Updated: Sep 20, 2021
If you've been in the church space long enough, you've probably heard of a rise in the missionary discipleship model for parishes. It's a model that focuses on growing the church through an emphasis on guiding people through an evangelistic encounter.
As a concept, I love the model. It helps reorient parishes back to the heart of their mission - to make disciples - and offers an external viewpoint that I think is healthy for parishes that are entrenched in the never-ending cycle of internal communications.
However, to those who haven't engaged with the model at their parish, I could see a bit of overwhelm happening at the thought that on top of feeding their current congregation spiritually, they now also have to take on the task of getting people interested in Catholicism in the first place.
Here's the thing: it's not your church's job to evangelize. Its job is to TEACH others how to evangelize.
I can hear you scratching your head. How is it possible that that's not your church's job? Isn't that what Jesus told us to do in the Great Commission?
It's what He told individual people to do - not your parish.
At the end of the day, it's not the parish's job to facilitate conversion. Conversion is almost never going to start with someone just randomly showing up for Mass or even a group.
Rather, the parish's job is to equip its parishioners to go out and do the work of evangelization in the real world.
Let's look at gyms as an example. Gyms do a lot of advertising not just about their local gym, but also the importance of overall fitness. But, I highly doubt that their advertisements on a billboard or even a social media ad are converting someone from being a couch potato to a marathon runner.
Instead, let's say you're at the bus stop, and a fellow mom starts talking about her spin class that she's off to next. You've been considering trying one, but didn't want to go by yourself. You ask her a few questions about the intensity of the workout, and she has a referral discount to get you three classes for free to try it. The next thing you know, you're going to that gym for spin class three days a week and can't remember how you functioned without it!
Now of course, working out isn't nearly as fraught with tension as a conversation about faith, but the gym and the parish's mission remains the same: get their people talking about what they do in the real world.
In the same way, parishes need to market themselves, but I can guarantee that almost no one is going to look at an advertisement for a parish and think oh I'm going to become Catholic now, just like that! Just like you didn't drive by the local synagogue or mosque and suddenly decide to change your entire practice of faith. It might be a step in the journey - and an important one - but the thing that will really seal the deal is a personal encounter: with a friend and then with Christ.
Parishes should absolutely offer opportunities for those seeking faith (like Alpha, ChristLife), but again, most people are not going to start by just showing up at the parish's doors because they're having this program. They're going to have gotten a personal invitation and encounter elsewhere.
This is where the parish's mission comes in: to teach people how to make those personal encounters and grow the faith of their current congregation.
The initial evangelization encounter doesn't come at the parish level - it's where initial evangelization comes to be catechized and initiated into the church.
So what do you do if you can't adopt a fully missionary-discipleship model at your parish? Maybe you work at a parish where the pastor just isn't on board with that revolutionary of a change. Perhaps you don't have the money to invest in that level of parish renewal and training right now. That doesn't mean you should just give up or wait for the right time. There are small, everyday things that you can do now to start creating disciples to make more disciples at your parish:
Share people's witness stories on social media or your parish blog/bulletin.
Host a program on how to evangelize in the everyday (St. Paul Street Evangelization has a great program for this.)
Advertise your parish in places outside of the church building - think community calendars, flyers in local businesses, even radio or social media ads.
Focus on a dynamic welcome program that helps people feel like a part of the community and excited to learn more (and isn't just a stack of donation envelopes).
You want to get more parishioners? Don't focus on growth - focus on training your parishioners to do the growth for you. You'll get engaged, active parishioners who desire to be a part of your community, and best of all, they'll want to share it with others too.