Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Go, therefore and make disciples..."

Prompted by my recent and unexpected immersion in the Jesus People Movement of the '60s-70s and Trip D's recent reflection on how many deacons are too many, today I came across what just might be the best thing on evangelism I have ever read, by Pastor Jake Kircher, who serves as Youth Pastor at Grace Community Church in New Caanan, Connecticut. In an article that appears in Relevant magazine, he asks whether Christians have gotten evangelism wrong by making the church building the locus of evangelization.

While he writes from an Evangelical Christian perspective, I think much of what he writes is very relevant to Catholics. I mean how often do we hear that we need to lighten up the liturgy in order to make it accessible for people, or update it to keep up with the times? In my view, there is nothing more outdated and seemingly irrelevant than a lot of what we now, anachronistically, call contemporary liturgy. Our preaching often falls prey to these kinds of ideas, too. No biblical exposition for Catholics! Why do exegesis when we can pile stories on top of stories in an effort to make the same point repeatedly, namely that we must be nice at all costs? This also permits us to avoid those challenging readings, the ones that really hit us where we live, calling us to repent! As C.S. Lewis once asked, does conversion wrought by our encounter with Christ make you a nice person, or a new person, being made day-by-day into His likeness? The two are not always, nor even often, mutually exclusive. However, Lewis goes on to note: "It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present to us: it is the very sign of his presence." This is true because it makes plain our need to repent, that is, to change, which deep human desire, borne from our great need, is the basis of all authentic evangelization. Back to the point Kircher is trying to make, he asks whether our attempts at "relevant evangelism" are ultimately self-defeating.

Pastor Jake notes that it is weird that very often evangelism revolves around programs that happen at church. This seems to defy the whole notion of evangelism, which requires Christians to "take it to the streets," as it were. Kircher cites Jesus' Great Commission, given in the last chapter of Matthew, in which the Risen Lord says to the eleven, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go..." (28:18-19) As Catholics, every Mass (except some Life Teen masses from years ago, which serve as a great Roman Catholic example of the kind non-evangelizing evangelism at which Kircher takes aim) ends with a dismissal, wherein the deacon or the priest dismisses the congregation, the ekkelsia, the assembly, with one of the following formulae: "The Mass is ended, go in peace"; "Go in the peace of Christ"; "Go in peace to love and serve and the Lord." It is not unusual to hear this- "The Mass is ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord and one another." In any form, these are unmistakable calls to evangelize, to take Christ to the world, which needs Him so badly!

This is a good context to mention how fond I am of two of the three dismissals in the new English translation of the Roman Missal: "Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord" and "Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life." It always helps to remind ourselves that word "Mass" refers specifically to being dismissed, or, in the words of Jesus from Matthew, "Go..." What are we sent to do? To "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." (28:19-20a)

This young pastor wisely goes on to point out that the idea of evangelism as drawing non-believers, or fallen-away believers, to a meeting in a church building reveals a very defective understanding of what it means to be Christ's Body, the Church. Instead, Kircher insists, Jesus calls us "to be an attraction outside of the church walls." The Lord wants "to shine through us where we all work, live, play, shop and do life together." To properly understand the distinction between the priesthood of all believers, which is clearly set forth in Scripture (see 1 Peter 2:5; Romans 12:1-2), and the ministerial priesthood, we have to understand that a priest's ministry is primarily, if not exclusively, in and to the church, while the rest of the baptized mostly exercise our ministry outside the church, that is, in the world, revealing that there is also a diaconate of all believers, through which Christ calls us to render diakonia, that is, authentically Christian service to others.

We have to get over the notion "that sharing the Gospel should be left for the professionals" because, by virtue of our baptismal profession, we are the professionals! I like the way Kircher underlines the absurdity of the notion that evangelism should be exclusively left up to the clergy. I tweak his statement to put it in a Catholic context- "You want your friend to know Jesus? Why don’t you bring them to our next parish retreat, lecture, or even Mass where he can hear it straight from our parish priest!" Jesus did not work this way!

Indeed, as Kircher notes, the Lord "didn’t set up a tent somewhere and invite everyone to come out for a revival every Friday night. Instead, He went out to where the people were. He sent His disciples out, untrained and confused as they all were, to spread His message. The Church began, not because everyone was invited to an outreach, but because the disciples were out living life together when the Holy Spirit moved through them." (Acts 2)

There is a lot more I could write about this article, but I want you to read it for yourself, assuming that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. If you are a follower of the Lord, then you take His Great Commission seriously, even seeing it as your baptismal vocation, for which you received a fuller outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, a task you are strengthened for each time you participate in Eucharist before being sent forth to accomplish it. In addition to pointing to our continuity through time and space, this being sent is what we mean when we say the church is apostolic.

Kircher ends with this lovely exhortation/observation:

Evangelism is not something we are supposed to do; it’s something we are supposed to be. If we ourselves have been immersed into the character and values of Christ, then by simply living our lives, we are immersing others into that same Jesus. It is theologically incorrect to say that evangelism isn’t your thing and that you only do it once a month at the outreach event. It is something we all should do every day

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis


  1. Perhaps some of the problem is the loss of recognizing just what liturgy is. The west has developed a sense of passivity in the Mass and I think that this passivity was inherited by the Protestant reformers. Going out is a natural part of the meaning of liturgy (the work of the people).

    In liturgy, we participate together in community gathered in sacrament (present), in sacrifice (past made present), and in heavenly banquet (eternity made present). Evangelization (the going out)is the continuation of what we celebrate on Sunday.

    I don't know if many Catholics really understand that and have let that reality transform them. And unfortaunately, many Protestants and Evangelicals have lost that understanding of liturgy in their worship.

  2. I certainly agree about the centrality of liturgy/communal worship and how it shapes and forms us. However, even by saying it is central we imply there are other things. Too often "being a Christian" doesn't consist of much more than going to church, whether you are Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. Being evangelical certainly requires more than this.

    One of the problems, as Pope Benedict noted frequently prior to becoming pope, is that the reformed Roman Rite is now enacted as a closed circle, with the priest facing the congregation- lex orandi, lex credendi. I am convinced that if he could think of a way to re-orient the priest at the altar without a massive upheaval, he would do it. Again, we miss something important if fail to understand that Mass implies being dismissed, having received Christ and becoming what we receive together, we are sent forth- "Go..." The Mass does not exist as an end in itself. Henri De Lubac wrote a great piece a long time ago now about how even eucharistic devotion is often defective in much this same way, especially when it is cut-off, or virtually cut-off, from the living liturgy.

    Another issue today, as one my mentors, Msgr M Francis Mannion used to say, is the laity all want to serve in the sanctuary and priests want to work in the world. Maybe this is the ecclesial version of the- grass-is-always-greener syndrome, who knows?

    While we don't want to pretend to a kind of absolute certainty we just don't have and probably can't attain, we need to be careful about trying to be too relevant, watering things down too much If I have not found Jesus to be the answer for me, which is rooted in experience, then how can I credibly proclaim Him to others?

    Having been Catholic for 21 years, I am still amazed at how little Catholics know about Scripture and how intimidated they are by the Bible.

  3. I think that many in the lay movement in the Church are trying to address the intimidation people feel toward scripture. Things are changing, I think; slowly.