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An Experiment

As the deadline for my first post on the new blog approached, I had a bunch of great topic ideas (‘History of Church Vestments in the Middle Ages’, anyone?), but instead of going with one of those I decided to try an experiment. I put out a call on my Facebook feed to parishioners, non-parishioners, Catholics, non-Catholics, non-Christians…anyone. What would they want to hear about?

 

The result of my highly non-scientific survey was interesting. Within an hour I had enough topics for a whole year of blog posts. In looking through all of them, two themes started to emerge. The first was social justice: what is it? What are we supposed to do about it? How does the Church’s social justice message relate to politics? What is proper role of religion in the political sphere? and many more. All great questions.

The second major theme was evangelization. What is real evangelization? How do we evangelize in our daily lives? How do we present the message of the Gospel in a modern world that questions its relevance?, etc. Also great questions.

I learned a few things from this experiment. 

First, I have a lot of writing to do over the next many months to do justice to these questions. Secondly, and more importantly, there are a lot of people out there from many different backgrounds who have apparently thought a lot about these issues and are interested in hearing more about them. Third, and most importantly, when I stepped back and looked at these two themes I saw an overarching pattern: people are less interested in ‘Catholic trivia’ and more interested in how to be an effective disciple in the modern world.

So…let’s start exploring from there by first looking at what a disciple isn’t.

 
Disciples are not Salesmen for the Gospel

Selling things is an honorable occupation. From vacuum cleaners to real estate, many people make their livelihood in trade. But Jesus and his Gospel are not products to be marketed. You have probably seen people and even whole church communities who make this mistake.

Like a sales organization, the focus for these people and communities is on the pitch. How do we get the ‘customers’ in the door? How do we overcome objections? How do effectively advertise and market the faith? How many new people came in the door last month?

Though such approaches can sometimes bring in a good number of people who are looking for something more in their lives or are simply curious about the faith, most people will see it for what it is: a marketing ploy. Even those that come in the door will eventually realize that the smiling faces and hearty handshakes aren’t real. They came looking for God and found a product. They leave and go elsewhere…or worse, nowhere.

But, you might object, Jesus gave us the Great Commission to “go…and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Isn’t that a command to go market the Gospel to the masses?

The short answer is: no. We are, of course, supposed to spread the Gospel and make new disciples. But Jesus is not a product to be sold or an idea to be communicated…he is a person to be encountered. I’ll have more to say in the future about how we go about that Great Work, but we’ll let Pope Francis have the first word:

We evangelize not with grand words, or complicated concepts, but with “the joy of the Gospel”, which “fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. For those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness”
Pope Francis (homily, 7 July 2015--quoting from Evangelii Gaudium)

Our job as disciples isn’t to sell the Gospel. It isn’t to track conversion metrics. Our job is to be filled with the joy of the living Christ…if we do that we will inevitably make real disciples. Such joy is contagious.

 

Disciples are not  Social Workers for Church

Being a social worker is also an honorable occupation. We should be interested in helping our fellow human beings to overcome need and injustice. Jesus himself tells us so. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord tells us that we will be held accountable for helping those in need (Matt. 25:31-46). St. James recently reminded us in the Sunday Mass readings that faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17).

Yet being a disciple isn’t about trying to ‘save the world’ by advocating for social causes and performing works of charity, no matter how meritorious they may be. Anyone who has done works of service (feeding the homeless, visiting prisoners, advocating for immigration reform, etc.) for any length of time knows that we are often only able to make small impacts. People who set out to ‘solve the problem’ often quickly become discouraged and give up.

The key is to remember that our goal as disciples is not to fix the world, though that would be a great side effect if it were possible! Our goal is to reach out to people. Our ultimate focus should be on souls. I don’t mean this in some kind of manipulative way, trading ‘sermons for sandwiches’. It’s not about doing good works to make converts. That makes the Gospel into a bad timeshare pitch: “come and hear about Jesus and get a free gift!” As Blessed Teresa of Calcutta explains:

There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in - that we do it to God, to Christ, and that's why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.
Mother Teresa

That is the essential point that Jesus makes, too, in Matthew 25: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Real disciples serve those in need not as part of some grand social program or as an evangelization technique, but because they recognize that those they serve are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27)--that they are infinitely beautiful.  

Disciples are People who are in love with Jesus

This brings us (finally!) to the main point of this post. The ‘secret’ ingredient of authentic discipleship is not a particular technique or activity. While spreading the good news and serving those in need are things that a good disciple does, to be authentic they have to flow naturally from who a disciple is: a person deeply in love with Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

That, and nothing else, is the mark of authentic discipleship.

The Lord himself implores us: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). If we want to work for social justice or evangelize the world, that’s where we have to start. To the degree that we really love those that we encounter, we will avoid being inauthentic salesmen or disillusioned social workers. We will help those who need it and share with them our joy in the Gospel simply because we love the Lord and we love them.

By approaching our discipleship in this way, we free ourselves from being fixated on numbers and outcomes. As the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis once wrote: “It is not your business to succeed, but to do right. When you have done so the rest lies with God.” If we love others as Jesus has loved us, both in word and in deed, then we have done right. Whether injustice is ultimately thwarted or they are converted as a result of our efforts is God’s business, not ours. Our business is to cultivate that love of Jesus in our own lives and take it out into the world in both what we say and what we do.

So, over the next few months you’ll see some posts from me that explore all of the questions about evangelization and social justice that I mentioned above. But as you read them, keep in mind that the best way to accomplish both of these things is to be an authentic disciple: one who is filled with the love of Christ and the joy of the Gospel. 

May the Lord abundantly bless you and grant you the grace to be filled with this love and joy!