How do I make disciples?

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 involveme 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.


The Scriptures given for this weekend’s Masses offer us three vineyards which fail to bear fruit. In the Gospel parable, the fault is not with the vineyard but the faithless servants who tend it and don’t want to yield up the harvest – reminiscent of the thorns which choke the good seed in the parable of the sower. The psalm considers a vineyard plundered by the forest boar and the beasts of the field, just as the birds of the air carry away the seed scattered and sown. But Isaiah’s vineyard is harder to diagnose. The vinedresser does everything right, and yet the harvest yields only sour grapes. Is this a problem of shallow roots, or is something else amiss?

I am reminded of another Gospel story of fruitlessness. The disciples had been fishing all night and caught nothing. Jesus appears on the shore and instructs them to ‘let down their nets on the other side’ – and they immediately net a massive haul of fish. So what is the difference between the two sides of the boat? It seems to me that the fruitless side represents catechesis – the successful side is evangelisation!

Earlier this week, the Church celebrated the 1600th anniversary of the death of St Jerome, the great scholar who translated the whole Bible into Latin in the age when Greek was ceasing to be the common language of the Church. We have much to be grateful for in the conversion, life and work of this great Doctor of the Church. However, one choice which Jerome made has had a profound impact on the mission of the Church – and that was his translation of Matthew 28:19-20a, where Jesus commissions the church to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’.

Greek scholars recognise that the active verb in the Great Commission is ‘to make disciples’ – the Greek word is mathēteusate (μαθητεύσατε) which is the source of our English ‘mathematics’. There is no one verb in English which can translate this exactly, but ‘apprentice’ (as a verb, “Apprentice that young student to me…”) might come closest. Latin also has no single word equivalent to the Greek, and St Jerome made the fateful choice to use the Latin word docete, meaning ‘teach’. This legacy was reflected a millennium later in the Douai-Rheims translation:

Going therefore, teach ye all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.

Teaching all nations is already a challenge, but one with a clear solution – disseminating information. If all the Lord requires His Church to do is to give information about Jesus to the world, we can smile and say we have done that in abundance. But still it seems we have ‘fished all night and caught nothing’. Our Catholic Schools are not a production line for faithful Catholics!

Making disciples of all peoples requires a much greater personal investment, coaching all the people of the world in the art of being a follower of the Master. During the 2010s, the Catholic Church has been blessed with significant insights into the work of making disciples. Sherry Weddell took what was already known among Evangelical Christians and demonstrated that the same dynamics were true among Catholics: future disciples begin at a trusting relationship with a representative of the Church, reach a crisis point of having to decide whether they wish to entrust their lives to Jesus, and then actively seek to understand what it means to follow Him.

Fr James Mallon has showed how a parish can become a vibrant disciple-making institution by having a ‘game plan’ which uses Alpha or a similar course as the engine to bring future disciples to that key decision point, and small ‘connect’ groups as a place to form new disciples and discern 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! ‘Making disciples’ is a process which embraces many stages of growth. It begins with primary evangelisation – the proclamation of Jesus to those who do not yet know that He is the Risen Lord. (This includes many self-identifying Catholics for whom he is merely a role model or teacher of morality.) 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?”

A few years before Weddell & Mallon published their books, the Church in Lancaster was asking the right questions. Bishop Patrick O’Donohue famously produced a series of reports under the title Fit for Mission? with his reflections on Catholic Schools and on the Church at large winning accolades from the Vatican. I’ve just been reading the key documents produced and it is clear that Bishop O’Donohue was a man deeply in love with Our Lord and frustrated at the lack of fruitfulness in his diocese. He was asking the right questions, and it seems to me that the answers he found identified the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’.

In 2007, the bishop produced the first document, the Guide, to begin a process of managing decline in his diocese. Most Catholic dioceses in England & Wales have had to address falling numbers of clergy, and it’s natural for a bishop to ask not only ‘how do we thin out the service we provide’ but ‘how do we effectively deliver the mission of the Church’. O’Donohue began by considering why our Catholic faith makes us distinctively different from the world around us:

I am strongly of the belief that the difference lies in two realities basic to our Christian lives: first and foremost, it lies in our relationship with Jesus Christ, particularly in our celebration of the Eucharist and our proclamation of the Gospel; secondly, in the way our relationship with Jesus changes our relationships with others. If our Christian life is not about becoming, through grace, more and more like Jesus in our attitudes and behaviour what is the point of it?

