Sherry Weddell made a speaking tour of England & Wales 10-20 June 2019. This is a brief digest of the teaching, which presupposes you are familiar with Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples. The book sets out a framework for understanding how believers pass through the thresholds of (1) Trust, (2) passive Curiosity, (3) Openness to change, (4) active Seeking and (5) Intentional Discipleship.
The State of the Church Today
We no longer live in a culture of “Christendom”. Even the young people born in “Catholic” families are mostly growing up with such a weak exposure to Catholicism they are effectively unchurched rather than lapsed. And in fact it’s historically rare for Catholics to have been formed by the culture (“Christendom”) rather than to have to be evangelised anew. “Generation Z” – the young people born between 1998 and 2016 – typically don’t believe in God, never pray, and don’t attend any kind of worship service. The 2015 “Talking Jesus” survey in England showed that 53% of adults don’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and only 21% do believe he was God in human form. On the other hand, the number of adults who call themselves atheists have dropped from 38% in 2016 to 33% in 2018 (Yougov survey 2018).
In a typical parish, we can expect 90-95% of the worshipping parishioners have not moved beyond Trust or passive Curiosity. Even highly engaged (“core”) parishioners who get involved with parish projects are often engaging out of a sense of commitment to the local community or the church institution rather than commitment to Christ. All disciples are highly engaged, but engagement does not prove discipleship. Worse, it’s very likely that someone who has been engaged for a long time but never moved beyond curiosity has become ‘stuck’ in their spiritual journey; and those who are still at early thresholds may become annoyed and vocal when their parish is challenged to grow deeper. What’s the typical mentality of a Massgoer? “We’re all going to heaven because we’re good people, but none of us are going to be ‘saints’ because it would be far too proud to aspire to that.” This shows a total misunderstanding of salvation!
So we recognise there are three distinct journeys which people can make which don’t synchronise with each other automatically: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvement 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 of). 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.
We have a retention problem. We know that we haemorrhage young people after baptism and first communion. Even many of those who join the church through RCIA cease practicing in the year following their baptism or reception. Why do the sacraments not bear fruit? Catechism 1131 reminds us that the sacraments bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. This teaching is expanded in Chapter 6 of Trent’s Decree on Justification and reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas (Commentary on John 6:976 & Summa Theologica III q69 a8).
A 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; live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and have lived experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.
The Work of Proclamation
We pour great efforts into catechising children and adults. But before we can do that fruitfully, we have to foster openness and then proclaim the Gospel.
A key task of clergy (an aspect of the ministry of ‘governance’ alongside the Word and the Sacraments), is to raise up “intentional disciples” in our parishes – souls who are confident in their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Most of the clerical work will be engaging with the “near field” of churchgoers, while giving the laity the tools they need to engage with the “far field” of those who have left church or never engaged with church in the first place.
For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS 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!”
How do we share the basic Gospel message? Gen Z young adults are so disconnected from our Christian heritage that even Alpha may make too many assumptions about their cultural background! But they do believe they are in charge of their own lives, at least until they meet with some disaster! (In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers.)
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!
When someone is ready, an exercise like one-on-one renewal of baptismal promises or the physical symbolic action of dropping a net can be helpful.
Disciples bear fruit – and this grows out of a living relationship with God. When members of the church become intentional disciples, they become active as worshippers and volunteers, and generous givers. Some will become lay leaders pioneering new ministries. Programmes such as the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted allow the gifts (charisms) of disciples to be discerned and affirmed. From July 2019, the teaching element of this programme will be accessible via online videos.
You can only guide others to grow as far as the threshold you have reached yourself. People who are still at Trust do have a role in evangelisation teams – they might be the most sensitive to hospitality issues, for instance, and have a role in the welcoming team. But they are not disciplers.
“Charismatic Renewal” fits within the wider picture of what Sherry teaches about. She speaks of how to encourage people to develop a conscious relationship with God. For some souls, this may crystallise in a “baptism in the Spirit” experience but others who have clearly moved into relationship with God would not choose to use that language or identify a particular experience. Similarly, the charisms identified though Called & Gifted do include extraordinary gifts such as healing or praying in tongues, but also include lifestyle charisms (e.g. celibacy, voluntary poverty) and charisms where God has simply perfected natural gifts (e.g. music, writing, administration).
