Fruitful Missionary Discipleship

Teaching given at the Sion Community, 26 & 27 May 2018

Parish Structures

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is open to Alpha and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Divine Renovation.

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is skeptical about Alpha or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Rebuilt.

Read more relevant links about parishes at The Five Pillars of Thriving Parishes and Building Missionary Parishes.

Evangelising Individuals

To inspire a layperson who’s not on a parish leadership team, or a priest who is particularly concerned with their one-to-one work evangelising parishioners, offer a Summary of Forming Intentional Disciples.

Read more, with useful links, at Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise! and Making Disciples.

Other Resources

The slides used at Sion are available as the original PowerPoint and as a PDF.

Some additional books you might read!

Video clips used are embedded below, apart from the “Blessed” First Communion resource. The “Evidence” clip is one of many brilliant films from Outside da Box; I also strongly recommend “Initiation“.

The Five Pillars of Thriving Parishes

Since the publication of Rebuilt in 2012, there’s been an explosion of writing about what makes Catholic parishes prosper. Rebuilt itself charted the impressive growth of an American parish from 1500 to 4000 worshippers, and was closely followed by Divine Renovation (2014), with its focus not on the number of worshippers but on raising the level of engagement among 2000 Canadian worshippers from the typical 7-10% to well in excess of 40%. Divine Renovation in turn alerted readers to the Clifton StrengthsFinder tool with its embedded testimony of raised engagement, reduced hostility, and sudden prosperity for a nondescript New York parish.

Naturally the publishers of these “glory stories” realised that readers would want to learn more, so Divine Renovation has now been followed by its own Reading Guide, an application manual for parishes, and most recently an anecdotal account of how the new pastor there, Revd Simon Lobo, learned the art of pastoring through a rapid apprenticeship. Meanwhile Rebuilt, which was perhaps slightly more detailed in its original text and has more extensive online book-derived resources, has generated numerous extracts and specific applications so the spin-offs include advice on rebuilding youth ministry, confirmation, preaching, 10 steps for getting started and 75 tips for applying the Rebuilt approach generally. Both sources have extensive websites (RB, DR) and now issue regular podcasts: (RB, DR)! Rebuilt hasn’t established much of a presence in the UK, but through its strong ties with Alpha, Divine Renovation now has a UK promoter (Hannah Vaughan-Spruce) and regular UK conferences.

There are many other thriving Catholic parishes. In 2016, Bill Simon published Great Catholic Parishes, based on studies of 244 vibrant parishes, and discovered four common factors at work. First, successful parishes don’t leave it all to the pastor – they have leadership teams. The mix between employees and volunteers, full-time and part-time varies hugely, but in some way, leadership is distributed. Secondly, parishioners are intentional about coming together to pray and to share the work of the parish. Thirdly, Sunday Mass is a high point yet clearly integrated into the lives of those who attend, with welcomers and architecture to draw them in, and mental, electronic and printed take-aways to embed that Sunday’s message in the week to come. Finally, thriving parishes look outwards and are conscious of their role to support fellow Christians in poorer areas. These findings are promoted by the Parish Catalyst organization, which also produces study guides to help apply this material.

In 2013, two businessmen, Patrick Lencioni and John Martin, recognised the need to apply leadership expertese in service of Catholic parishes. They set up the Amazing Parish movement. The on-line resources focus on helping parish priests to recognise the need to work as part of a team, recruit the right members, and start working together effectively.

Finally, an honourable mention must go to the Dynamic Catholic movement (also launching in the UK). Matthew Kelly has written about the importance of raising levels of engagement. Some critics have accused his approach as shallow, since he speaks of the call to holiness as “becoming the best version of yourself”. This kind of language can be a useful, and motivating, bridge to the unengaged, but also needs careful unpacking in the light of a Catholic understanding of what a truly good life looks like.

Listening, Learning Leaders

All successful parishes have a pastor (parish priest) who works as part of a team. In a team he can be challenged, offered alternative perspectives, and be held accountable. Every pastor has blind spots. The other team members might be fellow clergy, paid staff, volunteers or some mixture of all of these. The leadership team is not the same body as the Parish Advisory Council or the Parish Finance Committee; it will be a smaller group which meets more regularly and where the members share a common sense of the mission (what are we here for?) and vision (how are we going to achieve it?) of the parish.