Guide, page 4.

The bishop challenges the people of his diocese to reflect on whether they still believe in the power of prayer and in the promises of Christ?

To my mind it seems the only reason why people ultimately leave the practise of their faith is because they don’t have a strong enough belief that Jesus gives His Body and Blood to them in the Eucharist! This lack of faith underscores the vital importance of sound Eucharistic catechesis adapted to the different stages of people’s faith formation.

Guide, page 6.

The bishop goes on to present a strong vision of people ‘gathered and sent’, echoing the observation from Vatican II that:

It was through their intense, personal friendship with the Lord, and each other, that these twelve ordinary men became Apostles, who ‘handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did’.

Dei Verbum 7

But there’s a problem! Bishop O’Donohue echoes Pope Benedict XVI’s diagnosis that the root cause of all the problems in our society as ‘forgetfulness of God’. He asks:

Why are we embarrassed to talk about God’s love for us and our love for God? What are the things that hold us back from evangelising our families, parishes, schools, and wider communities?

Guide, page 12.

Here, we need to ask a key question. Have the people of Lancaster Diocese experienced the love of God, and come to love God in return, in such a way that they have something to talk about? If they haven’t, they cannot be the witnesses the Bishop seeks – and the problem is less one of forgetfulness of God, more that there was nothing to remember in the first place.

The following year, at the end of August 2008, the bishop produced his reflection on the consultation process: Fit for Mission? – Church. It is a document of great teaching. It sets out the vision of Vatican II and defends the idea that the Council was an authentic development of Catholic teaching, not a rupture with the past. It calls for an obedient implementation of the Church’s liturgical norms – the Ordinary Form in English with fluency in Latin chants for some of the main Mass texts. It sets out a vision of a people called to live a life nourished by the sacraments – and it champions the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a core text to be at the heart of the Church’s work of teaching. On page 7, the bishop uses the example of the Apostles who had ‘worked hard all night long but have caught nothing’ – and it is here I fear the bishop has fallen into St Jerome’s trap, seeing a renewed teaching of the Catholic faith as the answer. Of course we need authentic, accurate and accessible catechesis – but the vineyard will yield sour grapes if the teaching is offered to people who are not yet open to Christ.

A clear symptom of the problem is seen in the Parish Review Final Document, not authored by the bishop but collating the way the 108 parishes of the diocese have received what is asked of them. How many parish priests understand what ‘evangelisation’ is? Numerous parishes say that they will undertake ‘evangelisation’ as part of their mission strategy, and it is clear several of them have pasted in a boilerplate text where parishes likely to become regional hubs of activity aspire to be ‘a focal point for adult formation, mission and evangelisation, maintaining deanery contact with the parishes, coordinating special Masses and other events and generally promoting
cross-parish cooperation’. There are in fact only two out of the 108 parishes which declare how they propose to implement evangelisation: Whitehaven is working on a parish census in advance of its parish mission, while Carlisle will use Landings for connecting with lapsed Catholics. Another parish, Ingol, proposes Landings as part of its sacramental programme, while Poulton proposes to use Alpha or Cafe material for the ongoing formation of its Catholics!

Teaching alone is not enough to bring souls through the threshold of true conversion, which is openness to change. Nor is the work of evaneglisation something which can easily be done with a large congregation gathered in a parish church or classroom. The missing ingredient, the ‘letting down the nets on the other side’, is the need for individuals who already love Jesus to have personal conversations which require not-yet-committed Catholics to take an honest look at where Jesus is in their lives. This can happen at rallies and retreats but is more likely to take place in ongoing relationships with intentional disciples. In his document on schools, Bishop O’Donohue does signal awareness of what is needed…

Catechesis is a moment or stage in the process of evangelisation. First, evangelisation evokes a questioning curiosity to know more concerning the deep truths about God and humanity, in order to lead others to make the ‘yes’ of faith, and then catechesis aims – as Pope John Paul II puts it – at enabling people to move from curiosity to communion with Jesus Christ. … To put people in communion with the Person of Christ must mean more than instruction in information or historical facts – though this ‘grammar’ of our faith must not be ignored – but needs to involve experience, encounter, and transformation. Hence, the importance of good liturgy and the sacraments in the life of the school and college.

