Core Competencies of the Missionary Disciple
He and his wife ended up keeping their baby, thanks be to God. We met up later and he told me his sad story. As I listened, I prayed for guidance from the Holy Spirit to say or do whatever was needed. I kept hearing, “Tell him Jesus loves him, and God is his Father.”
And so that is what I did. Then, I did something uncharacteristic for my Catholic background. I invited him to make an act of faith, accepting Jesus as his Savior. He was unsure what this meant, so I explained that he could surrender his life to Jesus and experience healing and freedom in Christ. I made the act for him, asking him to repeat after me. You should have seen the tears and gratitude in his eyes afterwards as he embraced me. Something momentous had just happened in his life, and a new and hope-filled journey had begun.
Until fairly recently, I may not have taken this approach. I am ashamed to admit that phrases like “Jesus saves” and “the Father loves you” may have seemed simplistic and quaint to me, a proud sinner puffed up by knowledge. The man in my office that day did not need theology or apologetics. He needed the good news that Jesus loves and saves him. Thankfully, I got out of the way so my dumb lips could speak the truth, the only real important truth he was created to hear.
No specialized theology is needed to proclaim the core message that Jesus saves. (In fact, as in my case, such training can be an obstacle). All that is needed is faith and conviction on the part of the speaker and some trust from the hearer. The message has its own authority and needs only to be released.
This essential proclamation of the gospel is called the kerygma, from a Greek term meaning to proclaim or to herald. Pope John Paul II called the kerygma “the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith.” (Catechesi Tradendei #25).
If Catholics are to be missionary disciples, competence in proclaiming the kerygma is a must. Too much doctrine & morals/too little kerygma is a recipe for an ineffective, ideological, defensive, and shrinking church. This is not a criticism of theology and apologetics, which have their place. But they are of secondary importance. They are servants of the kerygma and the people warmed by its saving power.
One of the biggest obstacles to evangelization, in my experience, is that people confuse it with apologetics. They are afraid to proclaim or even propose the faith, for fear that they will be challenged on doctrine. Unequipped to answer any and all objections, they avoid faith conversations out of fear. This fear, however, is groundless. Anyone who has met the Lord can proclaim the kerygma convincingly!
“The proposal of the gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant,” insisted Pope Francis during his now-famous interview. “The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.
The most important thing is the first proclamation:
Jesus Christ has saved you.”
This is the context of his oft-misunderstood statements on downplaying culture war issues. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines... Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples on the road to Emmaus.”
The essentials...what fascinates and attracts...what makes hearts burn: these are the pastoral priorities Pope Francis is insisting on today.
He elaborates on the kerygma in Evangelii Gaudium. “The first announcement or the kerygma...needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at church renewal.” (#164) His description of the kerygma:
“We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more ‘solid’ formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma.” (#165) In other words: The kerygma is never laid aside. We grow into it, not out of it. We never “graduate” from the school of the kerygma.
The kerygma, in its simplicity, is “the message capable of responding to the desire for the infinite which abides in every human heart.” It must “express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical.”
The pope could not be more clear. The kerygma is at the start - and heart - of all evangelizing and catechesis. Missionary disciples must know this kerygma: must live it, think it, feel it, breathe it, speak it. Only in this way will their witness be convincing and effective.
Bringing together last week’s post and this one, we have seen how evangelizing involves sharing a) one’s own faith story; and b) the kerygma, the initial gospel proclamation. Everyone who has encountered the saving grace of Jesus can and should be ready to propose these as the “reason for their hope.” The ability to do so, with simplicity and conviction, are essential core competencies for the missionary disciple. Forming such disciples should be a top priority for all faith leaders.
Last week: Tell Your Story
Coming next week: Encouraging