Evident Expectations (Engagement & Evangelisation)

Any parish serious about raising its levels of engagement will make clear what it expects of its members. Not all parish activities foster engagement or evangelisation – engaging is more than “coming to activities”. To engage, an activity has to help participants commit emotionally to the mission or vision of the parish. To evangelise, an activity has to explicitly invite a deeper relationship with Christ. The next two pillars (fostering volunteers and sharing groups) are integral to deepening engagement. If you have a congregation with too few engaged members to take on any special projects, your only viable starting point is raising the engagement level in the weekend congregation.

Vibrant Volunteers

Successful parishes make good use of their available staff and volunteers. The right people are affirmed and promoted; the wrong people are moved out of ministry positions where they are not effective. There will be some kind of pipeline to enable people’s gifts to be recognised, leading to a trial season in some suitable role, and an annual review of whether to continue in that ministry.

Intentional Interactions

Successful parishes expect their members to attend some kind of regular small-to-medium sized group. It is here, not in the large Sunday congregation, that members will build strong relationships and be challenged to deeper conversion. Some parishes may do this by setting clear expectations for existing parish groups (e.g. UCM, Legion of Mary) rather than erecting new ones.

Superb Sundays

Sundays (and Saturday evenings) are your shop window. Everyone who comes should have a superb experience. This requires radiant hospitality which begins at the parking lot, first rate hymns and musical support, and a clear homily which has been prepared and polished to give a clear pithy message, including elements of humour and personal vulnerability, and possibly supported by visual aids and/or a clear take-home message in the bulletin, website, and social media feed.

Where should I begin?

If you are a parish priest with no leadership team supporting you, you would be wise to build a team before attempting to discern or do anything else. The Amazing Parish resources focus most strongly on this.

Once you have a team, if you don’t already have a large pool of engaged parishioners, you will need to focus on raising engagement before you have people ready to work with you on anything else. If you have enough money to invest in doing this, you might find the Gallup approach (on-line questionnaires and personal coaching) or the Called & Gifted approach (on-site discernment workshops) gives your parishioners a strong sense of being active members of the congregation with gifts to offer. Alternatively, and especially if you are comfortable with personal prayer ministry being offered to your parishioners, you can use Alpha or Discovering Christ to prepare parishioners for a “Holy Spirit Day” (or weekend). Rebuilt has its own Small Groups model.

If you do have a pool of people who share your sense of vision and mission, you have more options. You might still choose to focus on expanding enagement in your weekend congregation, in which case study Divine Renovation more deeply, and make use of the ME25 tool.

On the other hand, if you want to focus your resources on evangelisation, you can use the sequels to Discovering Christ or the Relit program to form your parishioners, and consider becoming a host site for the New Evangelisation Summit (which will provide world-class motivational speakers and some basic training content). You then have numerous options.

One factor that might help you discern which way to go, is the question of how comfortable the pastor and people are with an explicit reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit. Those ready to risk this will find great fruit from Alpha or Discovering Christ, and will intuitively embrace the Divine Renovation approach and be open to all that Called & Gifted can offer.

Pastors and leadership teams who are not comfortable with this approach might find a safer, more palatable, route through the Clifton StrengthsFinder, and a study of Rebuilt, which is not noticably associated with Alpha or prayer ministry.

Finally, it should be noted that surrounding any major parish initiative with prayer is so fundamental that this is treated as a given, not as a pillar; and that for some parishes, an integral part of their stated expectations is an “outward looking” focus to the social needs of the local community and/or the developing world. This is not a pillar, because in other thriving parishes the energy available for outreach is poured primarily into explicit evangelisation efforts. Ultimately, the pastor and his leadership team must judge what seems appropriate, and what’s actually working, in any given situation.

Building Missionary Parishes

The path of discipleship is one which individuals must walk from the first stirrings of curiosity about Jesus and his message, through to wholehearted committment. A parish neccessarily contains people at all stages of the journey. Indeed, a core function of a parish is to enable its members to make that journey, and to be equipped to invite other people to do so, too.