Schools, page 24.

Yes, a good liturgy can be an occasion which evokes this questioning curiosity; but our lived experience surely tells us that this is rarely the case for those who have sat through many liturgies and not experienced conversion. The bishop asks the right questions:

How many of our young people have a living relationship with Jesus?

How many have the first idea of how to pray?

How many have really experienced His living and healing presence?

Schools, page 61.

The clearest sign that the bishop views our problem as a teaching problem is in his broad strategy for schools:

Our schools and colleges must be places where the ‘light of truth’ is cherished and spread. I would like to suggest two ways of doing this:

1. Promote respect for the authority of the doctrinal and moral truth safeguarded by the Pope and the Bishops.

2. Create an exciting and engaging environment that enables pupils to experience the light of truth, using the full range of multi‐media and communication technologies.

Schools, page 10.

I fear that regarding the fundamental problem of our contemporary church as a teaching problem (or as a liturgy problem) will cause us to find ourself in Isaiah’s vineyard. We can invest huge efforts into presenting Catholic teaching in excellent ways (and celebrating beautiful liturgies with great care). These things will always bear some fruit. But unless we ‘let down the nets on the other side’ we will still be short of fish, and the only way to do this is to deploy intentional disciples to hold one-to-one conversations in trusting relationships. From a starting point of few available disciples, any such initiative will get off to a slow start. But since it’s the only thing that can work to rescue the vineyard, let us begin with haste!

Digital Ministry – Working with Video

More and more churches are needing to minister through multimedia at the moment. Here are some tips from what I’ve learned over the last few months:

The common standard for modern video work is HD – this comes in various flavours, but it is best to work in Full HD, also known as HD 1080 – this creates landscape-format video images which are 1,920 pixels wide and 1,080 pixels high. The aspect ratio is 16:9. This means that:

  • If contributors are shooting contributions using their mobile phones, consider asking them to shoot in landscape orientation.
  • If you need a still image to embed into a video, it should ideally by 1,920×1,080 pixels or at least cropped to a 16:9 aspect ratio.

Video editing software can be choosy about which kinds of video it will accept. MP4 and QuickTime seem to be formats that can be easily used.

To CONVERT video files, the best (free) tool I have discovered is Handbrake. I was a little uncertain when I first found it – what’s with the cheesy pineapple logo and the very name? – but I have found it works well in practice and converts video with fewer glitches and quality loss problems than any other tool. It can certainly handle MPG files and VOB files – if you have the kind of DVD which plays automatically on a DVD player, the footage on it will probably in VOB format. Needless to say, you should respect others’ copyright and not rip material which you have no right to use.

To VIEW video files, VLC player is a (free) player which is very flexible and can play videos in slow and fast motion – helpful if you need to transcribe what someone is saying. VLC can transcode files between formats but I haven’t found the ease-of-use or output quality as good as Handbrake.

To EDIT video files, Da Vinci Resolve (free) is an amazing product. It seemed far too good to be true, but it’s legit: the parent company makes its money by taking a premium if you want to unlock 4K capability and by selling compatible hardware. You can add backing audio, cut video clips into sections, paste them where you want, add stills, create captions and rolling credits – all for free! When you are ready to ‘render’ your finished product, take care: the software defaults to ‘maximum’ rate but it’s best to set 25% if you don’t want your computer to freeze!

To BROADCAST live video, if you are using a PC and not streaming directly from a mobile device, use OBS Studio (free). The best camera available to you may well be a phone or tablet – you can install a 3rd party app (NOT free) on an Apple device and the associated plugin. I haven’t tried with an Android device but apparently this 3rd party app and these instructions could work. If you need to connect a church sound system to a PC I’ve had success with the Komplete Audio 1 device.

If you want to feed your OBS mix into a Zoom, Skype, Webex or other live video call, you can turn the OBS output into a ‘virtual camera’ so your live-stream can pick it up. On this page, click the “Go to download” button on the top right.

