Last night, I attended a regional Stewardship gathering sponsored by the Office of Stewardship and Development of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. These regional gatherings are held around the Archdiocese twice a year and invite parish leaders – particularly members of Stewardship Commissions – to reflect on a specific topic in the area of stewardship. This round of gatherings is focused on Radical Hospitality and Welcoming. More specifically, we engaged in conversation on how Sunday church services can be more hospitable, especially to people visiting a congregation for the first time. One of the great things about these gatherings is that everyone is assigned a table to sit at for the evening – so you can’t just sit with people you know or the group from your own parish but are forced to engage in conversation with people from a variety of parishes and experiences.
In the course of the conversation at our table, we transitioned from hospitality and welcoming to how parishes help visitors or new parishioners become involved in parish life and ministries. For most parishes, it seems – both in my own experience and in the experiences of those at our table – the goal is to get new parishioners engaged in parish ministries as soon as possible. So we give them a list of all parish ministries, along with a form to sign up for which ones they want to be involved in. Some parishes have new members identify their strengths and then use those strengths to connect them with which ministries best suit them. Others assign existing parishioners to new members to invite and accompany them to parish events – like coffee and donuts or the parish picnic – and then to connect them with other ministries and activities. The hoped-for result: new parish members who are engaged parishioners, i.e., actively involved in multiple parish ministries. Many of our parishes are good at this – encouraging and creating engaged parishioners – although most would also lament the fact that not everyone is engaged, that it often seems like the same people are involved in many different ministries. And then, once members are engaged in parish ministries and community life, we hope that they also grow in discipleship – in developing a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But if that doesn’t happen, at least they are engaged in the community.
I wonder if we are going about things in the wrong order. I have referenced Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples on this blog before. Weddell argues convincingly that our parishes should be more focused on forming disciples than on getting new members involved in as many ministries as possible. It can be easy and comfortable for someone to say – “I sing in the choir, help out at the soup kitchen, serve on the school commission, and answer phones at the office once a week – look what a good parishioner I am!” But is that person a disciple? We might think that we should get people involved – engaged – first, and then discipleship will come later. But should it be the other way around? Should our first goal – both as individuals and as parish communities – be to help people become intentional disciples, and then service and engagement in the parish and community will flow from that discipleship. If we have a deep, intentional, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, then we will want to devote our lives to prayer, service, hospitality, and evangelization. But if our first and primary goal is to created engaged members of a parish, then we might never take the next step to discipleship. And then – as Pope Francis has often said – we risk becoming a charitable NGO (non-government organization) that is not founded on faith in Jesus Christ.
Today, as I read the Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, I was struck in the gospel by how Jesus answers the question, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He makes a distinction on the one hand between those who ate and drank in his company and heard him preach in the streets, and on the other hand those who know him, who have a personal relationship with him. It seems to me that the distinction Jesus makes is between engaged parishioners – those who eat and drink, who hear the words of Jesus spoken – and disciples – those who are friends with Jesus. And the former – the engaged parishioners – are the ones kept outside, for whom the door to salvation is locked; while the latter – the disciples – are the ones who recline at table in the kingdom of heaven.
So what do you think? Do our parishes create engaged members, or do they form disciples? And how could parishes change so that service and engagement flows from discipleship?