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An honest look at discipleship: A review of ''Forming Intentional Disciples'' by Sherry Weddell

In the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew, right before Jesus Christ ascends into Heaven, He instructs His disciples to go to all nations and make disciples. Ten days later, when the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, they begin to do just that. They proclaim the good news about Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and new people join their little band of believers, the Early Church, by the thousands. In those early days, at least until Ananias and Sapphira broke that trust by lying about the price they'd received on a piece of property they'd sold, the new believers lived a close-knit common life, sharing everything and hanging out together on a daily basis.

Today, especially in the Western world, both evangelism and discipleship are somewhat painful subjects for people inside and outside of the Church. Evangelism–the initial proclamation of the Gospel–has been for the most part passed off to the clergy. Discipleship–the instruction of new converts and even more seasoned believers through intimate mentoring and sharing of one's life–has turned into little more than formal and occasional classroom instruction. Many church attendees don't even have any sort of interaction with their church community apart from Sunday Mass.

The results in the Catholic Church over many years have been devastating, as many Catholics have left the Church, often in favor of Evangelical congregations, or simply drifted away. Those remaining often have a minimalist faith which has little impact on the way they live out their daily lives.

The book Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell takes an honest look at the way Catholic parishes are currently approaching evangelism and discipleship, why it's not working, and gives some initial ideas for how parishes can turn the situation around. I found the book to be a useful and encouraging read for both Catholics and Evangelicals because these issues are not unique to Catholics, although the book is definitely written with Catholics in mind.

There are problems with how evangelism is done (or not done) in both the Catholic and Evangelical traditions that are longstanding and which I have witnessed and participated in throughout my adult life. They can be summed up, and admittedly oversimplified, in this way.

Catholics tend to believe conversion happens by osmosis (helped along with sacramental pixie dust) and therefore there is no need for evangelism. The Catholic Church does not teach this, but there is a lot of Catholic practice that would make you think it does. Catholics in general actually get rather uncomfortable with the whole idea of evangelism, or even discussing the inner workings of their relationship with Jesus (if they even have one) amongst themselves not to mention people outside the Church. Along with this Catholics tend to assume that if someone is attending Mass, then conversion has happened. In other words, they assume conversion has occurred too early in the journey.

Evangelicals do not assume conversion just because someone shows up at church (they've learned something from their members who grew up as unconverted Catholics or mainline Protestants). However there is a tendency to assume conversion has happened when there is a response to an altar call or the recitation of a sinner's prayer regardless of whether their life afterwards shows any of the actual fruit of conversion. Often there is little to no follow up to determine how the “convert” is doing in terms of actually living the faith. The Evangelical Christians I know do not actually teach this, but just like with the Catholics, sometimes practice poorly represents actual teaching. There is also a tendency to force a decision to convert way too early without first determining where someone is at in their spiritual journey, and as a result the effort can come across as coercive even when that is not the intent.

Sherry Weddell writes about five distinct thresholds of conversion in her book, and emphasizes that in evangelizing it is very important to discern where the person we are speaking to is at, because where they are should impact how we approach sharing our faith with them. I think that is what I was doing such a poor job of expressing in my own essay about altar calls–I had some vague sense that conversion doesn't happen overnight (or in the ten minutes it takes for an Evangelical preacher to outline the “Gospel message,”) but didn't understand that it actually takes place in predictable stages (the thresholds Ms. Weddell has come up with are based on many conversations with people who have undergone complete conversion as adults).

Briefly, the five thresholds are trust (having some connection with Jesus that they trust–if that is not in place then you as the evangelist are the one to build it for them), curiosity, openness to change, seeking (as one going on a spiritual quest), and finally active discipleship (the part where they actually decide to drop their nets and follow Jesus wholeheartedly). The book of course goes into further detail on each one.

It is very important to respect which threshold someone we are talking to about spiritual matters is at and not attempt to force them to the next threshold before they are ready. This takes immense trust in the Holy Spirit to actually move deep within souls as well as a clear recognition that we ourselves never convert anyone–it is always a work of God, always miraculous.