Some of the work which helps people make that journey is necessarily one-to-one work in the context of a relationship of trust. A parish needs to plan and provide for that to happen – but also needs a broader strategy about its corporate life. Elsewhere, I offer a resource page with useful links for materials which can help individuals and small groups grow through the different thresholds of discipleship. This web-page suggests what this might mean for the strategy of a parish as a whole.

PRE-DISCIPLESHIP

Not all church-goers are disciples. Indeed, based on Weddell and Kelly, a typical parish priest might safely assume that 90%-95% of his parishioners have not yet become disciples!

Those who passed through sacramental preparation as children may not yet have accepted the challenge to change; they may not be actively interested in finding out what Christ or the Church teaches.

If most parishes currently have 95% of their attendees in pre-discipleship, how should this shape the preaching and pastoral activity?

Most of the preaching should aim to do one or more of the following things:

  • Foster trust in Christ or His Church;
  • Tell the Great Story of Jesus in a way that arouses curiosity;
  • Speak openly about what the inner life of prayer is really like.

After some years of this it may be the right time to run a parish mission or similar programme which allows people to accept the Challenge to Change… but what should be done with those who accept the challenge? Weddell notes that the temptation is to train them for ministries, but in fact they will be hungry for catechesis, to understand their newly-awakened faith better.

When working with individuals, it is inadvisible to tackle moral issues which affect lifestyle until the person has accepted the challenge to be open to Christ and His message. But if the vast majority of Sunday churchgoers have not yet reached this threshold, what does this mean for preaching when moral topics arise naturally in the Lectionary? The preacher might choose to emphasise that following the Lord’s high standards is a natural thing to do for anyone who has already chosen to accept Jesus’ teaching, and remind the congregation that the Lord is always willing to forgive those who fall short and to offer grace, including through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to those who wish to set their sights higher.

Any courses or study groups put on should be grounded in relationship with Christ. Many existing catechetical resoruces focus on content rather than relationship; and it is all too easy to deliver the content as a “lesson” rather than make it a true apprenticeship in which participants are actively reflecting on the implications for their lives.

A parish serious about being open to those on the threshold of exploring the Catholic faith will create an easy and welcoming atmosphere for those who drop in to test the water. They may offer a “seeker” experience – one successful model in cities is Nightfever. The Proclaim15 Resource Index is useful to help parishes develop a vision and strategy for evangelisation, or to focus on particular sectors such as youth, families, those with no church connection, or non-churchgoing Catholics. Southwark Archdiocese has produced an excellent Handbook to help parishes review parish provision and set up a parish team.

What about the 5%-10% who are already disciples? In a typical British parish that means there will be a core of 10-50 worshippers who will benefit from catechesis and discipling. If Sunday preaching is oriented to the 90+%, there will need to be another forum for the deepening work. This could be in the form of cell groups following the Guildford modelOrpington (Milan) model or Wimbledon (Florida) modelDivine Renovation tells of how a Canadian parish priest used the Alpha Course as a starting point to challenge his parishioners to become “engaged” in the mission of the Church.

Finally, remember the importance of intercession. Who in the parish is praying – and especially for those on the thresholds of openness or of discipleship, where much spiritual warfare takes place?

REACHING THE LAPSED

Rebuilt tells the story of a parish which made its primary strategy one of being intentionally welcoming to lapsed Catholics. Programmes to reach out to non-practising Catholics are of limited value unless the host church has made some adjustments in this way. If the church hasn’t changed, what is going to dissuade the returner from lapsing again?

A “threshold conversation” of the kind outlined in Forming Intentional Disciples can help highlight people’s disappointments and misunderstandings about God.

FORMING DISCIPLES AT THE CORPORATE LEVEL

Rebuilt explains how an American parish adopted a twofold mission: reaching the lost and growing disciples. Starting with 1500 worshippers, they grew to 4000 by gearing the welcome, music and preaching to their target audience – a 40something lapsed Catholic middle-class male. (Each parish will need to identify their own target based on local demographics, though husbands are more likely to bring their wives than vice versa.) By exhorting and enabling people to “get involved” they developed a culture where parishioners naturally gave of their time, talents and treasure; so resources do not need to be directed into running fundraisers or seeking reluctant volunteers to fill gaps.