There are five specific practical steps we can take to become more effective at making disciples.
In pastoral conversations, be attentive to the person’s relationship with God.
Whenever you engage in an appropriate conversation, try to tease out what the person’s understanding is of “God” – even if they’ve been to a Catholic school, that’s no guarantee. For many, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for a member of a 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. Two key questions to ask are:
- “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?”)
- “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. Parishioners who wish to learn how to have these kinds of conversations can benefit from Ananias Training. Good listening does not seek to force the speaker into a conclusion but listens without judgment. Recent research from Barna (Reviving Evangelism, 2019) shows that the more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith.
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 questions with questions – most people are only two “whys” from being forced to think about why they stand where they stand.
Encourage people to foster their relationship with God.
Ultimately, by talking about the possibility of a relationship with God, you are fostering the understanding that God is a loving person and it is possible to have a relationship with God.
You can also encourage people to be open to a relationship with God by:
- Praying the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”
- Trying lectio divina.
- Trying Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (but offer a simple orientation to someone who isn’t familiar with it).
- Seeking the presence of God in serving those in need.
- Practicing the “Presence of God” (Brother Lawrence)
- Talking to God in your own words.
The Siena Institute has a lectio resource for Advent 2019 available.
Create a culture in your parish where it is normal to talk about Jesus.
Research shows that most people have to hear the story of who Jesus is and what He did for us many times before they realise how important this is. This can be communicated through preaching, through personal testimonies shared at the end of Mass, and through testimonies and lectio divina (with participants sharing their reflections with each other) becoming a normal part of all group activities (committees, catechetical groups, etc.) in your parish. The purpose is not only to receive the reflections shared during lectio but to embed the culture of it being normal to speak about prayer, faith and Jesus Christ.
Keep telling the story of the saving death of Jesus, alongside personal testimony of how Jesus touches lives today and draws people into relationship with himself. These don’t have to be extraordinary “Damascus Road” testimonies – rather, they should illustrate what it’s like to have an ordinary prayer life. Also remind people that He lives in the Tabernacle of every Catholic Church! And keep sharing the Great Story and personal testimonies wherever there’s an opportunity – videos on the parish website, in one-to-one conversations, at children’s and adult groups – in short, at every possible opportunity.
You can also consider running one of several courses in your parish which provide a basic introduction to the person of Jesus. In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers. Remember that one size will not fit all parishioners, and a diverse range of methods of presenting the Gospel will be best.
Ensure there is intercessory prayer for the flourishing of your parish.
Intercession is not the same thing as adoration – although it can be done in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed. You will probably have a handful of parishioners who have a particular gift for intercession – when they start to pray, a topic will come clearly to mind, or they will have a clear idea on how to pray at length about a topic you propose. How will you identify these people? If you schedule a special time of prayer to pray for the needs of the parish, they will be the main people who turn up. Develop them as a group of intercessors – and importantly, when you see answers to their prayers, feed this back to encourage them. You can also use those whose life-circumstances mean that prayer is their only way to contribute (your sick and housebound) – but don’t neglect the healthy parishioners who have a special gift for praying in this way!
Identify and use the charisms of every member of your parish.
Parishioners will be happy and fulfilled when they are using the gifts God has given them to further the work of the Church – though they may need reassurance that Christian humility doesn’t require us to shun tasks we get praised for! Sherry’s organisation offers a Called & Gifted programme which helps people to identify their God-given gifts (charisms), and this can be accessed in three ways:
- An individual goes through the process on-line;
- A parish streams the teaching videos;
- A parish runs live talks.
When the programme is to be run at parish level, the parish will first need to train some suitable people who will conduct the one-to-one interviews with participants. These interviews include threshold conversations which help identify how far parishioners have grown along the path to discipleship.
We need hope. Do we expect that people will become committed disciples? Do we write off good news stories 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 in the UK!
You can join the international Forming Intentional Disciples Forum on Facebook which can be searched for all sorts of useful conversation threads on evangelising in different circumstances.
There is also a UK Forum, but this is much less active.
For the avoidance of doubt, the article above is not Sherry’s words but my digest of them. Fr Gareth Leyshon (CatholicPreacher)