Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trinity Sunday: the Great Commission - "Go" (And ROI)

Today's Gospel for the Most Holy Trinity includes the famous words with which Jesus leaves his disciples:
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 28:18-20)
Besides the importance of Jesus himself naming the three persons of the Trinity, this passage, because of the command "go, therefore..." has become known as "The Great Commission."  Jesus is mandating this simple job description for his followers - to make disciples, baptize, and teach them - for all time, until the end. Pretty simple - and ostensibly this has been the mission of the Church since its beginning.

Notice the order here: first, we are called to "make disciples", then baptize, then teach. In the early Church, of course, converts called to the faith were primarily adults, so first they felt the urge to discipleship - they heard the Gospel proclaimed by believers and were attracted to the faith. Then they spent time in apprenticeship to the  local bishop to learn how to be disciples, also learning how to live as believers. Then they were baptized.  The order is often a bit different today.

Making Disciples. Disciples are called by hearing the Gospel. Certainly hearing the proclamation of the Gospel happens whenever it is read in church, and if the preacher is doing his job in the homily - of inspired instruction on what that proclamation means. But back up a minute. Because first we need to get people to church to hear that preaching, the calling of disciples is not primarily the job of preachers, but of the laity - the "faithful witnesses  who evangelize others  by testifying to their faith in Jesus Christ through their words and their lives, in the world. (In a previous post, I noted that this is a key theme of the Year of Faith.)

Calling and making disciples is the job of ALL Christians. The entire community of faith is called to proclaim the Gospel in its very life - and to call forth the gifts of its members so that they can become truly engaged deeply in the life of the community - so that the parish itself calls and makes disciples. Some churches do this very well. Others fail, for whatever reason. The Catholic Strengths and Engagement Community is a great resource on church engagement - providing resources and strategies for how to get people to be active, involved and contributing members of the parish. (Sign up for their June 15th webinar with Albert Winseman of the Gallup organization and Fr. Bill Hanson, pastor of the first church to use the Gallup ME 25 instrument to become an "engaged church."). 

An engaged church, by its very presence in the community, evangelizes, encouraging not only its members, but others, to become disciples.

Baptizing.  Of course today, since most Christians are baptized as infants at the desire of their parents, they have to spend a lifetime learning what it meant. That is why calling and evangelizing children and adults who are already members of the Church through inspired proclamation of the Gospel is so important.  If people really hear and see what is proclaimed, they remain in the Church.  But for that to happen well, we need to be part of a community of mystagogy - engaged in constant reflection on the essential and personal meaning of baptism. This begins, not with the entrance of a child into formal catechesis, but with engaging the parents of baptized infants and children in the life of the parish. Then, we need to provide lifelong learning and opportunities for participation in the life of the Church for all its members. (See the Engaged Church resources above.) In this reversed reality, baptizing does not stop after the water dries - each of us remains an apprentice in faith, learning daily how to be a better disciple and to "observe all" that Jesus has commanded. Parishes need to provide frequent opportunities for ongoing mystagogy on baptism for all ages, because it should be part of the lifelong learning of every Christian.

Teaching.  We know about that, and we attend to it - at least for children and youth. For the adults, not so much. In the 11 years since the USCCB document on adult faith formation, "Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us"  was published, only minimal progress has been made in most parishes toward making adult formation the centerpiece instead of the periphery of parish life. We can and must do better - even in this stressed economy, when so many parishes are finding ways to make do with volunteer leaders instead of paid staff for adult faith formation.

But what about that first word of the mandate: "Go"?

Recently, I heard Neil Parent, former executive director of the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership and former representative for adult education for the USCCB, say:
"Jesus said 'go and teach.' We say 'come and learn.' We need to go where people are." 
That is increasingly the challenge for the Church today - especially since so many of our people do not physically show up at the parish on a regular basis. It is why so many, including the Pope, are advocating for an increased use of social networking to spread the gospel, which is literally going out where people today are. Although many parish leaders have heard this, they still falter when it comes to doing this well. As many other good people have put tremendous effort into raising awareness and assisting Catholics to use technology to spread the Gospel, I will not do that here. However, here are just a few of my favorite resources from people at the forefront of Catholic exploration of technology:

So, how are you and your parish living up the "The Great Commission" these days? Do you give adequate resources (time, energy, money and personnel) to "going","making", "baptizing", and "teaching?" Or, do you need to step back and rethink your parish plan for outreach, evangelization, engagement and catechesis?  Remember, the more you put in, the bigger the ROI (Return on Investment.)  After all, we don't do it alone.  Jesus promised to be with us in this endeavor until the end of the age.

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