A talk for Youth 2000 Ireland.
How do we make disciples?
Brothers and sisters, I have good news for you. There are people in our churches today who passionately in love with Jesus, even though a few years ago they didn’t know Him at all.
How did this happen? Was it a pure miracle? Is it an accident? Or did it come from steps that are predictable and can be reproduced?
God’s grace is always a factor, and one that cannot be predicted. Jesus himself told the parable of the sower, explaining how some seed falls on good ground and bears fruit. Other seed struggles and fails to bear fruit for numerous reasons. Our job is to sow the seed.
But it’s also been said that we should pray as if everything depends on God, and then work as if everything depends upon us. There are lessons we can learn from people who’ve gone from no faith at all, to becoming passionate followers of Jesus. You might call these people “intentional disciples” because they’ve made a personal decision not only to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, but to truly make him the Lord of their lives.
In the USA, evangelical Christians fund full-time evangelists to work on university campuses. These evangelists set out to build relationships with students and invite them to Christian study groups. Don Everts and Doug Schaupp are two such ministers, Everts working in Colorado and Schaupp in California. From the start of the 1990s – around the time that Youth 2000 was born, in fact – they sensed a cultural shift: postmodern young people were no longer willing to accept claims about Jesus and Christianity made by authority figures; they now required authentic witnesses. A person like themselves, testifying to how Jesus had changed their life, would have much greater influence than Bible scholars or church leaders.
After working with more than 2000 young people making the journey into Christian faith, Everts and Schaupp noticed a very predictable pattern of conversion, one that played out time and time again in different ways in different lives. They wrote up what they found in this book, entitled “I once was lost.” They found that the common factors could be summed up as five steps or “thresholds”. From time to time they would review new conversion stories to see if any of them fail to fit this pattern, but so far Everts and Schaupp have found that the thresholds continue to be a reliable description of the path of conversion.
But is this true in a Catholic context? Yes! A laywoman and convert to Catholicism, Sherry Anne Weddell, works for the Siena Institute in Colorado, alongside Dominican priests. Sherry noticed how these same steps were present in the stories of the Catholic converts she was working with, and published what she found in her book Forming Intentional Disciples. I first read this book about 8 years ago, and when I did I shouted for joy as I turned the pages! At last, I felt someone understood my experience of being a convert to the Catholic faith! I’d been on lots of Youth 2000 retreats with their clear message that we called to follow Jesus, who was present in the Blessed Sacrament – but my experience of parish life, both as a layman and a priest, was that very few Catholics understood this. Rather, most of the Catholics I met were either concerned for helping people in poverty, with the Church as a convenient agency for organising the work, or concerned for keeping their local parish going as a place to meet in a building they loved. Neither group of Catholics seemed very keen on recruiting new members of the Catholic Church. Now this book provided the answer – most of these Catholics were on the journey of conversion, but they had not yet become disciples.
In her book, Sherry Weddell draws on the work of Everts and Schaupp, and discusses the same five thresholds of discipleship in a Catholic context. In other work and conferences, she notes that the journey of conversion doesn’t end with becoming a disciple, but continues as each member finds their role within the church. Today I’d like to summarise this teaching by introducing you to seven stages of spiritual growth in the journey of making disciples.
These apply both to a church-going Catholic becoming more intentional in their commitment, and a person making the journey from another religion to Catholicism. It is useful for anyone who wishes to make disciples to have a working knowledge of the thresholds – and more importantly, what is most likely to nudge a person hovering at one threshold towards the next. Based on interviews with hundreds of priests, Weddell estimates that only around 5% of Catholics in a typical parish have become intentional disciples.
The first step requires a person to establish a relationship of trust with Christ, the Church, a Christian believer or something identifiably Christian. Without trust, there can be no conversation. In the present conditions of the pandemic, there are few opportunities to meet new people so we should be mindful of the relationships already present in our lives. If you’re a Catholic, you probably know a lot of other Catholics who have ceased attending Mass, and some who go but don’t engage more deeply. Catholics who no longer attend Mass may have lost trust in the church for some particular reason – but they may trust you as an individual person.