If you’re running an event over Zoom, and are using images (videos, presentations etc.) it’s best to have separate devices for presenting and managing guests, otherwise your presenter screen could be affected by mouse-movements and pop-ups when guests enter, leave, raise hands, etc.

If you use a PC to project words onto a screen and want the same words to come up in a window on your live broadcast, which is being streamed by a different PC on your same network, you can use OBS with a NDI-Newtek plugin to capture the screen of the projection PC as a source for the broadcast PC. The layout isn’t very clear but look on the right side of the download page for a green lozenge saying ‘latest’, click that and scroll down for the .pkg (Mac) or .exe (Windows) versions. If you use Linux I assume you’ll know what to look for! Then watch this instruction video on how to make use of the plugins. Warning: if your projection machine is a laptop, there are known issues with capturing a laptop screen (because different hardware drives the built-in screen and the external screen port) so you may have to capture the projection software window instead.

Catholic Outreach

How do we reach Catholics on the periphery? Many young people raised in Catholic households have never found the Church and her message attractive; when they leave home they cease to worship, but this is not so much a deliberate rejection of Catholicism as a failure to be drawn by it. In Canada, Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) has been working for 31 years to engage with these dormant Catholics, and founder André Regnier recently gave a seminar in London.

CCO began as, and is still primarily, a movement of University students. Its missionaries seek to reach into University and connect with Catholics who have not yet embraced their spiritual heritage. CCO missionaries take this role on as a long-term calling, not a gap year. The Canadian bishops have asked CCO to help equip parishes over the last decade, so the work has moved beyond the campus – but the focus is always on the periphery.

The Discovery Course from CCO is a simple evangelisation tool which can be studied by a small group of participants in someone’s living room or even in a one-to-one context over coffee. It can fill the gap in contexts which are too small to make viable the running of Alpha or a similar course.

A structural flaw in the way we do church is that we don’t have middle managers. There is no level between the parish priest and the 20+ key people in the parish who are leading catechetical groups and other activities. But we need middle-managers with a heart for reaching individuals and who accompany the leaders to coach them on how to deal with individual participants.

André is not only a campus minister. As a father, he has raised a family of missionary disciples. The whole family co-authored a book about how that happened! See Brick by Brick by the Regnier Family.

How to Have a Conversation

Can you share a meaningful message about Jesus if you only have 2 minutes for a conversation? As Catholics we suffer an embarrassment of riches in our theological heritage – but Evangelium Gaudium (35) calls us to be good at proclaiming the essentials. 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 provoke a conversion experience through this encounter?

It’s all too easy to enter a 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?) – when 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.” CCO distributes a little booklet called The Ultimate Relationship which can be helpful for these kinds of conversations.

In our evangelistic conversations, we must be intentional about what we want to achieve, and respectful of where the other person is at. Start by building rapport – look for a common point of interest. Survey the situation – get to know the person, or the place, you are going to work with. “What” questions are good open questions – not demanding an emotional response, nor triggering an ‘agree or fight’ response. (Jesus often taught using questions!) You can often ‘zoom in’ using a follow-up question. Or you can present images of Christ being close to, or further from, a person and say “Where do you think you are at?”

Beware of programmes! If a participant is wrestling with a basic issue like the divinity of Christ, there’s no use in moving on to a deeper subject just because the programme says it’s time to do it or because it’s what I learned in last week’s leadership training. Respectful listening requires attentiveness to the other person. André’s book Clear and Simple offers further insights on having a conversation which leads to conversion.

Our call, as Catholics, truly is to invite all people to experience a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This is not an alien, Protestant, idea – but one which numerous official Catholic documents on evangelisation reiterate. Pope Benedict XVI, preaching to the thousands gathered for World Youth Day 2011, invited young people to respond to Jesus by saying a prayer like this:

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.

Not all religious experiences are conversion experiences. A religious experience is about the presence of God or someone/something holy. Sometimes, but not always, this provokes a conversion – a sorrow for sin, a desire for confession, a new fervour for following Jesus.

A healthy relationship is rooted in consent. But in practice we present the Catholic faith as a duty. Like a marriage, a personal committment to the Catholic faith should be a free act of will to enter into a relationship.

