhaps we should retranslate that word for you. For your parish, substitute “your parish boundaries” for “all nations”. For yourself, substitute “your friends and family and neighbors and coworkers”.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all people within your parish boundaries.
Your parish’s mission isn’t just to the parishioners registered in your parish or even to just the baptized Catholics in town. It is to all the people within the area of responsibility outlined by the bishop. Likewise, your mission is to everyone you know and meet. That isn’t to say that you must use every encounter to proselytize, but that you can’t say that anyone you meet is someone else’s responsibility. You are a disciple and therefore the person you meet is your responsibility.
So what does making disciples look like? Discipleship is both a journey and destination. You’ve invited someone to start the path of discipleship, but where does it go?
Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and decisive direction. (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est no. 1)
Put another way, being a Christian doesn’t come from sitting in a classroom or book learnin’ or participating in a program or being part of some kind of work. It comes because we meet Christ, we receive him, he reaches out to us. The primary way he does that is through the sacraments, conduits of his grace into our lives, and we experience those graces primarily in our parishes, whether it’s the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confession, confirmation) or of vocation (marriage) or of anointing of the sick. Most especially, it is the Eucharist in the daily or at least weekly celebration of the Mass. So discipleship means a life of grace through the sacraments, carrying us to our goal of perfection in Christ.
But Christ also makes clear that discipleship is about obedience to him and his teachings and that our mission is not just being the conduits of that teaching, but also being sure that the baptized understand the need to follow the teaching! How often have we had the former without the latter? How often have we also had those who want to enforce rules at any cost, without teaching the what, the why and the how of the rules?
That all seems so daunting. Who could possibly live up to that mission statement? Yes, Jesus Christ lays impossible missions on us so often, I sometimes expect to hear the priest say at the end of the Gospel, “This message will self-destruct in 10 seconds.” “Be perfect as my Father is perfect,” Jesus says. “Don’t be anxious,” he says. “Make disciples of all nations,” he says. Who can do it?!
He can. And he will, because he has promised: “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” He is with us when we are unsure whether we’ll look foolish asking that new neighbor to come to church with us. He is with us when we drive around, trying to live up to the Catholic bumper sticker on our car. He is with us when our parish breaks the customs of decades, shaking things up in order to prepare space for the wandering and seeking souls. He is with us when five people–the same five who loyally come to everything–come to that program at church you were sure was going to bring them in droves. And he is with us when, little by little and bit by bit, the pews begin to fill and new faces begin to appear and our parishes come alive with the happy faces of new and returning brothers and sisters in the faith.
There it is. There’s your mission statement. Are you willing to pick it up? Are you willing to live up to its demands? Can you accept that it’s the only one you’re getting from Jesus? Because that’s it.
Everything in our parishes especially must serve that end of making disciples or it’s extraneous. Of course, that includes many things. Keeping the lawn mowed lets the mower serve the church and it makes the church look presentable to the newcomer, for instance. But if a program or some other task that happens in the parish isn’t about making disciples, stop doing it. That’s not what your parish is for.
- Which isn’t to say that programs are bad. But programs are not disciplemakers. They feed disciples. They can form disciples. But they don’t bring in people who haven’t been invited. ↩
- Holy orders, of course, is not usually conferred in the parish, but we could say that its roots and growth are there. ↩