In order to build trust, you need to do something very simple: become a brilliant friend. That’s not something you need religious instruction for – it’s a natural human skill. I can’t teach you how to do that – it comes out of your unique gifts as a person.
The second step requires us to stir up curiosity in the mind of the person who trusts us. When I first became a Christian, I heard advice that I should simple live out my Christian values and wait for people to ask me why I lived that way. After 10 years of doing this with no-one asking, I decided this wasn’t going to work as a strategy for drawing others to Christ and the Church. No, we have to be willing to find suitable moments to speak about Jesus! But we mustn’t become a bore. We must be equally willing to take an interest in the other person’s religious viewpoint. So listen first, then speak.
Once a trusting relationship has been established, you can share the story of your own faith as a natural part of that relationship. No-one can dispute your own lived experience, because on this you are the world’s foremost expert!
We can find natural ways to speak of how faith is part of our lives. For instance, someone at work on Monday morning says, “What did you do over the weekend?” – if you went to church, say so, as if it were the most natural thing in the world! We should expect that our conversation partner has, at best, only a polite interest in our religious faith, so we must be careful not to overstay our welcome. We can just mention one thing about Jesus or some aspect of the Christian faith. If our friends want to know more, they will ask!
We must be realistic about what we can achieve in a one-off conversation. Sometimes we will sow a seed of the Gospel, and never know it, but we will rarely reap an instant result. Most successful faith-sharing takes place in ongoing relationships. And from this point onwards I will speak of the person we are evangelising as a friend – if we have successfully built trust, we will surely treat that person as a friend regardless of the final destination of their religious journey.
Everts & Schaupp describe campus events which they run aimed at the merely curious – not overtly religious events, rather using music, drama and other art forms to communicate Christian values and with a short slot to present something about Jesus in a way which dispels stereotypes and shows something of how radical Jesus is, to casual listeners. In a typical Catholic parish, many regular attenders have yet to pass Threshold Two, perhaps even Threshold One. Therefore, we must keep re-telling the Great Story of Jesus, which can awaken the desire to be a disciple, and we must emphasise that Jesus is someone with whom we can have a relationship today. This means we need to be ready to speak openly about our inner life of prayer and sense of relationship with God.
I’ve met dozens of young parents wanting their children baptised. I always ask them to tell me the story of their relationship with God, but often the answer they give is about the church – how they got baptised and made their first communion. They often don’t think of God as a person they can relate to – only as a label for “church stuff” For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS what they think of as their relationship with God. They can be helped by hearing testimonies from people who do have a relationship with God, and being encouraged to pray the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”
So here are three practical things you can do:
- Share your prayer life.
- Use stories – this is what Jesus did. Answer people’s questions with one of his stories or something from your own life.
- If someone’s already a member of a religious group, ask how they came to be a member. Very often, when I meet a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness, it’s a story of meeting someone who cared for them, not a spiritual or intellectual conversion. And in fact the same is true for new Catholics – in my experience 80% of RCIA attendance is because someone met a nice Catholic.
The third step is in red for a reason. It’s the most challenging of the whole process. It’s the threshold of Openness to the Possibility of Change.
The message of Jesus is challenging. When we take it seriously, it demands change in our way of life. A person may have to withdraw from a casual sexual relationship, or dodgy business dealings, to follow Christ with integrity. Even the most upstanding convert will need to exchange weekend leisure for regular worship. Many potential Christians waver for a long time at this threshold, and may be tipped over it by a major life-event. A friend on the threshold of openness might become very argumentative at this point. They are taking the challenge of Jesus seriously, and they know something life-changing is being asked of them. Naturally, their ego will put up resistance. Our task is not to argue back but to listen and to acknowledge their pain.
We might find that our friends engage in conversations about God – often asking the big questions about why a good God can allow evil in the world, or whether science has disproved God. (Spoiler: science has NOT disproved God – and I’m telling you this as a priest with a PhD in astrophysics – but that’s a whole other talk I could give you!) Someone who actively disagrees with you is willing to engage with you, and that’s good. Even if your friend is coming from a very different point of view, it’s important to be open, listen to what they say, and then you can have your own say.
