Core Competencies of the Missionary Disciple
"Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus"
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium #120
The value and effectiveness of story is being increasingly recognized and utilized by today’s thought leaders. In a postmodern world increasingly wary and skeptical of truth claims, story is a safe, subjective ground for sharing self and encountering the other. Unlike the clashing certainties of dogma, story's softer method provides context that humanizes the other and personalizes belief and conviction. Story can turn swords of ideology into plowshares of dialogue. Through listening and telling, stories can build bridges that ideologies burn, paving the way for understanding and ongoing relationship.
I once was lost but now am found/ Was blind but now I see
America’s most popular worship song tells a story. There is a before and after, the difference being an encounter with the saving grace of Christ. The song has an implicit message, but this takes a back seat to the story. The result is a tune that goes down easy and endures through the generations. There is no proselytizing. The listener is simply drawn in by sweet melody and the singer’s testimony.
The “Amazing Grace” approach can be a helpful guide to helping us share Christ with others. To simply tell one’s story of meeting the Lord requires no special theological training or apologetic skill, and is a most powerful and effective tool for evangelizing. Just look at the Samaritan woman at the well - and the village she brought to faith in Jesus Christ by simply telling her story.
In the gospel of John (1:39), the author tells of his first encounter with Jesus, including the detail, “It was about 4pm.” John remembered the exact time, because it was his defining moment - the moment from which the rest of his life was divided between a “before” and “after.”
We see it time and again in the gospels. Peter, Matthew, Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalene, Paul, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and every other follower of Jesus in the New Testament: each had some moment of defining encounter with the Lord, after which they dropped their nets, left their tax booth, sold their possessions, left their water pot, broke their alabaster ointment jar, etc. In this moment, each made a decisive and intentional choice to follow our Lord as his disciple.
What is your 4 pm moment?
Each of us needs to think on this question and carefully trace the key elements of the answer to this crucial question. By examining our own personal faith story and telling it ourselves, in our own words, we can craft a compelling narrative to share with others, refining it over time to become ever more engaging and effective.
If we do not know our story, then someone else will tell it for us. This especially happens to Catholics, who in the absence of a clearly articulated telling of their own story will often default to negative tropes and stereotypes absorbed through the common mentality (Catholics hate gays, distrust science, worship Mary, etc).
Appreciating the "Tell Your Story" model
I attended an interfaith leadership conference a few years ago in which participants were put in pairs and asked to tell each other their “faith” story. We were not asked to represent our traditions, just ourselves. We were given ten minutes each. Then, we were paired up again with someone different, and this time, we were given two minutes. The goal was to train us to get our story straight and streamline it for effective communication to the other, encouraging dialogue and friendship. It was a brilliant and authentically pluralist solution to the dilemma posed by increasingly complex and volatile post 9/11 attitudes towards religious belief in the public square.
At dinner later that day, some college students were discussing the exercise. A few young women who were Catholic shared that this was an uncomfortable experience for them. “I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school,” one said. “But I don’t think I really ever owned it. I don’t even know why I am Catholic, and so I drifted away.” She had a “Catholic” story,” but not a “Jesus” story. There was never a “4 pm moment.”
This experience made me begin to consider the importance of the “story” - or lack thereof - for Catholics; as well as the implications for evangelism and discipleship. For many believers, sadly, the absence of a “faith” story means the absence of discipleship.
Story of Encounter Precedes Doctrine, Morality & Catechesis
I have met hundreds of Catholics throughout my life whose experience is similar to that college girl at the conference. Christian faith leaders need to take this problem seriously. Perhaps we need to take a step back from catechesis efforts, which presume a “story” which has never in fact occurred; and instead, begin considering ways to gently encourage and lead others to a 4 pm moment of encounter with the Lord. Evangelization precedes catechesis... and an encounter precedes both.
(Deus Caritas Est #1)
Benedict knew that the encounter with the Lord - a Jesus story - is the decisive starting point for all discipleship; and how easily the Christian faith, minus the encounter, becomes moralism or rationalism. Too often, “evangelization” for Catholics means trying to convince others of our doctrines and morals, before introducing them to the saving encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. This approach is unattractive and ineffective. Better to tell our story, awakening interest in others with the possibility that such encounters do in fact occur, and could even happen to them.
“Always be ready to give a reason for your hope,” says Scripture (1 Pet 3:15). Our “reason” is our story - the saving encounter with the Lord Jesus. Becoming aware of - and continually refining - the telling of one’s Jesus story, one’s “4 pm” moment of encounter, is an essential core competency required of today’s missionary disciple in order to evangelize effectively. Without the ability to tell one’s faith story with brevity and conviction, highlighting its key elements, then evangelizing will look like proselytizing, and proposing will look like imposing. Or, the other extreme (more likely) - we remain silent.
Suggestions for Faith Leaders:
- Teach people to pray for a Jesus story - “4 pm moment” - if this has never happened
- Train people to tell their Jesus story
- Practice by writing and then sharing stories with one another
- Go out and look for opportunities to share the story with others, reporting back on the experience
- Invite a seasoned disciple to share their story at each meeting or major parish event, modeling this core competency for the inspiration and instruction of others