Sherry Weddell’s book “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus” is a must read for those involved in Parish Ministry. Sherry suggests a paradigm shift is called for in the way we approach evangelization. Our parishes must be “mission driven” rather than “maintenance driven”. This means that, to begin with, our parishioners involved in lay ministry must become, if they are not already there, intentional disciples. The intentional disciple is, among other things, a disciple who has encountered Jesus on a personal level, fostered the personal relationship that flows from that encounter, and as Sherry puts it has “lowered his or her net”. In other words that disciple has made an active choice to abandon themselves and follow Jesus as Simon Peter, James and John did. That choice takes a very high degree of commitment. Sherry comments in her writings that many Catholics, even those who are actively involved in ministry, do not know that they can have a personal relationship with Jesus. That sad fact, I think, is related to the approach taken, particularly for “boomers”, in our religious education. We often were well catechized and sacramentalized but not effectively evangelized. Statistics suggest that seekers experiencing the RCIA process without making the commitment to become intentional disciples are likely to fall away from the practice of the faith within a year of their initiation. What is required is to create in the heart of the seeker a burning desire, having encountered Jesus, to build on that personal relationship. To effectively facilitate that development our lay leaders, at the very least, have to be intentional disciples and the parish needs to develop a culture or community identity that makes disciples. We can then more effectively reach out to inactive Catholics and the unchurched.
Many active Catholic boomers have children or grandchildren who are not active in their Catholic faith if they have even been initiated. Only about 45% of Catholic boomers practice if you define “practice” as more or less attending Mass regularly. Only 13% of Gen X and 10% of Millennial Catholics practice. We are reaching the point Sherry says where “God has no grandchildren”.
The need to be effective evangelizers is obvious. Sherry, in her book, identifies 5 thresholds of evangelization:
- Trust: The first task of evangelization is to determine if a bridge of trust already exists with respect to the person you target for evangelization. Trust can exist either in a person or a thing. If the bridge doesn’t exist, then the first step is to help the person build that bridge. Trust, if it flows from a person, is earned primarily through relationships. It is the compassion, integrity, warmth and joy of our own faith life that kindles trust.
- Curiosity: Once someone has a bridge of trust in place our role is to help move our friend towards a curiosity about Jesus Christ. How we present Jesus is critical. There are 3 basic stages of curiosity:
- Awareness: A person becomes aware that there are more possibilities in life then they had imagined or experienced. One such possibility is that “I can have a personal relationship with a God who loves me”.
- Engagement: This is when the curious person takes steps on his own to pursue his or her curiosity by, say, making friends with a Christian, reading about Jesus and so on.
- Exchange: The person begins to experience intense curiosity. The person moves from merely listening and semi-covert examination of Christians and their faith to actively asking questions and exchanging ideas.
- At this stage one of the best ways of introducing Jesus is by asking questions like “who do you think that Jesus is? Another is to tell stories. Telling stories of Jesus from the New Testament or someone else’s experiences of healing or forgiveness can be very powerful.
- Openness: Moving into this threshold is one of the most difficult journeys for 21st century people to take because it demands that we declare ourselves open to the possibility of personal and spiritual change.
- Seeking: At this stage the seeker is encouraged to focus on the person of Jesus and the central issue of Kerygma leaving other doctrinal issues until later. If the individual is going through RCIA these other issues will be addressed in that process. Where RCIA does not focus on “making disciples” there is a high hemorrhage rate among RCIA alumni.
- Intentional Discipleship: This requires an extremely active choice. The seeker has to do what Simon Peter, James and John did. The seeker has to drop his or her nets abandoning themselves to Jesus. This decision should be made whether or not the seeker has made the decision to enter the Church. In fact we should encourage a seeker to “drop their nets” and follow Christ before they have made a decision to enter the Church.
As Catholic parish communities tasked with the responsibility of engaging others through the New Evangelization we must recognize that the “new” in evangelization requires NEW ARDOR, NEW METHOD AND NEW EXPRESSION. Intentional Discipleship provides us with the tools we need to succeed in this challenging field but the first step is to envelop as many of our parishioners as possible so that they move from seeker to intentional disciple.