Rick Warren’s book Purpose Driven Church observed that there were five distinct tasks every church community needs to undertake in order to be the full expression of Christ’s church on earth: Worship, Ministry (by which he meant social outreach, charitable work in the local community), Mission (his term for explicitly inviting others to become followers of Jesus), Fellowship (becoming part of the community of worshippers) and a fifth purpose of consciously seeking to grow as a follower of Jesus – Warren labelled this one “Discipleship” but since living out the other four purposes are also aspects of discipleship, a better Catholic label might be “Ongoing Formation”.

In a Catholic context, Divine Renovation tells how a Canadian parish priest, appointed pastor of a newly-merged parish of 1800 worshippers, applied the ideas from Rick Warren and set out a specific expectation that members of his parish would commit to five priorities: attending Sunday worship; volunteering for at least one parish project or ministry; networking with other Catholics; developing their prayer life and/or understanding of the Catholic faith; and giving financially to the parish. As a result, volunteering and financial giving has doubled, participation in courses has tripled, and more than 40% of parishioners are actively engaged with the life of the parish. The parish priest is now developing the best ways to draw in those who approach the Church seeking sacraments – ways which deeply challenge our current culture of applying the sacrament and waiting with forlorn hope for the grace to manifest!

There are many tools available to help members of a parish discern their gifts and strengths. Andy Raine’s Motivational Gifts helps Christians understand their motivation in terms of 7 Biblical headings. A more secular approach is found in Gallup’s engagement tools, including 34 Signature Themes from the Clifton Strengths approach, where you can buy access to an online assessment (top 5 or all 34). Sherry Weddell has long been associated with the Catherine of Siena Institute’s Called and Gifted programme, which does however need a trained facilitator. Wisdom on managing volunteers in parishes is also available.

 

Making Disciples

Does your church have a Mission Statement?

If not, don’t panic – we already have one given to us in the Gospel! It’s to go out to the whole world and make disciples of all nations.

If your Church does have one, but it’s not an expression of the Gospel one tailored to your own local circumstances, then is your mission the mission of Jesus?


DISCIPLESHIP is the “in” word at the moment. It needs to be understood for what it is – a personal, deliberate and conscious decision to take Jesus as one’s own teacher. It relates to all stages of the spiritual journey from the first stirrings of curiosity in the message of Jesus, through to making a formal life-commitment to one kind of vocation or another. It is a good word to sum up the whole mission of the Christian church!

Some speak of “intentional discipleship” to emphasise the deliberateness of being a disciple – not that it is possible to be an unintentional disciple! But if the word were used carelessly, it would become equivalent to “Christian” or “church member”. Then we might start reading about “non-practicing disciples” which would be the sign that the word “disciple” had lost its intentionality – perish the thought!

Recent years have seen a spate of publications on discipleship, church growth, and discerning and using charisms. Some of the texts are by theorists offering ideas, perhaps ideas which have been tested by only one or two groups. For me, the stand-out book is Forming Intentional Disciples (hereafter FID), which is backed by the fruits of an approach tried and tested in dozens of parishes, where significant numbers of Catholics have been helped to move from church-going to true discipleship. I have made two videos promoting FID on behald of the Bishops of England and Wales, as part of the 2015 package of Proclaim15 resources.

FID concerns the growth of individual Catholics; some books look at strategic approaches which can direct a whole congregation. Rebuilt is notable as the story of one parish which experienced rapid growth in numbers attending as a result of a focussed approach on the essentials. By contrast, Divine Renovation shows how a focus on raising engagement can lift a parish from the typical 8-10% of actively involved members to 50+%.

On this webpage I will post links and summaries for resources which can assist the spiritual growth of individuals, or small groups of people at roughly the same stage of spiritual development. I will also maintain a strategic page of resources more useful to the overall growth and guidance of a parish community as a whole.

