On Mission to the Nones – The Leadership Conversion and the Call to Disciple-Making

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On Mission to the Nones – The Leadership Conversion and the Call to Disciple-Making

Rich Harter, Director, Saint John Paul II Office of the New Evangelization & Marriage and Family Life, Archdiocese of Milwaukee

We are a missionary Church. Jesus defined the Church as missionary through His Great Commission when He said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). This is our missionary mandate. It is who we are. Pope Francis puts it succinctly: “What would happen if we were to take these words seriously? We would realize that missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity” (Evangelii Gaudium, 15). Elsewhere he succinctly states: “The Church is herself a missionary disciple…” (Evangelii Gaudium, 40).

Clearly mission territory is everywhere, but one particular group that demands our attention today is the “Nones,” the rapidly growing group of people who choose not to affiliate with formal religion. In fact, recent studies have identified this group as the fastest growing religious demographic in America.

Pope Francis calls us “to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium, 20).

Even more concerning for the future, this group is growing most quickly among the young. Pope Francis calls us “to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium, 20). The “Nones” occupy a particularly important segment of the periphery in our day, so we need to go on mission to reach them. With this group already substantial in size, and growing bigger every day, we need a large army of missionary disciples to evangelize them.

Indeed we need a large evangelizing army, but we do not have it. Most of our practicing Catholic population is not well equipped for missionary evangelization. If anything, they are inclined to “spiritual introversion” rather than missionary outreach. This truth is born out time after time when working with Catholic leaders. They readily admit that they, and their people, are not equipped with the confidence and skills necessary for the evangelization of those outside the Church.

All of this is bad news for our call to send missionary disciples, but it gets even worse. Most of our Catholics have not had a personal, life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.  Having received the Sacraments, they are Catholics by culture rather than by conversion. They have not been fully evangelized. Thus they have not made the personal decision to turn from their old lives and start anew with Jesus their Lord and King. They cannot evangelize because they have not been evangelized themselves.

We need an army to reach the “Nones,” but we simply do not have one. We are not even close to having one.  So maybe the nones are not really the problem. Maybe the problem is with us as spiritual leaders. As much as we desire the conversion of the “Nones,” maybe the real conversion that is needed is a leadership conversion. What if, as a consequence of our leadership conversion, we turned from our old tried and true ways of leading, and dared instead to lead in entirely new ways? What if we dared to lead so that everything we did was preparing and equipping our people for missionary discipleship?

This radical leadership conversion seems to be what Pope Francis is calling for when he says: “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission oriented…” (Evangelii Gaudium, 27).

So the conversion that Pope Francis is urging us toward is the change from a leadership of maintenance to a leadership for mission. We hear this “maintenance to mission” phrase a lot, but what does it really mean for us as leaders? In short, it is a conversion of our entire leadership worldview. It demands a radical change in our leadership identity, our leadership function, and our leadership outcomes. Put another way, it is a leadership “culture change.” In Pope Francis language, missionary leaders are called to “be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities” (Evangelii Gaudium, 33).

The first, and most important, aspect of our leadership conversion is the need to change our “leadership identity.” We are not church workers with various titles working with various ages in various ministries. In many parishes, this false belief results in different ministries competing with each other for attention, esteem, volunteers, and financial resources. This approach literally fragments Jesus and His mission. We do “our ministry” instead of all doing the work of Jesus.

As leaders, we share a common calling to be “disciple-makers.” We receive this identity from Jesus himself when he gives his disciples and His Church the mission to “Go, therefore, and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16). Based on Jesus’ Great Commission, we are all disciples of Jesus who go and make disciples.

Pope Francis puts it this way: “In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the people of God have become missionary disciples. All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization…” (Evangelii Gaudium, 120). We are all disciple-makers. That is our common leadership identity. Everything we do must flow from that.

A mission-focused leadership conversion also asks us to change our “leadership function,” which essentially has to do with “how we lead.”  This gets at the essential question: “How do we lead so that we are actually making disciples?” To find this answer we simply need to look at how Jesus does it. His approach has five intentional progressive steps: reach, call, form, deepen, and send.

He reaches people where they are and forms a loving relationship with them. Pope Francis says, “…we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives…” (Evangelii Gaudium, 268). Next Jesus calls people to listen to His Good News for their lives. Pope Francis calls this the “first or principle proclamation” namely, “Jesus Christ loves you, he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (Evangelii Gaudium, 164).

After loving them and sharing his Good News, Jesus invites people to follow him so they can be formed over time as his disciples. He “disciples” them individually and in a small group. Pope Francis names this process the “art of accompaniment” (Evangelii Gaudium, 169-173). As the disciples follow Jesus, he eventually asks them to go deeper in understanding the mysteries of his Kingdom and death, and asks them to pick up their own crosses. Pope Francis describes this as diving deeper into the Sacred Scriptures and the Mass (Evangelii Gaudium, 174-175), and going on mission to the poor and the sick (Evangelii Gaudium, 48).   

Finally, and only after he has reached, called, formed, and deepened them, Jesus sends his disciples to go and make disciples. Pope Francis calls this “missionary discipleship:” “Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization…Every Christian is a missionary…we no longer say that we are ‘disciples’ and ‘missionaries,’ but rather that we are always ‘missionary disciples’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 120).   

Jesus practices missionary leadership through the gradual intentional process of reach, call, form, deepen, and send. That is the “how” of his leadership function, so it needs to become ours as well. It is a people, process, progressive, purposeful approach. To lead like Jesus, we need to change how we do what we do. We need to be more about people and relationships than programs. With the “reach, call, form, deepen, and send process” in mind, we have to accompany people through the steps of this journey. We need to make this journey clear to people so they have a roadmap for their personal journey into Christ and His Church. Ultimately, we need to equip other leaders to do these things so that the leadership of Jesus is duplicated and multiplied.

Jesus and Pope Francis are calling us to conversion in our leadership identity and our leadership function. They are also calling us to conversion in how we see our leadership outcomes. This has to do with how we measure our leadership effectiveness or, to put it better, our leadership faithfulness. We all work very hard and we know it’s not about the numbers. Nevertheless, Jesus still talks a lot about “fruits,” as in, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7: 15-20). So we need to ask: “Do our people feel loved?  Are they encountering Jesus personally? Are they becoming and deepening as disciples? Are they equipped to be sent on mission to the Nones?

Hopefully we can say that all these things are happening because that is the leadership that Jesus wants from us. The stakes are high. We need an army to reach the “Nones.” We need missionaries for a missionary Church. So we need to be missionary in our leadership identity, function, and outcomes. We need to go and make disciples so we have missionary disciples to send!


Rich Harter is the Director of Evangelization, Marriage, and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from St. Francis de Sales Seminary, Milwaukee, WI. Rich has worked as a full-time lay minister, in a variety of pastoral roles, for the past 39 years. Rich lives with Georgia, his wife of 38 years, in Port Washington, WI.