An intense spiritual engagement, such as a Youth 2000 retreat or a parish mission, can stir up a new openness to God, nudging many participants through Threshold Three. But after the event, avoid the trap of channelling the new enthusiasm into ‘filling ministries’. Yes, you want new, keen volunteers to make your parish or prayer group work! But don’t rush the process. First offer the newly enthused members an ongoing opportunity to grow and be formed as disciples, and then the volunteering will come naturally.
So how do we hold and nudge our friends through this scary threshold of openness?
- Speak honestly about your own struggles. Don’t sugar-coat following Jesus to make it seem easier than it is.
- Help your friend explore the question “Where is God in this?” either in their struggles, or the story you are sharing.
- Pray. This is a season for an intense spiritual battle. Double down on your prayers for your friend. If they are open, ask “Can I pray with you?”
- This might also be a good time to invite your friend to come and experience Eucharistic Adoration. Explain that we believe Jesus is present, and just trust that He will connect with your friend when they come.
The fourth threshold is marked by a more active kind of seeking. Your friend has faced the crisis of knowing that God’s message demands change in their life, and has realised that hiding is not an option. So your friend now reaches out to God and is asking: “Are you the One to whom I can entrust myself?” Everts & Schaupp note that at this stage, a seeker will be asking questions specifically about Jesus – what did he teach, what examples did he give – rather than generically about God.
Only now will your friend be ready for true catechesis, and for exposure to different forms of prayer. This is no longer the time for attention-getting parables. Now is the time to give straight answers to their questions and suggest different ways of prayer they can try – guided Bible reading, the rosary and other devotions.
Balanced catechesis will show how a personal relationship with Jesus exists as part of a wider community – we come to Jesus through membership of a parish, where we receive the sacraments, and trusting that Christian teaching is clarified through the formal structures of the Catholic Church, which we call the Magisterium. In our liberal democratic culture, seekers may find it especially difficult to understand ideas such as the Church’s claim to have access to absolute truth, Catholic teaching on personal sin, and the idea of surrendering to Jesus as Lord. Young adults may find it easier to recognise the presence of sin in systemic problems in the way the world works – such as the way we fail to respect the Earth’s ecosystem – rather than personal failings.
At the fifth threshold, your friend has received enough satisfactory answers to their questions that they are ready to become a committed member of the Church, consciously follow Jesus and accept any major life-changes that this will require. When your friend has spent some time asking questions which show they are truly engaging with the big issues around following Jesus, it may be the right time to pop the question: “What about becoming a Christian? What about joining the Catholic Church?” – or if the person is already Catholic, “What about coming to confession and reconnecting?” If the response is “No”, a natural follow up is “Why not?”, and then deal with the blockages people present. Acknowledge your friend’s fear of “what would happen if I said yes to God”?
Everts & Schaupp suggest that intensive mentoring two or three times a week are important for supporting the new disciple during the ‘honeymoon’ of the first three months of their declared commitment to Christ – during which time the mentor ensures that the new disciple finds a place in a small group attached to their chosen worshipping community. In a Catholic context, a new person baptised at the Easter vigil then enters a few weeks of what is called mystagogia – reflecting on what just happened – but of course the convert’s inner journey could be months ahead of the Church’s liturgical cycle, and the true conversion of heart, that decision to follow Jesus, might need mentoring well before the liturgically ceremony which welcomes this publicly.
Our Christian growth doesn’t end by becoming a disciple. Rather, any member of the church should look at the gifts and talents they have been given by God and ask “How can I use these to serve God in the church and in the world?” We can call these works “ministry”. There are many useful tools to help you reflect on your gifts and how to use them in God’s service, including the Clifton Strengthsfinder and the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted material.
If you are free to discern a long-term or permanent commitment, you may also be asking the question, what is my vocation? Should I be a priest or a member of a religious community? Should I devote a few years of my life to full-time missionary work? The answer to these questions also flows naturally from an understanding of the gifts with which God has entrusted you.
