Do you have a relationship with Jesus? Do you believe God has a mission for your life? Do you tell other people, honestly and openly, about the ways the Holy Spirit works in your day-to-day? Or does all of that sound “too Protestant”? Are those things normal for you? Do you feel like a little bit of a freak because that’s your version of normal?
There is a growing movement in Catholicism to turn “pew potatoes” into true disciples of Jesus Christ. With the new Diocese of Austin Pastoral Plan, the movement is in our midst. As I first realized when I read Rebuilt, the mission of the Church was determined by Jesus himself. It’s to make disciples. We should all be running toward God and pulling as many people into our holy tailwind as possible.
I’m on board with all of that, and I’ve even seen and taken practical steps toward that in my spiritual and church-social life. I can’t say, though, that I ever gave much consideration to what it takes to convince people that discipleship is the way to grow and sustain the Church. I was all about the practice without digging into the theory. That seems to me to be the key value in Forming Intentional Disciples, by Sherry A. Weddell. What happened, what do we want to happen, and what principles will guide us as we make it happen?
Weddell begins with a sad but true description of the Church today. Her book was published in 2012, but the numbers are still unfortunately relevant. You don’t need me to hammer in the statistics about the number of people who identify as former Catholics and the declining numbers of marriages celebrated in the Church. As Weddell says when summarizing this reality, God has no grandchildren. The old ways of getting and keeping people in the Faith just aren’t working. We need a new approach, and that approach is the creation of authentic, intentional disciples—among adults, not just by baptizing the babies people aren’t having, the ones they aren’t bringing to church, or the young-adult ones who are leaving as soon as possible.
We have come to accept passivity as ‘normative’ Catholicism because the majority of Catholics are, in fact, spiritually passive.
She goes on to define three spiritual journeys, three key ways of entering into the life of the Church. Surprising to many might be that only one of them is the sacraments of initiation. Yes, baptism makes you a Catholic. But becoming a disciple of Jesus and having a personal relationship with God is a separate journey. Active practice of the sacraments (Eucharist and Confession) and involvement in Catholic community is yet another separate journey. It’s best to have embarked upon all three, but the danger in today’s Church is assuming that everyone has taken them all. That’s how you get church leaders who can’t tell you what “the Gospel” is. (Hint: The best answer is not “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”) In all honesty, that used to be me. Seeing the problem described so thoroughly and reasonably blew me away. This is not heavy theology; this is real life.
The other key to Weddell’s philosophy behind forming intentional disciples is the acknowledgement of just how far one has to go in order to become a disciple. She calls them “spiritual thresholds.” Taken together, they form an outline of what you might find in someone’s conversion, reversion, or “how I met Jesus” story.
Passing through the thresholds begins with initial trust that there might be something to this whole “being a Christian” business. Then comes the spiritual curiosity that could go as far as attending Mass and participating in the sacraments. In my experience, many new Catholics who have completed the RCIA are right at this step. Beyond curiosity comes spiritual openness to change, but without the commitment to actually doing anything. Once the door is open, spiritual seeking leads one to active engagement with Christ. The possibility is there, but there’s no long-term commitment. As I’ve heard more than one wise mind put it, this is like dating but not yet being married. Finally, the seeker begins intentional discipleship, making a conscious commitment to change his or her life and follow Jesus. And, helpfully, intentional disciples want to make more disciples.
So does receiving the sacraments mean nothing? On the contrary! Weddell writes:
Even if we were not ready to receive them fruitfully when they were conferred, the graces poured out on us in Baptism, Confirmation, and holy orders are not lost. Sacraments that bestow a character can be “revived” when the recipient comes to personal faith, repents, and chooses to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple in the midst of his Church.
To share more, I’d have to rehash the whole book for you, and I wouldn’t do it justice. There is so much to learn about ways to approach telling the Great Story of Jesus (a.k.a. “the Gospel”), how to evangelize Jesus instead of just Catholic teachings, and how to have conversations that lead people through the spiritual thresholds. You’ll have to read it yourself.
When I went in, I wondered what this book could reveal that Rebuilt hadn’t. Now I know that they really belong together. Rebuilt describes how to convert parishes and parishioners into disciple-makers through specific, concrete action. Forming Intentional Disciples describes how to make people into disciples through contemplative conversations. Both are useful and necessary, and with that kind of inspiration, what is stopping us from getting down to business?