PRE-DISCIPLESHIP

FID sets out three key thresholds which people must cross before they come close to being disciples of Christ: TRUST in Christ or something Christian; PASSIVE INTEREST in the life and message of Christ; and a willingness to be CHALLENGED TO CHANGE. Although different people experience these thresholds in very different ways, FID is rooted in research in the 1990s that identified these thresholds as common factors in the stories of all the converts interviewed in the course of the research.

The Bridge of Trust

I remember a lecture at seminary (unfortunately I am unable to find the reference to the source material now) which suggested that there are three things that keep young people connected to the Catholic Church:

  • HEART: 40% remain connected because they have a quality relationship with a practising Catholic;
  • HANDS: 40% remain connected because they are involved with some kind of service project, such as a Lourdes pilgrimage;
  • HEAD: 20% remain connected because they receive good apologetics.Because there are different kinds of people, no one approach will work to build bridges with everyone. Indeed, building bridges with non-Catholics and non-practising Catholics is a task which every committed Catholic will do in a unique way for each relationship which they have in their lives. We will usually need to take a genuine interest in the person’s life as a whole before we can ask questions about their spiritual life. For clergy and pastoral workers, it may be possible to move more rapidly to such a conversation in a formal context of trust, such as marriage preparation.Other research, now a little dated, on what keeps people connected with church can be found in a summary of Northampton Diocese’s 2002 Y-Church Report and the charismatic-focussed W-Church Report on why some young people in Wales remained involved with Catholic Charismatic Renewal. When I engage members of other religious groups in conversation, such as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, I like to ask them to tell me the story of how their own religion has changed their life for the better. The kind of answer I hear is almost always that they met some kind people from that group who helped them in their hour of need. Similarly, many aspiring Catholics who join enquirers’ groups or attend RCIA might come because they have met some “nice Catholics” and want to come alongside them. This is an excellent start, but not an adequate foundation, and needs careful attention to bring these aspirants through the next two thresholds – unlike someone exploring the Catholic Faith because of a spiritual awakening, who might be ready to proceed directly to catechesis.

    Telling the Great Story

    Once a relationship exists with people who are not yet disciples, our task is to share with them the Great Story of Jesus – who he is, what he has done, why it matters, and what it is like to have a relationship with him. This is something that may take place mainly in personal conversations, but for churchgoers who are not yet disciples, group study materials may be helpful:

    Honesty about what a personal prayer life is like – and realism about what doesn’t usually happen during prayer time – is very important, too.This is not the right time to tackle prospective converts about dubious moral choices in their life, or to offer abstract doctrines. Until a solid relationship is established between the convert and the Lord, this would be premature.

    The Challenge to Change

    A person on the threshold of being open to the challenge to change can be quite volatile. Until they surrender to Christ, they may protest loudly! We may not appreciate the fears and pressures for them – not least about entering a church building! They may want to explore issues of faith anonymously, perhaps by doing their own reading and research.FID explains the art of the “threshold conversation”, where a Christian seeking to make disciples can assess whether a person has passed through these thresholds, and nudge them towards making the next step. There is great similarity here to the crucial third step (placing trust in God) of a 12-step addiction recovery programme.

    In The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic (4SDC), Matthew Kelly observes that in a typical US parish, 7% of the people give 80% of the money and provide 80% of the volunteering hours. He notes that it is common for the majority of those 7% in any one parish to have a common factor – perhaps many of them did Cursillo, or “Christ Renews His Parish”, or some other similar programme.

    COMMITTMENT ZONE

    FID’s next two thresholds are those of ACTIVELY SEEKING to know the teaching of Christ and his Church, and CHOOSING TO FOLLOW Christ as a disciple. Together these constitute the Committment Zone.

    Actively Seeking Jesus

    It is for those who are actively seeking that CATECHESIS is most important; and this should not be the impartation of mere doctrine, but a true apprenticeship in Christian living. (An apprentice is a learner receiving coaching in how to apply what they have learned, in practice.) We must not confuse a person’s decision to SEEK with the decision to FOLLOW. Some seekers may not want to make a definitive committment to Christ. If a person is not ready to say yes to Jesus, it might be appropriate to ask what the obstacles are.In one-to-one conversations, resist the temptation to give large doses of doctrine in answer to questions. Instead, be mindful of the Lord’s own habit of answering a question with another question. Keep telling the Great Story of what God has done in Jesus Christ. It takes a number of tellings before listeners realise its significance. There are parts of the Story in particular which arouse spiritual curiosity – healings, and forgiveness. There is a danger of getting hung up on particular questions of doctrine; the real question to explore is whether the institutional Catholic Church can be trusted as the carrier of God’s tradition.

