Communicating Mission to New Catholics
When I started Inclusion, a modified RCIA class for those who are baptized and well-formed in their Christian faith, I sought out to do two things: speak directly to the things that Protestants and Catholics differ about, but to do it through the lens of an ever-deepening discipleship of Jesus Christ.
I realized that the Lutherans from LCMS were strong in doctrine and wanted me to engage more in apologetics of Catholic teachings, but the non-denominational Christians were looking to preserve their missionary spirit while grounding their beliefs in a more historical Church.
Reading the statistics of U.S. RCIA programs and the amount of massive drop off of Catholic Mass attendance after they enter the Church, my goal was to communicate the mission of the Church. I was incorporating Pope Francis' notion of "missionary disciple" within my ecclesiology, blending together biblical theology, salvation history, and sacramental theology with the missionary mandate of our baptisms.
The apologetics would come later, but I feel a pressing need to begin with communicating the mission of the Church. In the first two classes of our Inclusion program we tackle “The Mission of the Church” and “Salvation History.” I want to talk about that first class here.
In the first session, we walk through a few thoughts from evangelical pastor Andy Stanley out in the Atlanta area. In his book Deep & Wide, he talks about how the “Medieval church” deliberately chose the word church as the translation for the Greek word ekklesia that Jesus uses in Matthew and the rest of the New Testament from Acts onward uses. He makes a distinction that “church” is German in origin and refers to the lord’s house or property, whereas ekklesia is a gathering-together, an assembling, a state of being-called-out and called together, that is more movement than institution, more verb than noun.
When I first read this, I immediately rolled my eyes. He was basically accusing the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages of focusing so much on the institutional dimension (the source of its power) and in abandoning its missionary dimension that it deliberately mistranslated ekklesia from the original Greek. This understanding is very American because it’s all about the English rendering and we all know us Americans ain’t so good on being bilingual.
The “Medieval Church” spoke Latin, not English or German, and used the word ecclesia to translate the Greek ekklesia. Basically, they are the same word. This is why when you study the Church it is called ecclesiology. To push this further, there was a Latin term to describe the physical property and institutions of the Ecclesia and that was Domum, or “house”, which is where we get the word “domestic.” So church buildings were regarded as the domum (house) of the Dominus (Lord).
I say all this because I think Andy Stanley was totally right, but for all the wrong reasons. The Catholic Church, especially in America, has not be doing so hot when it comes to feeling in our bones this missionary mandate of Christ to his Church. We tend to sit back and expect the religious orders or clergy to do the mission-thing. We’re good with the sacrament side of things. We receive in the church building. You go and do the mission-saint-holy thing to the nations.
The older Hebrew word, qahal, is what Jesus Christ was referencing when he used the word twice in the New Testament Greek of ekklesia. It is indeed more verb than noun, more mission-centered than anything else. We are those who are “called out” and “called together” just as the nation of Israel was called out of Egypt and assembled together at Mount Sinai.
The New Covenant Qahal is the Church of God. He is the one who calls us out of the world, out of the dominion of darkness, and He is the one who calls us together into the Kingdom of light, into the Body of Christ. This is why Jesus says, “I will build my Church.” He calls out to his sheep. He imparts the divine grace into our lives. He gives us our salvation.
Jesus does not want us to sit back in the pew thinking that we are members of the secret club, but rather that our gathering together is his doing, not ours, and he is sending us out into the world to gather yet still more sheep into the fold. We are not an ethnic group who is full only of our own kind. We are based on faith in the Risen Lord and through faith God can graft any wild branch onto the divine vine.
The Great Commission in Matthew’s gospel is similar to the sacred liturgy of the Mass. I point out to all my students that, just as Jesus’ final words to his apostles were words of sending forth (“Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations…”). In the Mass, the final word is the same, “Go”. The very word Mass comes from the Latin Missa, which means, “Sending forth.” It’s the same root from which mission and missionary comes from!
We have all come to the sacred liturgy of the Mass to worship God, to be informed by his Word and transformed by his body and blood. Okay. We’re fed. Now go! Get out of here. Be out there what you have received in here! We come to the missa to be equipped to go out into the mission.
I end it with one statement, usually. There are enough Catholics who think being Catholic means sitting in the pews with good-enough attendance. But Christ reveals to us that his ekklesia is on the move, and even as we gather together to worship God, God is sending us out on mission.