Whether or not we choose to become full-time missionaries, Pope Francis has reminded us that all of us who are baptised are by that very fact called to be missionary disciples.
Encouraging someone to take Jesus seriously, and therefore to become a Catholic, usually requires a relationship sustained over years. Can you share a meaningful message about Jesus if you only have 2 minutes for a conversation? Can you make a concrete invitation to say a prayer, or connect with a church, at the end of what you say? Do you expect to be able to nudge someone closer to Jesus?
It’s all too easy to blunder into enter this kind of conversation with judgement and expectation. “Why don’t you go to Mass? Why aren’t you pro-life? Don’t you believe Mary is appearing at such-and-such a place?” But in fact we have something much simpler to share. “You are loved. God created you to have a relationship with you. We human beings don’t love perfectly, but Jesus came to show us perfect love and to re-connect us with God.” And it’s that deliberate, personal re-connection with God which is crucial!
In Western cultures, we might find that 15% of the baptised Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday – but some of those are going only once a month. In Ireland, until the 1990s, there was strong peer pressure to be seen to be going to Mass, but now the Catholic Church has become a toxic brand for many people.
And then, how do we reach people who call themselves Catholics but who don’t engage with the Church? Many young people stop attending Mass in their teens or when they leave home for university. This isn’t so much a deliberate rejection of Catholicism as a failure to be drawn by it. A 2012 Canadian study of young Christians who stay (Hemmorhaging Faith 2012) indicates that young people who remain active in church have experienced God’s presence and seen prayers answered; they live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and they have personal experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.
We recognise there are three distinct religious journeys in Catholic lives which don’t always match up: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvemehttps://cco.ca/nt in the church community, and the interior journey through the thresholds of discipleship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognises that there is the “first conversion” (1427) by which we become disciples and then the ongoing or “second” conversion (1428) which takes place once we are disciples and find our apostolate (the “missionary discipleship” which Pope Francis speaks about). The Church recognises (Catechesi Tradendae 19) that when we set out to catechise people we have to face the reality that many have not yet been evangelised. So we need to know how to evangelise – and not make the mistake of trying to catechise people who still need to hear the basic Gospel.
As individuals, we can seek to have conversations about faith with the people who trust us. There are useful booklets and study tools which can help you from a Canadian mission group, Catholic Christian Outreach or CCO – you can find them online. And as members of parishes, we can ask how our parishes can help bring faith to people with no faith. This is why I’ve drawn the thresholds of discipleship as a circle; as individuals, we make the journey from trust the intentional discipleship and ministry – and perhaps even vocation – but a PARISH becomes a pump where those who are already intentional disciples work to build bridges of trust with new potential members and the cycle continues.
A parish can become a vibrant disciple-making institution, but it needs to be intentional. Does your parish have a plan? An effective plan is to run a regular outreach course as the engine to bring future disciples to that key decision point of choosing to follow Jesus. Suitable courses include Discovering Christ, Alpha, and Sycamore. These courses provide a safe place for people to ask questions about God and Jesus: they are a safe starting place for outsiders who aren’t familiar with church language. For those who already ‘belong’ to church they can be an opportunity to take a fresh look at what we believe. Graduates of these basic courses can then join longer lasting small ‘connect’ groups where they can grow as followers of Jesus and discern how to use their gifts in the service of the Church. A healthy parish is an invitational parish, which invites those who are not already members to come aboard!
One cycle of Alpha or Discovering Christ is probably not enough to move a participant from Trust to Intentional Discipleship. But sustained work with a person can achieve this in around two years. When people reach the stage of Openness, supporting them with prayer is crucial; and we must recognise they are vulnerable to falling back, or hiding within a community which doesn’t seem to affirm their growth. Growing as far as Openness can be scary in a community which is mostly still at Trust! Who would want to become a disciple in a parish where you can’t see many disciples among the church goers?