    We need to challenge people to move from openness to seeking, lest they stagnate. We might help them try out the corporal works of mercy, or various kinds of prayer. We might offer them role models and the stories of new disciples; we might tell how sacraments and church have helped our own growth. We cannot assume the current generation has any clear concept of “sin”.

    The key Vatican document here is the General Directory for Catechesis, which sets out the Catholic Vision of Catechesis. Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the following links offer a Basic Syllabus for Catechesis in the Catholic Faith – Excel version and PDF summary.

    Kelly identifies the 4 signs of a dynamic Catholic as committment to prayer, to ongoing study of their faith, generosity and a willingness to share what they have received with others. In the committment phase, we can begin to teach these good patterns of behaviour to our catechumens. Chapters 2 thru 5 of 4SDC will be useful here.

    The various Movements in the church – NeocatechumenateFocolareOpus Dei etc – become attractive to those seeking to understand their faith and to make a committment in the company of others. But such movements can become divisive when non-participant parishioners get the message that they are “second class Catholics”. The pastoral challenge is to offer formation which allows a whole parish to move forward, together.

    Choosing to Follow

    Once a person has reached the point of knowing that they wish to follow Jesus as a disciple, they may desire to express this by some kind of ceremony. For those preparing to become Catholics, this will be by a sacramental ceremony of initiation. For those who are already confirmed Catholics, more could be made of the Easter Renewal of Baptismal Committment. One resource to assist this is a book by Revd Ambrose Walsh.

    DISCIPLESHIP ZONE

    Once a person has made a conscious commitment to follow Jesus and live out his teaching, they become a disciple – in the language of FID, they have “dropped their nets” and set out on the journey.The journey requires a deepening and consolidating of the good habits already begun, so chapters 2-5 of 4SDC are still relevant.

    A person keen to serve may want to explore their own giftedness; FID grew out of a parish development programme, “Called & Gifted” which helps Catholics understand what their gifts are and how to volunteer in the most appropriate contexts.

    Some useful books here are Called and Sent again by Revd Ambrose Walsh, and Gifted and Sent by Revd Pat Collins CM.

    VOCATION ZONE

    A natural development of exploring one’s gifts is asking what they mean for a person’s overall direction in life as a whole. Should I marry or remain single? Am I called to consecrated life or holy orders? There are also less formal vocations to be discerned, such as making a serious, personal, long-term committment to one kind of apostolate or another, or giving serious consideration to the best way to spread the Gospel within one’s own situation in life.In most parishes, there will only be a handful of people of the right age and spiritual maturity to seriously ponder questions of formal vocation, so individuals asking these questions will need personal attention or assistance from regional groups.

    Christ the King Parish, Ann Arbor, provides an exceptional example of a parish structure where these things can be explored together – but this is a non-geographic parish explicitly created to minister to Catholics who are seeking a deeper presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

    Some useful resources for exploring vocation:

  • National Vocations Framework for England and Wales;
  • Discernment Groups for England and Wales;
  • The Community of Our Lady of Walsingham specialises in helping others discern their vocations to different kinds of callings.

 

Warning! Low Power!

Homily at St Philip Evans for Pentecost Sunday, Year Bbattery

On Friday morning I jumped in the shower and turned on the rechargable radio. But within 30 seconds of starting to scrub, the sound had disappeared. Because I hadn’t stopped to look at the display, I hadn’t seen the “Low Power” warning.

Have you noticed that on many smartphones, the little icon is green when you have lots of power, but turns amber and then red as your power is running out? There’s a lesson for us there. Today, I’m vested in red, the traditional colour of Pentecost in the Western Church. The red reminds us of the tongues of fire which fell upon Our Lady and the Apostles; it’s a colour associated with power. But in our age, it increasingly warns us of low power. Today, I’m looking out for red warnings of low power here in our parish community.