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. Only 5% of those 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!

Missiondom Tour 2019

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

Final Thoughts

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)

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.


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 (some of the original resources are now archived but the videos are still available on Vimeo). 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?


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.


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.


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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


Catholic Statistics

Before you decide whether it’s worth reading this blog post or not, there are two things you might want to know about me. The first is that I have a PhD which included rigorous work analysing statistical data. The second is that I have a track record in analysing Catholic statistics across England and Wales: previously on my website but these days I’m working via this blog. Now read on!

How many Catholics are there in England and Wales? That’s not a very straightforward question. First of all, what is it that you are trying to measure?

One possibility is to count “canonical Catholics” – those who are Catholics according to canon law. Once a person is baptised as Catholic, or a person already baptised is formally received into the Catholic Church, that person is “a Catholic”. For a time, there was a provision in canon law that you could defect from the Catholic Faith by a “formal act” – that would be officially joining another religious community or giving official notice that you no longer wanted to be reckoned as a Catholic. But that provision is no longer in canon law; and so of all the souls baptised or received as Catholics, relatively few people have ever left the canonical status of being bound as “a Catholic”.

What we do have easy access to, are the statistics on the number of baptisms which take place and receptions into the Catholic faith. I’m sure an actuary could make some reasonable estimates for the death rate and the immigration and emigration rate of Catholics and, rooted on the solid figures for baptism, we could come to some a reasonable estimate of the number of “canonical Catholics” in England and Wales – but would that be a useful number?

Another quantity we can easily measure is attendance at weekend masses. The bishops have decreed that an annual count should take place over the four weekends of October but this is subject to ambiguity, and may not even be done consistently. Several factors are ill defined:

  • If October begins on a Sunday, do we start counting that weekend or the following weekend?
  • If October begins on a Thursday or Friday and contains five weekends, do we omit the first or the last?
  • Do we count only adults, or children?
  • If children, do we include babies?
  • If babies, do we include the unborn babies of visibly pregnant parishioners? (I don’t think anyone seriously would, but theologically, they are also human persons attending Mass.)
  • Do we omit double-counting persons attending a second Mass that weekend including the priest himself, sacristans, etc?

Even when we resolve the questions of when we count and who should be included, that number will include non-Catholics at Mass for various reasons (supportive parents or spouses, prospective converts) and occasionally those non-regular churchgoers attending a special Mass for family reasons (a baptism at weekend Mass or honouring a Mass intention for a special anniversary). If that parish requires children preparing for First Communion to register attendance for a few months, in a period that runs over October, this will also affect the figures.

But for the rest of this post I’m going to consider a third measure which is significant: those people who, when asked the question, “What religion are you?” would spontaneously say, “I’m a Catholic.” This data isn’t available from the 10-yearly census of the entire population which takes place in the UK: although there has been a religion question, all “Christians” are classed together. Fortunately, there’s also something called the British Social Attitudes Survey. This is based on a much smaller sample but it does ask questions about religion; and it’s possible to log in and search the database to find out how religion tracks with different regions of Great Britain, with the age of the respondents, and so on.

To use the database, you first need to register (it’s free and simple). Once you have logged in, you need to choose the Survey Years you wish to search. Then from the Contents List, choose RELIGION and from that menu, RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION (or for some older datasets, you may need RELIGIOUS OBSERVATION). You need to click the category on “Respondent’s Religion” if you wish to distinguish Catholics from others – this will then appear in the “Working List” on the top left of your screen. You can then choose any other religious or other data you wish to cross-reference with Catholicism, and this will also be added to the Working List.

Next, go to the Working List in the top left corner and click on “R’s religion”. Near the top right corner, click on “CrossTabs”. You can then choose any category on the screen to sort the data, e.g. sex, age, or any additional questions on your Working List. DON’T click “R’s religion” on the right side, which would only cross-reference the data with itself. When you have made your selection, scroll to the bottom of the page and click “View Results”.

The most recent survey accessible is from 2016. It included a question on how often the Respondent attended worship. For the Catholics, 23.3% went at least once a week; 19.5% went once or twice a month; 24.9% went ‘rarely’ (pooling once or twice a year with ‘less often’) and 31.6% of self-declared Catholics ‘never’ attend worship.