With that said, a key part of respecting someone is to recognize that they have a right to hear the Great Story of Jesus and we should be ready to share it. I even learned that there is a fancy Catholic word for this, called kerygma. And we need to be ready to tell this story. I actually felt Weddell's way of presenting the kerygma in the book was rather weak and diffuse (probably because she was writing more about sharing it than actually sharing it), however that is not a problem for me as I am getting training on that from another source and will simply use what I'm learning that is solid and rich.

Once someone converts, or just as importantly, to facilitate their conversion, something else needs to be in place in the faith community which will embrace them. That something is discipleship, and just like conversion, discipleship does not happen unconsciously or by itself (or if it does that is clearly a miraculous exception, not a normative way to be counted on). It has to be intentional. After brutally identifying the devastation a longstanding lack of discipleship has had on the Catholic Church at the parish level (devastation I am quite familiar with), Ms. Weddell goes into some of the nuts and bolts of what intentional discipleship looks like mostly by sharing anecdotes about what some of the parishes are doing to make discipleship a priority and the good fruit it is bearing. One of the churches she features is the parish of my childhood, Christ the King parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Towards the end of the book she suggests a bit of methodology but it is clear that this part is very much in development. If you are a Catholic and in a position to help make your parish one that practices intentional discipleship, you are likely to be developing things from the ground up of course drawing on our rich heritage. That may sound overwhelming. To me, it is exciting, the sort of pioneering work that I live for.

The book is written to a Catholic audience and as such, every Catholic (or former Catholic) who has ever felt that there was something important missing from parish life should read this book. For me, much of it was like reading my own thoughts, including suggestions for things that I have already begun implementing in my own parish.

I think Evangelical Christians, especially pastors and other church leaders, should read this book as well. Ten percent of Evangelicals in the United States are former Catholics, and the book does an amazing job of explaining what has been going on with this mass migration. Both Catholics and Evangelicals tend to completely misinterpret what is going on there. Catholics have a tendency to dismiss the decision to leave as something along the lines of that person just wasn't cut out of the right cloth (didn't have what it takes to really follow Jesus), and variations of this theme include “they just are looking for entertainment,” “they couldn't handle the hard teachings,” “they were like those in John 6 who left because they couldn't handle living as radically as what Jesus was calling for,” or “they are living in outright rebellion against God and His Church.” Evangelicals generally assume that the reasons that the former Catholics left were because they disagreed with certain Catholic doctrines, and that assumption is fueled by the fact that in general it is easier to discuss things like doctrine on an intellectual level than go through the vulnerability of baring your heart about your emotional reasons for leaving, so it's doctrine that most often gets shared and discussed.

According to research cited in the book, the number one reason people leave the Catholic Church is that they feel their spiritual needs were not being met. Evangelicals also assume that the reason their spiritual needs weren't being met is because of issues with Catholic doctrine. While Evangelicals will undoubtedly disagree with certain Catholic teachings for the foreseeable future, that is not the fundamental problem with why Catholics' spiritual needs weren't being met. The fundamental problem was that discipleship was not happening in their corner, if it was happening in their parish at all. I think pinpointing more precisely where their formerly Catholic congregants have come from as well as what the Catholic Church is doing to address this issue would be valuable information for an Evangelical pastor and the congregants themselves.

Mostly, it's a wake-up call to Catholics, especially those in leadership. We really do have all we need to make disciples and see genuine conversions in large numbers as the Early Church once did, but it's not enough to simply talk about all the great things we have. We have to use them, and we ourselves need to be evangelized. We ourselves need to be converted. There are numerous people out in the world who are hungry for God, hungry for a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ. Not only do we need to reach them, but we need to make our churches places where they are welcomed and nurtured and supported in their walk with God at all its stages. Forming Intentional Disciples provides some wonderful inspiration and guidelines for getting started in that endeavor.

Religion | Catholicism


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