Why Make Disciples?

Why Make Disciples?
John Poitevent, Parish Catalyst Program Director

“We talk about what we do, we sometimes talk about how we do it, but we rarely talk about why we do what we do.” Simon Sinek

The video quality is poor, the microphone stops working halfway through his talk, and the speaker’s only visual aids are a flip chart and a marker. Yet, this is one of the most watched TED Talks of all time. Although I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, the scenario illustrates the speaker's point perfectly.

golden circleThe video featuring Simon Sinek is called “How great leaders inspire action,” and it is always one of the most impactful presentations in our Dynamic Discipleship Learning Community. Drawing from his book “Start with Why,” Sinek explains that when we start with “why,” we inspire people with the compelling reason behind our call to action.

The talk is primarily intended for business leaders, but it could not be more relevant to the Church. Far too often, we tell people what they should believe, and how they should behave rather than inspiring them with the wonderful why behind it all!

For instance, when we say that the mission of Church is to make disciples, we would do well to begin by asking, “Why?” I would like to suggest three answers to that question, three reasons for that mission, followed by, more importantly, the reason behind the reason.

1. A biblical reason - Because Jesus said so!

 If you’ve ever been to vacation Bible school, you know that the most likely answer to any question is “Jesus!” In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, we read that Jesus commanded his disciples,

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

This is also known as “The Great Commission.” We have two important elements here: a command and a promise. Jesus commands his disciples to go and make more disciples, but he reminds them that they are not alone. Jesus promises that he will be with them until the very end! The commitment to this call is how the Church began and grew, eventually sweeping across the Roman empire. According to Jesus, the mission of the Church is to make disciples who make disciples.

 2) A Catholic reason - The language of making disciples is the language of the Church.

 The phrase “make disciples” can seem forceful to some, foreign to others, and even (gasp!) protestant. The reality is that, throughout history, the mission of the Church has always been the same: to be and make disciples. As we just said, Jesus established this mission, and throughout Church history leaders have continued to declare it. Pope St. John Paul II so identified himself, first and foremost, as a disciple of Christ that the introduction to his biography is simply titled, “The Disciple.” In his letter, Mission of the Redeemer, he emphasized that, “Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming His disciple.” Pope Benedict, in a 2010 homily, said, “Only by listening anew to the word of Jesus who asks, “come, follow me”, only by returning to our original vocation, is it possible to understand our own presence and mission in the Church as authentic disciples.” In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis famously stated,

 In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the people of God have become missionary disciples.”

Simply put, to be Catholic is to be a disciple who makes disciples.

 3) A practical reason - Only disciples are inspired to do what disciples are called to do.

 As I work with parishes around the country, one thing is usually the same: a small group of people do most of the work. We continue to make desperate appeals to the majority to be more involved, but our results are minimal. Why is that? Let me suggest that for too long we have nagged people to be “good Catholics” rather than inspiring and forming them into “good disciples.” Our stewardship pleas pontificate about what God wants from people, rather than casting a vision of what God wants for people. This failed strategy is an attempt at behavior modification (to meet our needs) rather than spiritual nurturing for the sake of the person. We have failed to take the time to make disciples, yet we continue to tell people that they “should” behave like disciples. This “shoulding” is not the same as helping people be changed from the inside out. As we focus on helping people grow in spiritual maturity, they begin to naturally become more like Christ. As we focus our efforts on making disciples, rather than just meeting our own needs, a miraculous thing happens: our needs are met in abundance.


So there we have it: a biblical reason, a Catholic reason, and a practical reason. That should be enough, right? The problem is, we are still talking about “what” we ought to do, not necessarily a compelling reason “why” we ought to do it. What is the purpose? What is the outcome that we hope to achieve? A better question might be, “Why did Jesus command his disciples to make disciples?” You see, the more times we ask “why,” the closer we get to the heart of the matter. There are probably many theologically complex answers to this question, but I believe that the most simple (and profound) comes from Jesus himself in the Gospel of John where he says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Just as parents wants their children to experience a full and abundant life, so does our heavenly Father. Since we were created by and for him, formed in his image, he knows that that kind of life can only be found in following Christ!

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Recently, in a Parish Catalyst workshop, a gentleman stopped my presentation as I was making this point to ask, “But what does Jesus mean by abundant life?” This is a fair and valid question, however my response was to pitch it back to him, “What do you think Jesus meant?” After a moment of disappointment with my answer, the gentleman thought and then responded, “I think an abundant life would be one that is fulfilling, where we can give and receive love, while investing our life in something purposeful, bigger than ourselves.” I agreed. I believe that this is exactly the kind of life that God wants for us, not just from us. However, he also knows that this kind of life is found only in him.

 God did not tell us to follow him because he needed our help, but because he knew that loving him would make us whole.” — St. Irenaeus of Lyons

If Jesus came so that we might experience an abundant life, one of wholeness and purpose, then why would we not want to be his disciple? And if we love people and we want the best for them, the most loving thing we can do is to help them experience that abundant life as well! We make disciples because Jesus commanded us and the Church compels us and because we love people, wanting them to experience the best life possible, in this world and the next.


Contact Parish Catalyst at 214-422-8649