On the first two weekends in June, our Masses will include First Communions. If you’re a low-power Christian, you’ll decide that the disruption of having lots of guests is too much to bear, and you’ll go to Mass somewhere else. If you are a Christian filled with the power to love, you will make a personal decision to come, you will offer your seat to a guest if we are “standing room only”, and you will do whatever you can help the occasion go really well for all our children and all our guests.

On the first of July, we’ll have a special Mass where we’ll share the beauty of what we do on Sundays with people who don’t normally come to church. Who will those guests be? They will be the people you invite to come. If you are a low-power Christian, you will not want to invite anyone to come – you will be overwhelmed by objections.

  • I’m not holy enough to share my faith
  • I’m not qualified to share my faith with others.
  • I’m too scared. People will judge me.
  • I have no idea what to say. I might say the wrong thing.

If you are a Christian filled with the power to love, you will give invitation cards to your friends and members of your family, and you will encourage them to come.

My past experience tells me that many of us are in danger of being low power Christians. If I’d seen the warning signs on my radio, I could have done something about it. I could have charged it up. But we can do something even better than getting a re-charge – we can plug in to the mains!

If you tuned in to the Royal Wedding this weekend, you’ll have heard a sermon about the power of love. “There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will.” Preacher* Michael Curry began by quoting words from Martin Luther King: “We must discover the redemptive power of love.” These are eminently suitable words for a wedding – but they are also words suitable for our church community at Pentecost.

What we are celebrating today is that God wanted to pour out on all members of the Church, the power to live with redeeming love – power to lift up and liberate everyone who walks through the door of this church, everyone who walks through the doors of our houses and everyone who walks through the doors of our lives. This is divine power. This is the love which transforms the world.

This sort of love has a price. It costs our time, it costs our comfort, and its costs our freedom. But God wants to help us pay the price. What is on offer to us is not merely an opportunity to “recharge our batteries”. What’s on offer is the infinite power of the Holy Spirit of God – an opportunity to plug in to the mains!

On one Jewish Feast of Pentecost, Jesus stood up in the Temple and said anyone who followed him would experience a spring of living water welling up within them.

On another Pentecost, just after Our Lord ascended into heaven, St Peter stood up and filled with the Holy Spirit preached a sermon that called 3,000 people to become followers of Christ.

That same power is available to us. In fact, God longs for us to ask for it. The Royal Preacher noted that human history is the story of how we have learned to make good use of fire – the fire of love! The fire of God’s love is not offered to us for our own comfort. The fire of God’s love is given so that we can bless others.

If you’ve been confirmed, you’ve already got a source of fire, you’re already plugged into the mains! But God still waits for you to throw the switch, to let that power flow through you. That’s why, in the Alpha course currently running, and in the Discovering Christ course we’ll be running in the autumn, there’s a retreat day devoted to the Holy Spirit, a day when you’re invited to open the floodgates to the divine fire which longs to love the world through you. St Catherine of Siena once said, “Christian, be who you are called to be and you will set the world on fire!”

Today is Pentecost. Today is our celebration of what God wants to do through you to bless others. There’s someone that God wants you to help on a First Communion Day in this church. There is someone in your life God wants you to bless with an invitation for 1st July. Power is on offer to you:

  • God’s Spirit offers you inspiration. To whom will you give the invitation?
  • God’s Spirit offers you wisdom. How will you make the invitation?
  • God’s Spirit offers you courage. How soon will you make the invitation?

Today, make three decisions.

Decide to join the “Home Team” for First Communion.

Decide to Invite A Friend for July 1st.

Decide to ask God’s Spirit to give you the power to do these things without fear.

Tonight, I’m going to plug in my radio. I’m not willing to settle for low power. Are you?

battery - green


* To give him his formal title, Archbishop Curry – but that raises the whole question of the validity of Anglican Orders. But I say this: while he’s questionably a bishop, he’s unquestionably a preacher!

Pure Gold

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B.

Gold dissolves in aqua regia!