Selecting by sex, we see that 6.6% of male respondents and 10.6% of female respondents (across the whole of the UK) self-identified as Catholic; very similar figures occur in the 2015 survey, indicating a consistent likelihood for women rather than men to retain their sense of religious identity (there is no strong reason to assume that fewer boys than girls were baptised).

The highest proportion of Catholics is found in Scotland and NW England, where nearly 14% of the population self-identify as Catholics. Here in Wales, we have the lowest proportion of self-identifying Catholics anywhere in Great Britain, with only 5.0%.

Within the Archdiocese of Cardiff, the Mass Attendance reported across the diocese was 14,497 in 2016 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), down from 18,046 in 2009. Across the whole Welsh Province, deducting parish figures from Herefordshire, Mass Attendance in 2016 was 25,890. With an estimated national population of 3.168 million, this makes the Catholics actually attending Mass 0.82% of the total population; less than one in five of those who self-identify as Catholic therefore attend Mass frequently.

The database does not allow filtering by three variables at the same time, so it’s not possible to cross-check how many of the Catholics who report weekly attendance are in Wales – and that level of refinement would probably draw on such small numbers of respondents that the result would begin to lose accuracy. But across all members of any religion in Wales, only 10.2% claim to attend worship weekly or more often.

When religious identity is binned by age (15-24, 25-34 etc.) we find that across Great Britain, for those identifying as Anglicans or “other Christians”, the older you are, the more likely you are to identify as such. But for Catholics, this peaks in the 45-54 group with 10.4% identifying as Catholic. For all other ages 25-74, roughly 9% call themselves Catholic, and for the youngest group, only 5.3% of 15-24 year olds label themselves as such.

Across all religions, when attendance at worship is binned by age group, there is a surprising spike where 18.9% of 35-44 year olds attend weekly or more often. Every other age bin 15-64 fluctuates around 11% weekly attendance by little more than one percentage point. It would be fascinating to explore the reasons – liberation from child-care, mid-life crisis, or immigration of observant professionals?

There is a great deal more data available; just in the 2016 dataset, it is possible to analyse Catholics according to education, employment, political stance and marital status. The religious questions asked in other years include belief in the Devil, anti-religious prejudice and experience of conversion, support for faith schools, and politicians’ religious viewpoints or lack thereof. Here is a vast and free resource for researchers to delight in. Enjoy!

The Books You Need to Read

Over the course of my ministry, I’ve found a few crucial books that have deeply helped the way I conduct my work as a priest. When I find such a book, I usually write notes of the key points. Now I know busy clergy don’t have time to read books, but they might want to read a quick summary. So I make these available on the internet… in the hope that the summary will entice the reader to eventually buy the book. Here’s my current library (and this page may get updated from time to time.)


Forming Intentional Disciples – based on case studies of 37 converts who went from no faith to a fervent Catholic life, Sherry Weddell indicates how we can nudge souls in the right direction one step at a time.

Parish Management

Rebuilt is the story of an American parish priest and his lay associate, who successfully grew their parish from 1500 to 4000 regular worshippers by a relentless focus on reaching the lost. They offer principles which are readily transferable to other parishes.

Divine Renovation tells how a Candian parish has promoted high levels of engagement by practicing Catholics. 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. Raising engagement may be more managable for a parish too small to start a working group to transform a parish the Rebuilt way – and there are more thoughts on raising engagement in Albert Winseman’s Growing an Engaged Church.

Other Pastoral Texts

The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic is not a book I find myself referring to as often as the ones above, perhaps becuase the “four signs” are part of the engagement included in Divine Renovation. But you may be interested in the Christmas Book Programme!

The General Directory for Catechesis sets out the Church’s vision of how we should catechise.

Love and Responsibility gives Catholic sexual teaching from the perspective of Karol Wojtyła (later St John Paul II).

Unbound deals with the ministry of deliverance, and is useful both for pastors, and allows a simple prayerful approach to self-deliverance for those who cannot find a pastor willing to assist. I have also summarised the Catholic Church’s official documents on exorcism and deliverance.


OK, these aren’t books but I want to highly recommend some sites doing video resources too: