What would it feel like to be part of a parish that is filled with missionary disciples? Where almost every parishioner has a fire inside them to share their love of Jesus? Where people are hungry to be nourished by word and sacrament? Where people are sacrificial in their financial giving and where they serve the community, not to ‘help Father’ but to joyfully express their co-responsibility for the life and mission of the parish? Sound too good to be true? It is important to dare to dream. The first step to a renewed parish is to have a strong vision of what an actively engaged congregation of missionary disciples might look like. In order to do that, we first need to have a clear idea of what a missionary disciple is—and is not.

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What is a missionary disciple?

A missionary disciple has been described as someone who has had a transformational encounter with Jesus and has then chosen to surrender and follow. A missionary disciple has encountered Jesus through a personal experience of the love and presence of God. As a result of this encounter, they have chosen to say ‘yes’—to surrender to God’s love and God’s will for their life. They allow their entire life to be transformed by this relationship.

Missionary disciples:

  • worship—enthusiastically praise God, give thanks for their many blessings and hunger for opportunities to encounter Jesus through the sacraments. They regularly attend Mass and frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation
  • pray—have a robust personal prayer life. There are many different ways to habitually spend time with God. Prayer preferences are unique to each person and their individual relationship with God. The important thing is to regularly ‘show up’ for prayer
  • serve—look for opportunities to help others, both within the Christian community and outside of it. Missionary disciples want to do whatever they can to assist in the proper functioning of the parish and the care of those within it. And, importantly, they also have a heart to help the world become a more just place through generous service to those in need
  • give—see everything they have as a gift from God and understand that sacrificial giving is a form of worship and a way of giving thanks—by giving God the ‘first fruits’ rather than the ‘leftovers’
  • learn—are eager to learn as much as they can about Jesus and the Church. Missionary disciples read the Bible and other spiritual books and make it a priority to attend seminars, group studies and retreat opportunities in order to grow and deepen their faith and discipleship
  • discern—want to understand where God is leading them. They actively discern their vocational call so as to live the unique plan God has created them for
  • fellowship—share life with fellow disciples in a community that nurtures and supports their mission in the world. They actively seek to draw outsiders into the Christian community through accompaniment and invitation
  • are fruitful—exhibit the fruits of the Spirit as described in Galatians 5:22–23: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ Missionary disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit, and their faces and their lives radiate this reality.

Missionary discipleship is not unconscious or accidental, and it is not something we inherit or culturally acquire. It is more than following religious rules, attending Sunday Mass or ‘being good’. It is not a transactional relationship with a judgemental God. Missionary discipleship requires a deliberate decision to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple in the midst of his Church.

From the description above, we can see how an increase in the number of missionary disciples might have significant implications for the life and vibrancy of a parish. Attendance, stewardship, apostolic creativity, evangelisation, vocations and catechesis are all enriched. Transformed lives transform parishes, which in turn transform the world around them.

Some common misconceptions and why they matter

In our parishes, we frequently hold a number of misconceptions about missionary discipleship that can seriously hinder our ability to grow life-giving and sustainable parishes.

  • ‘We are all disciples.’ We assume that everyone ‘in the room’ at Mass on Sundays is a missionary disciple. We think that by faithful attendance each week, people are demonstrating a close and personal relationship with Jesus. Our practice of sacramentalising babies and young children and then catechising them in Catholic schools can lead to sacramentalised and catechised adults who have never encountered Jesus or made an intentional decision to follow. They have never been evangelised. The assumption that ‘we are all disciples’ normalises a minimalist understanding of what being a Christian truly is and short-changes parishioners who are never introduced to the tremendous, life-changing power of an encounter with Jesus.
  • ‘Making disciples is the same as forming disciples.’ Parishes typically use programs designed for forming the faith of people who have already met Jesus and made a decision to follow. But ‘making’ disciples and ‘forming’ disciples are not the same thing! We can think we are ‘making’ disciples by using a tool designed to ‘form’ disciples—much like using a hammer to insert a screw—resulting in ineffective ministry that fails to bring people into a lived relationship with Jesus. In a previous article, ‘The kerygma enigma’, we looked at the importance of an intentional proclamation of the kerygma in the making of disciples. To make disciples, we need to choose an evangelising tool that is appropriate for engaging people with little or no Christian background. It must proclaim the kerygma, which, in the words of Pope Francis, is that ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you (Evangelii Gaudium, §164).
  • ‘Busyness is fruitfulness.’ Many parishes fail to provide a clear and simple path to missionary discipleship. Organise your parish so that people can focus on becoming and making disciples. A parish that prioritises the making of disciples needs constantly to communicate that vision so that everyone in the parish understands the ‘more’ they are invited to experience. We can unintentionally confuse people with invitations to multiple activities, courses and groups, thereby failing to highlight the ‘best thing’ in the midst of too many ‘good things’. A busy parish does not necessarily effectively grow disciples; faced with so many choices, many people get passionate about their mission, not the mission. When you say ‘no’ to a hundred other missions, you say ‘yes’ to the most important mission. The clearer and simpler the path towards missionary discipleship is, the more people will travel it.
  • ‘Expect too much and people will leave.’ Carey Nieuwhof, in ‘7 ways to grow church attendance by increasing engagement’, comments that for many Christians, sitting passively in the back row to get fed is all that’s required of them. This low expectation is life-sapping for your missionary disciples. The Latin American bishops comment that ‘often sincere people who leave our Church do not do so because of what “non-Catholic” groups believe, but fundamentally for what they live; not for doctrinal but for vivential reasons’ (Aparecida, §225). Missionary disciples are passionate people. It’s missionary disciples who will advance the mission of your parish. They know what the mission is. They serve in it. They live it out. They’re passionate enough about it to invite their friends.
  • ‘A priest’s role is to keep parishioners happy.’ Consumers have preferences; disciples have stories. Parishioners can behave like consumers, choosing a parish based on what they like or prefer. People can have preferences for particular music styles or Mass times, for shorter homilies or for parish buildings that are available for their favourite activity. Parish priests almost kill themselves trying to meet their expectations. This saps their energy and can lead to disillusionment and a disjointed, ineffective use of parish resources. Disciples, however, value stories and people. When we live in a life-transforming relationship with Jesus, we begin to see Jesus working in us and through us and in the lives of others. We are willing to sacrifice our own preferences for the sake of the mission. Lee Kricher in For a New Generation and Fr James Mallon in Divine Renovation each tell a powerful story of a church community transformed by missionary disciples prepared to sacrifice their preferences in order to grow an outwardly focussed, disciple-making church. In each community, this caused substantial resistance from entrenched ‘consumers’ who would have preferred that the church stay the same and quietly die, rather than change and evolve to meet the questions and needs of twenty-first-century searchers.

What are you prepared to sacrifice in order to grow a parish filled with missionary disciples such as the one you imagined at the start of this article?

In a 2015 address to the Italian Church, Pope Francis said, ‘We are not living an era of change but a change of era.’ The future of the Church is in our hands. ‘I desire a happy Church with [the] face of a mother, who understands, accompanies, caresses,’ says Pope Francis. ‘Dream of this Church, believe in it, innovate it with freedom.’

As the parishes of the future emerge from this current COVID-19 crisis, may we see communities of passionate missionary disciples stand up as the difference-makers of the next generation.

We are available to discuss strategies with you and/or your team and to facilitate sessions (remotely) on many topics and issues. Just ask! Contact Lorraine on 0402 217 123 or at lorraine.mccarthy@cam.org.au.