By Parish or By Person? A Practical Approach to Evangelizing the Lost and Forming Disciples

All of the faithful find themselves at times challenged by Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. We struggle to know how to approach those near and dear to us who may be distant from God, when to insert ourselves into the lives of others in our neighborhood and faith community who may regard our attention as an intrusion, and to what extent we should devote ourselves to those “beyond our borders” when there is so much to do in our own home and community.

In my short time as director of faith formation at our parish, two different books have been strongly recommended to me, presenting two different approaches to making disciples.  The first, Rebuilt by White and Corcoran, tells the story of a parish in Maryland that, under the leadership of a new pastor and his lay associate, has turned from a stagnant and dying community into a rapidly growing parish due to its willingness to challenge and change longstanding approaches in order to be more accessible to the lost and “dechurched.” The second, Forming Intentional Disciples by Weddell, shares 18 years of experience visiting, interviewing, and helping parishes and parish leaders become and then develop disciples who know and understand their personal gifts and give them willingly to God in order both to evangelize others and to deepen their own “lived relationship with God.”

Both books do a great job of articulating the problems we face as Catholic parishes in our modern individualistic, relativistic, and consumer society. Both reference scripture, the Magesterium, and the saints to articulate what should be done to address these problems. Both have very different approaches to execution, and we can learn a great deal by looking at them both in brief.

Rebuilt is a wildly popular book in our community and church. The authors of Rebuilt found themselves in challenged and challenging parish, and by their own admission, neither was well equipped or particularly wanted to be there. The community, as they describe it, sounds singularly unfriendly; the staff, incompetent; the regulars smug and self-satisfied. The authors find their feet when they decide to reach out to the lost in the community and make a conscious effort to create disciples—and by trial and error and what they call “dynamic orthodoxy,” they’ve been growing ever since.

You may already be getting the feeling that I didn’t love this book. Right off the bat, several details and anecdotes from concerned me, including but not limited to:

  • The willingness of the authors to lambast staff members and parishioners in print with enough specificity to leave little doubt to others in the community who they were talking about.
  • Father White’s description of a weekend spent at the beach with family and friends, after which he says “thank goodness” they didn’t go to Mass, which was poorly done from his perspective (never mind that Christ is present regardless, or that he could’ve said mass where his friends and family were).
  • Father White’s description of a young mother juggling two kids and a folding chair in his church’s gathering space, only to get frustrated and leave (never mind that he might have assisted her or asked someone else to do so).
  • Mr. Corcoran addressing his priest as Mike rather than Father.

But more than these examples, I read the book with a growing uneasiness that something was fundamentally wrong in their approach to rebuilding their parish, which would be manifested in the results. They decried systems, then described their own new systemic approach, creating a parish “weekend experience” that is likely unrecognizable to many faithful and fallen Catholics. They decried religious consumerism, then began a communications and marketing campaign and opened a snack bar. They preached reaching out to the lost, but neglected the lost in their own pews for what I call a “better class of loser” (with apologies to Randy Travis)—so-called Timonium Tim, who isn’t a believer and isn’t in the pews, who but represents a growth opportunity in a way that the older folks who sat in the pews for decades do not.

The book reads like a management book, and many of the problems and insights the authors develop early on are management problems in the areas of human resources, communications, logistics, and leadership. Somewhere along the way, these management issues were conflated and confused with deeper, spiritual concerns, leading to (from my perspective) the fundamental problem, articulated in the very last line of the book as an call to action: “Make church matter.”

Think about the pride hidden in that statement. It’s pride that assumes our problems today are unique and demand a new approach. It’s pride that develops its own lingo to label people, positioning churchpeople against the dechurched. Most strikingly, it’s pride that assumes today’s Catholic Church has somehow been rendered meaningless—and that only we can fix it.

This is not to say that the book is without merit. Corcoran and White identify real problems and issue real challenges to take the Great Commission seriously, to improve liturgical music, and to think about the obstacles faithful Catholics erect—consciously or unconciously—that make their parishes seem confusing or unwelcoming to outsiders. The problem with their approach is that, by following the model of Protestant megachurches and adopting the language of business leaders, pop songs, and Nietzsche, they have created a book and a weekend experience that are potentially confusing and unwelcoming to Catholics!

Where the authors of Rebuilt tackle the problems they see in the Catholic Church at the parish level with the goal of growing more disciples, Ms. Weddell’s book addresses the individual with the goal of growing deeper disciples. The author admits that unintentional discipleship would not be true discipleship; by “intentional discipleship” she seeks to emphasize the decision an individual makes, not simply to go fulfill an obligation or follow the rules, but to drop their nets like Peter to follow Christ—to change their way of life out of “a Holy Spirit-given ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness.’”