Now that you are aware of the thresholds of discipleship, it may make more sense that there are also many people worshipping in our churches who are committed to something other than following Jesus. Many people will belong to a parish and be passionate about their community, and keeping the church building they worship in well repaired; they will raise money to fix the roof not to spread the gospel. Why? They are stuck at the threshold of trust or curiosity, believing in the community but not believing in the Lord in a personal way.
We will meet people in church who are passionate about serving poor, not because they love the Lord but because they love the people. Of course Jesus did tell us that the second great commandment is to love our neighbour; through his saying about the sheep and the goats it is clear that the way we treat our neighbours has an impact on our salvation. Saint James says that if we don’t love the neighbour we can see that there is a big question mark about whether our faith is real at all. All of us who are called to be disciples are obliged to love the neighbours whose needs we come across in our daily living. Some of us will also choose, as voluntary projects, to go out and seek those in need of help and give further help; but not everyone has the personal calling of being a devoted charity worker.
In parishes you may even meet those who say “we must do something for the young people”. Of course everyone in the parish notices when young people aren’t coming, or when they drop out at a certain age, particularly after confirmation. Many parishioners will be concerned to increase visible numbers. Now it’s not wrong to think about numbers. I have a number in mind: 100% – That’s the number of people I would like to invite to become followers of Jesus. We know we won’t achieve a 100% success rate; Jesus said so clearly. What’s crucial is that when you find yourself in that conversation about doing something for the young people, point out that if you make young people into disciples they will become passionate followers of Jesus who will want to come to mass and get involved in other church activities. Some will become enthusiastic servants of the poor out of their relationship with Jesus, and others will become young evangelists spreading the gospel to their peers, causing the church to grow. Disciples also give of their money generously! But only disciples will do all of these things.
We can build buildings, grow congregations and carry out works of mercy without making disciples. But if you have limited resources, and a question of where to place your energies – I’d like to tell you this in the 12 years that I was a parish priest responsible for local church communities, I never once asked anyone to organise a fundraiser. When people freely volunteered to raise funds, I never blocked that, but I never asked anyone to focus their priority there either. What I did ask people to do was to focus on making disciples using courses like Alpha and Discovering Christ team because what happens when you make disciples? Disciples give generously and volunteer, and that’s when the church grows. When I took on my most recent parish it was in £50,000 of debt. Before I left, its bank balance was in credit and we had been able to install a computer projection system in the church. How? Not because I raised money for this purpose, but because I focused on making disciples. Seek first the kingdom of God and what you need will be given to you. That was advice from the master. I’ll let you into a secret: follow his advice and it works!
‘Making disciples’ is a process which embraces many stages of growth. It begins with primary evangelisation – proclaiming Jesus to those who do not yet know that He is the Risen Lord. It continues with catechesis, which truly begins when a person is actively seeking to be a follower of the Master. It finds its perfection when the disciple is ready to ask “What are my gifts? How can I use them in God’s service? What is my life’s vocation?”
Jesus blessed children and taught adults. Unfortunately we often do things the other way round. We try to teach Catholic answers to children who aren’t ready to ask the right questions, just because they are the right age for First Communion or Confirmation. But when adults come seeking a baptism for their baby, or a wedding ceremony, parishes often offer them what they want with a simple blessing. Why? Because there aren’t individual parishioners or outreach groups with the time to engage these adults in personal conversations about faith.
The parish priest can’t do it all on his own! In my last parish I had about 50 requests for baptism, another 70 for First Communion, and about 10 for marriage each year. There simply isn’t time or headspace for one priest to have 130 ongoing conversations with parents this year and start 130 new ones in each subsequent year. But it shouldn’t all be on the parish priest – as Pope Francis reminded us, we are ALL missionary disciples, and a healthy parish should have many adults who could encourage faith in these families – especially parishioners who are relatives or neighbours of the applicants! I mean, parishioners like you! Your parish priest might be put off by your enthusiasm, and worry that you take your faith too seriously – but I encourage you not to compromise in your zeal.
As I said earlier, About eight years ago I read Sherry Weddell‘s book Forming Intentional Disciples, and for the first time in my life, I no longer felt alone as a Catholic disciple in a parish. I want to share something that Sherry wrote, which made my heart sing for joy.