One of my favourite childhood reads was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. In one of the novels, some children are camping in the Lake District and they think they’ve discovered gold! One of the children, Richard, is a bit of a scientist and remembers reading that “gold dissolves in aqua regia” – a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid. So they mix up some of this powerful acid, drop in the shiny metal they’ve discovered, and it dissolves! Gold! … Or is it?

All that glitters is not gold… and not everything that dissolves in aqua regia is gold either. A mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid is so powerful that it can dissolve almost anything! It turns out that what the children have actually discovered is a copper ore, and copper is a useful metal too! If the metal they had found hadn’t dissolved in aqua regia, that would have proved it wasn’t gold. But just showing it did dissolve wasn’t proof that it was.

The name aqua regia means “royal water”, because it is a liquid capable of dissolving even precious, kingly, metals. Today we will make us of another kind of royal water, the water of baptism, in which Remmi-Rae will be adopted as a daughter of the most High God and become a princess in His royal family. Now don’t worry, this royal water is not a strong acid and no-one is going to be dissolved. But this water is even more powerful than the strongest acid, because in adults it has the power to wash away sin, and in children who have not committed wilful sin, it washes away their heritage of belonging to the sinful human race, which we call ‘original sin’ or the ‘sin of our origins’.

In today’s First Reading, we are reminded of the very first time that baptism was offered to a family who was not Jewish. St Peter had a dream in which it was made clear that the gift of Baptism was not only for the children of Israel, but for the whole world. The house of Cornelius is one of five examples of “whole households” being baptised in the Bible, which is one of the reasons we baptise not only believers but children as well. But a child can only be baptised when the parents and godparents make a promise to teach and show the child how to live the Catholic faith!

What I want to say next is especially for Remmi-Rae’s parents and godparents, but also for all of you who are parents or have taken on the responsibility of becoming a godparent or sponsor to a member of the church. Do you understand your duty to teach and show the Catholic faith?

Today’s Second Reading and Gospel speak loudly: love one another! The Greek word for Christian love is agape, which means pouring out our lives in service of one another. If we do not love one another, we are not followers of Jesus. But beware! These words can lead us straight into the aqua regis trap. If we do love one another, does that prove we are Christians? No!

Are there not good Buddhists who love one another in the world?

Are there not good Muslims, who practice the Islamic value of ummah, looking out for one another?

Are there not good atheists, humanitarians, who love one another and even the most needy in our world?

Parents, godparents, you must teach your children to love one another. You must teach them always to offer forgiveness. But there is more work to do. The question is this. Just as Richard needed a chemical test that would pick out gold alone, so you must answer this: what does your family do that you wouldn’t do if you weren’t Catholic?

Do you pray together the words Jesus asked us to pray, Our Father? Later in this Mass, we will pray these words on behalf of Remmi-Rae, who is too young to make them her own.

Do you respect the teachings of the Pope in Rome, who is the centre of unity for the Church on earth? Will you teach your children and godchildren that when the Bible alone is not clear on the complicated issues we face in today’s world, the Holy Spirit guides the Pope in giving the best answers for our time?

Do you remind your children and godchildren that they are invited guests at the royal banquet of the Eucharist which is set out for them each weekend?

Do you teach your children, by word and example. to receive spiritual strength through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Holy Communion, and when the time is right, Holy Matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick? Jesus longs to connect with each one of them through prayer, and will call each child to a unique friendship with Him. Jesus has chosen each baptised child to bear fruit: the fruit of good works, the fruit of offering prayers, and the fruit of inviting many people to be baptised! And if this seems like an awesome responsibility, it is – but God’s awesome Spirit lives within each of you who are baptised and confirmed to enable you to carry it out!

Remmi-Rae has been born into a family named King. In fifth-century France, there was a Bishop Rémy who converted and baptized King Clovis.  Today, in twenty-first century Wales, this Remmi-Rae will be baptised into God’s royal family. It would be a tragedy to remember to teach her to love others and forget to teach her she is a sister of Jesus! Parents, godparents, treat her like royalty and ensure she lives in the Palace of the King, which is her local Catholic Church! So now, parents and godparents, it is time to baptise this King in royal water! Let us stand and pray.