Measuring Disciple-Making

How do I know if my local church is making disciples?

Whether you’re a person in the pew, volunteer leader, minister, staff, pastor, or parish council member–you should care. Your local church has the unique mission to foster initial and ongoing conversion in every person within the geographic boundaries of your parish. This is at the heart of the New Evangelization.

But how do we know if we’re on the right path?

For most of us, we’d quickly jump to anecdotes, stories of life-change we’ve seen happen, through the grace of God, within our parishes. Teens who’ve come to Bible study because their parents made them, but who leave as fired up, disciples with a mission. Or, many an older gentleman who comes to RCIA and is able to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ that he’s been missing, or experiencing in an incomplete way, his entire life.

But, while stories work well for us as individuals, they are not sufficient if we want to truly assess what’s working and what’s not on a larger scale, like in a parish. David E.K. Hunter writes that in general nonprofit organizations, suffer from “a pervasive case of unjustifiable optimism.”

Now, my parish isn’t just any “nonprofit organization”–we’re empowered by the Holy Spirit! But, we’re still human beings with human tendencies, and I wonder, are we too often unjustifiably optimistic about how well our processes for making disciples are going?

This is a challenging, soul-wrenching question when we really start to think about it. Because, if we recognize a problem with disciple-making in our parish, we know we have to do something about it–regardless of our age, leadership title, etc.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, coming to believe in God’s love is the “fundamental decision” of a person’s life–it gives life a new horizon and direction. Jump-starting and nurturing growth along this pathway of discipleship is the most important thing a local church offers to those in the parish. The liturgical Sacraments, works of charity and justice, Bible studies, etc. are all part of growing as a disciple.

But, in and of themselves, they do not replace discipleship. Even Sacraments–as our disposition matters!

I recently saw a summary of a presentation given by Albert Winseman, author of Growing An Engaged Church, at a nearby parish. Winseman observes that most parishes measure just three things: Mass attendance, registered members, and giving.  And when we think about it, we can see that these types of metrics really don’t tell us much about how we’re doing when it comes to making disciples.

So that’s my challenge to each of you this summer. Start a conversation in your parish about measuring or assessing your discipleship process–not because having numbers to support anecdotes is an end, but because digging deeper into what’s really working, and what’s not allows us to focus our finite resources and energy on processes that truly are fulfilling the Great Commission (Mt 28:19) to go and make disciples. We can’t every truly capture the actions of the Holy Spirit through research or data–but we’re failing to use the full gifts of reason and intelligence God has given us as human beings, if we only rely on our feelings or anecdotal evidence to assess ourselves.

This is not easy–and I say that as someone who’s taking on the same challenge myself! It takes prayer, wisdom from above, and a spirit of charity. But, no matter what our position in our parish is, we must have the courage to ask, are we making disciples?

Note: a similar version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

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