How do we as church draw more people to Jesus?

Reviewed By Chicago Catholic
Sunday, May 29, 2016

Only 30 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic still practice the faith. Fully 10 percent of adults in America are former Catholics. The number of marriages celebrated in the U.S. church decreased by nearly 60 percent between 1972 and 2010. Only 60 percent of Catholics believe in a personal God.

Those are just some of the staggering statistics that led Sherry Weddell, co-founder and co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to pen “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus” (OSV, $15.95).

Through her work at the institute and its Called and Gifted program, Weddell noticed that many practicing Catholics couldn’t define their relationship with Christ. She also found that Catholic communities often didn’t understand the conversion process and therefore were unable to evangelize fallen-away Catholics or those who never experienced the Catholic faith.

She put solutions to those issues and tips for evangelization in parishes book form. The resulting volume has been widely accepted in the U.S. church, making “Forming Intentional Disciples” a best-seller.

Weddell will present her ideas to the Archdiocese of Chicago pastoral center staff on June 24 and the wider community on June 25 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at St. John Brebeuf Parish in Niles.

She recently spoke with editor Joyce Duriga about what it means to be an intentional disciple.

Catholic New World: What is an “intentional disciple” and did you think your book would be so wellreceived among those who work and minster within the Catholic Church in the United States?

Sherry Weddell: “Intentional disciple” is just a term we started to use back in 2007. It means somebody who is consciously or intentionally following Jesus as Lord in the midst of his church. They’re following him as a disciple deliberately.

When I first used the language on our [Catherine of Siena Institute] blog in 2007 it started a firestorm across the Catholic blogosphere because people were saying, “What do they mean by intentional disciple? How dare they use that language?” This was on both the right and the left. All I meant was awake.

Somehow people thought we were being critical of the church or that we were talking about being elitist or judging other people. When we presented the concept publicly, for years people were always getting angry. We learned to expect it.

I certainly didn’t expect the book to be widely read after its release in 2012. Neither did my editor at OSV. I had been writing about this and speaking about this for eight years before the book came out.

I got lots and lots of pushback about what I was talking about. I presumed the same thing would happen with the book, but it didn’t happen like that at all. It just went viral the moment it hit the stand. Within a month they had to reprint the book. That was the first clue that something very different was going on.

CNW: Are people more receptive to the message because something in the U.S. Catholic community has changed?

Weddell: In my life as a Catholic I’ve seen tremendous change in the conversation about evangelization and discipleship, especially over the past four years. Now there are whole dioceses — from the bishop or the archbishop on down — at all levels together that are setting out totally to make evangelization be the center of Catholic life — that that which the church says is our primary identity is now going to be our mission.

I think there was a certain timing for it. Obviously the Synod on the New Evangelization was being held in 2012. I’m sure that was part of making that topic very uppermost in people’s minds. But I do think there has been a dramatic change in our ability to talk about this and our openness to talk about this. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I think it was all the years since the clergy sex-abuse scandal, dioceses going into bankruptcy and so many parishes and schools closing. Then there were all of the studies coming out telling us that millennials are disappearing from the church and young adults are disappearing; that they’re not baptizing their children; that they’re not being married in the church; that the majority of people who identify themselves as Catholic don’t attend church. I think we had finally gotten to the point where we accepted that we were not going to be able to recreate 1950s Catholicism.

I was recently preparing for an event and came across this information that the pre-Vatican II church — with all its reverent people and the huge mobs attending Mass — was partly created by the fact that the number of Catholics in this country grew 770 percent in 56 years. We were just mobbed by Catholic immigrants from all over the world.

I don’t think any country has ever in history had that many Catholics just show up from other places and say, “We’re here.” That was about from 1850 to 1906.

Of course it wasn’t just those immigrants but their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren until we frantically built all these institutions to take care of them and to educate them. Most of them were poor and working-class.