In her youth she spent time with a group of other young enthusiastic Catholics and together they agreed on this description of what a normal parish looks like. Sherry and her group agreed on seven “norms” for a Catholic parish.
1. It is normal for lay Catholics to have a living, growing love relationship with God.
2. It is normal for lay Catholics to be excited Christian activists.
3. It is normal for lay Catholics to be knowledgeable about their faith, the Scriptures, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, and the history of the Church.
4. It is normal for lay Catholics to know what their gifts of service are, and to be using them effectively in fulfilment of their vocation or call in life.
5. It is normal for lay Catholics to know that they have a vocation/mission in life (primarily in the secular world) given to them by God. It is normal for lay Catholics to be actively engaged in discerning and living this vocation.
6. It is normal for lay Catholics to have the fellowship of other committed lay Catholics available to them, to encourage, nurture, and discern as they attempt to follow Jesus.
7. It is normal for the local parish to function consciously as a house of formation for lay Catholics, which enables and empowers lay Catholics to do all of these Normal things.
At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this!
Now, my dear brothers and sisters, how do you feel about a church like this? Is this a church you’d want to join? Is this a parish you’d like to be part of? I think it is… but how do we bridge the gap between the reality of the parish where you live and worship at the moment, and what church could be?
At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this!
Only 5% of the regular Massgoers are deeply committed missionary disciples. But… if these disciples could be formed, inspired and given the right tools, they could double their number in mere months!
Here’s the thing. Whether a person attends Mass or not, you cannot know how far that person has travelled on the journey of discipleship unless you ask. If you only take one thing away from this talk, take this question:
- “Tell me the story of where God is in your life!” (or, for someone who has shared a messy life situation, “Where is God in this for you?”)
Ask this question whenever you get the chance – and then shut up and listen! Remember, for many people, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for someone sitting in a congregation or prayer group to ignore information which has been “broadcast” to the whole audience. A one-to-one conversation forces the listener to engage – and often that engagement is enough to get the person thinking afresh about who God really is.
Never accept a “label” without enquiring what it means. Even people who initially call themselves atheist or agnostic might admit to praying or being open to the possibility of some version of God! Try answering their questions with more questions – most people are only two “whys” from being forced to think about why they stand where they stand.
If you get the chance to ask a second open question, try this:
- “If you could ask God one question which he would answer for you right now, what would it be?”
Such “threshold conversations” can be very revealing about where a person is at, and can themselves provoke the kind of reflection that helps a person pass through towards the next threshold. The more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith. And the more conversations YOU can have with people about faith, the more effective you will be at making disciples.
We need hope. Do we expect that people will become committed disciples? Do we write off good news stories from across the pond as “American cheerfulness” or the fruit of “North American resources”? One US parish which worked hard on promoting discipleship now has 40% of its Massgoers in ministry, estimates 25% are now Intentional Disciples, and its level of financial giving has gone through the roof. There is no reason to believe this cannot happen here, too – we only need to believe and act as if this can happen!
I’ve made an assumption that because you’re in the audience for this talk, you’re probably a disciple already, and keen to make more disciples for Christ. But perhaps there are some among you who are not. Maybe today is the first time you’ve asked yourself whether you’ve made a personal commitment to be a follower of Jesus, not just a member of the Catholic Church. If so, today is a happy day, because you can make a commitment to Jesus at any time! If you are not yet baptised or confirmed, you can seal your commitment by receiving these sacraments. If you have turned away from Jesus through sin, you can come to confession. But whether or not you need any of these sacraments, you can make a commitment to Jesus right now, today.
I am going to show some words used by Pope Benedict XVI at a World Youth Day, words we can use as a personal re-committment or to make a commitment to Jesus for the first time. I’ll give you a moment to read these words to decide if you want to declare them today. After each line I will pause so if you wish, you can repeat the line out loud, or in the silence of your heart. Let us pray.
Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.
Brothers and sisters, you are missionary disciples. May God bless you as you go forth to win many followers for Christ.