Weddell points to several parishes in which this God-given hunger is spreading, drawing people into a deeper relationship with Jesus and a greater willingness to share their gifts with their neighbors and the Church. The results are no less striking than those of Nativity parish in Rebuilt—except that the transformation appears to be taking place first among the people in the pews. The key to renewal in the parishes she describes is a renewed emphasis on the fact that we have a personal God with whom we can have a real, living relationship. Weddell shares data and anecdotes to illustrate that too many of the faithful in our pews, but also serving in our parish offices and at the altar, don’t believe in a personal God, don’t have a lived relationship with Him—have barely begun to move toward an intentional discipleship. We have lost sheep in our own communities, in some cases, charged with spreading a Good News they don’t understand or believe themselves.

Her solution isn’t easy. She calls Catholics to recognize that each person is unique and responding to a unique vocational call. She describes five “thresholds of conversion” that individuals move through toward discipleship, beginning with initial trust of someone or something identifiably Christian, followed by spiritual curiosity, spiritual openness, active spiritual seeking, then finally, intentional discipleship. And she insists that we “never accept a label for story.” Even if someone self-identifies as atheist, fallen away or practicing Catholic, they likely have their own idea of what that means…and none of those labels tells you where they are on their journey though these thresholds.

It is daunting to think of pursuing our mission of evangelization and conversion at such an intimate level, one person at a time—but in her own nod to the business-book genre, Weddell gives us a four-step approach (edited from Forming Intentional Disciples, pg. 188):

  1. Break the silence.
    • Talk openly about the possibility of a relationship with a personal God who loves you. Talk about your own relationship with God.
    • Talk explicitly about following Jesus—and use His name!
    • Ask others about their lived relationship with God.
    • Share the kerygma—the “Great Story of Jesus.”
  2. Offer multiple, overlapping opportunities for baptized and non-baptized people to personally encounter Jesus in the midst of his Church.
  3. Expect and plan for conversion.
  4. Lay the spiritual foundation through organized, sustained intercessory prayer.

It should be noted that Weddell devotes at least a chapter to each of these steps. Her overall approach resonates with me, not only because it reflects my own path toward a “lived relationship with God,” but also because it asks me to treat others as I would like to be treated—not as churchpeople or dechurched, Crusty Catholic or Timonium Tim, but as a unique person created in the image of God and called to loving communion with Him.

From my perspective, Forming Intentional Disciples is notably different from Rebuilt in at least two other key ways:

  • First, it’s clearly not all about us and our ability to deliver the right weekend experience in order to “make church matter.” Faith in God and the power of prayer (steps 3 and 4) are fundamental; we can’t do this alone—but we aren’t alone! 
  • Second, Forming Intentional Disciples does not treat the Mass and the sacraments as tools of evangelization. That’s not their purpose, and I would argue they aren’t particularly useful or helpful to that end. A weekend experience that welcomes those who do not profess our faith to make themselves at home and participate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist (something RCIA candidates don’t get to do) might even prove to be detrimental to the sacraments, the Church, and the faithful and dechurched alike. It could lead to more misunderstandings and conflict within the church, and hard feelings as “converts” move from “rebuilt” parishes into the wider Catholic world.

Nothing in Weddell’s approach should come as a surprise or drastically change our understanding of what we are to do as faithful Catholics—and that’s okay. Truth and beauty are as unchanging and attractive as ever—our efforts should be focused on opening the eyes of the blind, rather than trying to rebuild and make attractive what they have yet to clearly see. These days I’m working closely with a number of good, faithful Catholics who love the book Rebuilt, and we get along just fine—but it’s the Intentional Discipleship approach that is resounding in me and is shaping my efforts in the church.

One thought on “By Parish or By Person? A Practical Approach to Evangelizing the Lost and Forming Disciples

  1. Hi Jim! thanks for the kind words about Forming Intentional Disciples. I thought you would like to know that we have a very active 3,000 + member Forming Intentional Disciples Facebook Forum for evangelizing practitioners at all levels. Pastors, diocesan and parish staff, and lay leaders of all kinds and not just from the US but also the UK, Australia, Singapore, eastern Europe, etc. All focused on the single topic of calling Catholics to intentional discipleship – especially at the parish. It is a great place to compare notes with other practitioners, ask advice, prayer, encourage and commiserate. If you are interested, do a FB search for “Forming Intentional Disciples Forum”, hit the icon that says “I want to join” and I or one of the other administrators will admit you to the fun!


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