The other thing that was fascinating to learn is that most of them weren’t practicing Catholics when they got here. Many of them hadn’t even received first Communion yet and they were adults already. In different parts of Europe the church was state-supported so it was pretty low key. You didn’t have to worry about who was going to pay for the parish the way you do in the United States.

The other thing we don’t always realize is we, the church, made incredible efforts to evangelize these people who were coming here, often through parish missions, which were prominent at the time. We actually set out to call them to discipleship.

We evangelized them deliberately, mostly at the parish level. The result was that in the early 20th century we had very large, very vibrant parishes and all of the schools and hospitals and other structures.

Of course the culture has changed dramatically since then. Our ancestors in the church responded to a dramatic change that nobody could have expected, anticipated or prophesied. They just had to deal with it.

We’re facing a whole new situation but it’s somewhat similar. The culture has changed, and just like our ancestors did, we’re going to have to get creative in responding. They evangelized, and we’re going to have to evangelize. They knew those immigrants weren’t just going to automatically attend Mass because that wasn’t their tradition. We’re going to have to rise to the challenge like they did.

CNW: What a does a parish that is intentionally seeking to evangelize and share Jesus look like?


Weddell: The first thing a parish does is break the silence about relationships with God, about Jesus and his call to us to follow him consciously and deliberately as a disciple. They are just breaking that culture of silence.

We have a de facto culture of silence in the typical Catholic congregation. The parish community just starts talking. They talk about their own relationships with God. They talk about their own discipleship. They tell Jesus’ story. Very few of our people have actually heard the story of Jesus in compelling ways. It’s a story that is the heart of our faith, it’s the heart of everything we do.

Then the parish has multiple ways that people — baptized or not — can encounter Jesus in the midst of his church. The parish actually makes those opportunities available in a lot of creative ways.

There’s lots of way to do this but you have multiple entry points. You’re deliberately creating a spiritual pathway, if you will, in the midst of the parish. There are different entry points for different people because people are drawn to different things.

You expect conversions. Instead of treating it like it’s odd, we expect it. That means we plan for it. We see these pathways as connected, not different ministries or silos. They aren’t silos of ministry — like you’re into that retreat, or your into that Bible study, or you’re into adoration, or you’re into social justice. We see all of those as potential spiritual entry points that the Holy Spirit will use to draw people.

We want to be ready, sensitive, supportive, prayerful and welcoming for them. But we’re going to deliberately create these opportunities for people raised within the church and those with no Catholic background.

And we’re going to pray. Intercessory prayer, communal intercessory prayer helps to change the spiritual environment, the spiritual culture and makes it much easier for people to move faster and tends to draw people who are seeking to you.

One of the things we’re finding out is that word gets around pretty fast. If people who are spiritually seeking hear that something great is going on at your parish they will just show up. Evangelizing parishes grow even if they’re not attempting grow.

CNW: What are the fruits of those efforts?

Weddell: We together can change the church’s future. Studies show that only about 4 percent of what they call the core of American Catholics both attend Mass regularly and are active in their parishes. That core is who will determine everything about the next generation. They are the ones making the decisions and implementing them at every level of the church’s life.

When people go through conversions, within a year they join that core, not because they are super volunteers but because they really care now about the church and its future.

I know evangelizing parishes that have 40 percent of a core. The giving goes up. All the stuff we are so worried about — Mass attendance, parents passing on the faith to their children, vocations, finances — are the fruit of discipleship. If you make disciples they will take care of all of that.

CNW: Many who work in the church for a long time get used to the dour projections for its future. What you describe is hopeful.

Weddell: There is real hope out there. The only part of the Catholic Church that is declining like this is in the West. The rest of the world, where the majority of Catholics now live in the global south, it is growing.

The church has been through periods like this before, many times. In the end the answer is always the same, which is renewing our faith, renewing our relationship with Christ himself, being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our time. Every generation has different challenges, but that’s always where the answer is.