Making Disciples: Resources for Growing Your Church

A brief survey of useful resources by Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon, Chair of the Evangelisation Group of the Archdiocese of Cardiff

Does your church have a Mission Statement?

If not, don't panic - we already have one given to us in the Gospel! It's to go out to the whole world and make disciples of all nations.

If your Church does have one, but it's not an expression of the Gospel one tailored to your own local circumstances, then is your mission the mission of Jesus?


DISCIPLESHIP is the "in" word at the moment. It needs to be understood for what it is - a personal, deliberate and conscious decision to take Jesus as one's own teacher. It relates to all stages of the spiritual journey from the first stirrings of curiosity in the message of Jesus, through to making a formal life-commitment to one kind of vocation or another. It is a good word to sum up the whole mission of the Christian church!

Some speak of "intentional discipleship" to emphasise the deliberateness of being a disciple - not that it is possible to be an unintentional disciple! But if the word were used carelessly, it would become equivalent to "Christian" or "church member". Then we might start reading about "non-practicing disciples" which would be the sign that the word "disciple" had lost its intentionality - perish the thought!

Recent years have seen a spate of publications on discipleship, church growth, and discerning and using charisms. Some of the texts are by theorists offering ideas, perhaps ideas which have been tested by only one or two groups. For me, the stand-out book is Forming Intentional Disciples (hereafter FID), which is backed by the fruits of an approach tried and tested in dozens of parishes, where significant numbers of Catholics have been helped to move from church-going to true discipleship. I have made two videos promoting FID on behald of the Bishops of England and Wales, as part of the 2015 package of Proclaim15 resources.

FID concerns the growth of individual Catholics; some books look at strategic approaches which can direct a whole congregation. Rebuilt is notable as the story of one parish which experienced rapid growth in numbers attending as a result of a focussed approach on the essentials. By contrast, Divine Renovation shows how a focus on raising engagement can lift a parish from the typical 8-10% of actively involved members to 50+%.

On this webpage I will post links and summaries for resources which can assist the spiritual growth of individuals, or small groups of people at roughly the same stage of spiritual development. I will also maintain a strategic page of resources more useful to the overall growth and guidance of a parish community as a whole.

PRE-DISCIPLESHIP

FID sets out three key thresholds which people must cross before they come close to being disciples of Christ: TRUST in Christ or something Christian; PASSIVE INTEREST in the life and message of Christ; and a willingness to be CHALLENGED TO CHANGE. Although different people experience these thresholds in very different ways, FID is rooted in research in the 1990s that identified these thresholds as common factors in the stories of all the converts interviewed in the course of the research.

The Bridge of Trust

I remember a lecture at seminary (unfortunately I am unable to find the reference to the source material now) which suggested that there are three things that keep young people connected to the Catholic Church:

  • HEART: 40% remain connected because they have a quality relationship with a practising Catholic;
  • HANDS: 40% remain connected because they are involved with some kind of service project, such as a Lourdes pilgrimage;
  • HEAD: 20% remain connected because they receive good apologetics.

    Because there are different kinds of people, no one approach will work to build bridges with everyone. Indeed, building bridges with non-Catholics and non-practising Catholics is a task which every committed Catholic will do in a unique way for each relationship which they have in their lives. We will usually need to take a genuine interest in the person's life as a whole before we can ask questions about their spiritual life. For clergy and pastoral workers, it may be possible to move more rapidly to such a conversation in a formal context of trust, such as marriage preparation.

    Other research, now a little dated, on what keeps people connected with church can be found in a summary of Northampton Diocese's 2002 Y-Church Report and the charismatic-focussed W-Church Report on why some young people in Wales remained involved with Catholic Charismatic Renewal. When I engage members of other religious groups in conversation, such as Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses, I like to ask them to tell me the story of how their own religion has changed their life for the better. The kind of answer I hear is almost always that they met some kind people from that group who helped them in their hour of need. Similarly, many aspiring Catholics who join enquirers' groups or attend RCIA might come because they have met some "nice Catholics" and want to come alongside them. This is an excellent start, but not an adequate foundation, and needs careful attention to bring these aspirants through the next two thresholds - unlike someone exploring the Catholic Faith because of a spiritual awakening, who might be ready to proceed directly to catechesis.

    Telling the Great Story

    Once a relationship exists with people who are not yet disciples, our task is to share with them the Great Story of Jesus - who he is, what he has done, why it matters, and what it is like to have a relationship with him. This is something that may take place mainly in personal conversations, but for churchgoers who are not yet disciples, group study materials may be helpful: Honesty about what a personal prayer life is like - and realism about what doesn't usually happen during prayer time - is very important, too.

    This is not the right time to tackle prospective converts about dubious moral choices in their life, or to offer abstract doctrines. Until a solid relationship is established between the convert and the Lord, this would be premature.

    The Challenge to Change

    A person on the threshold of being open to the challenge to change can be quite volatile. Until they surrender to Christ, they may protest loudly! We may not appreciate the fears and pressures for them - not least about entering a church building! They may want to explore issues of faith anonymously, perhaps by doing their own reading and research.

    FID explains the art of the "threshold conversation", where a Christian seeking to make disciples can assess whether a person has passed through these thresholds, and nudge them towards making the next step. There is great similarity here to the crucial third step (placing trust in God) of a 12-step addiction recovery programme.

    In The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic (4SDC), Matthew Kelly observes that in a typical US parish, 7% of the people give 80% of the money and provide 80% of the volunteering hours. He notes that it is common for the majority of those 7% in any one parish to have a common factor - perhaps many of them did Cursillo, or "Christ Renews His Parish", or some other similar programme.

    COMMITTMENT ZONE

    FID's next two thresholds are those of ACTIVELY SEEKING to know the teaching of Christ and his Church, and CHOOSING TO FOLLOW Christ as a disciple. Together these constitute the Committment Zone.

    Actively Seeking Jesus

    It is for those who are actively seeking that CATECHESIS is most important; and this should not be the impartation of mere doctrine, but a true apprenticeship in Christian living. (An apprentice is a learner receiving coaching in how to apply what they have learned, in practice.) We must not confuse a person's decision to SEEK with the decision to FOLLOW. Some seekers may not want to make a definitive committment to Christ. If a person is not ready to say yes to Jesus, it might be appropriate to ask what the obstacles are.

    In one-to-one conversations, resist the temptation to give large doses of doctrine in answer to questions. Instead, be mindful of the Lord's own habit of answering a question with another question. Keep telling the Great Story of what God has done in Jesus Christ. It takes a number of tellings before listeners realise its significance. There are parts of the Story in particular which arouse spiritual curiosity - healings, and forgiveness. There is a danger of getting hung up on particular questions of doctrine; the real question to explore is whether the institutional Catholic Church can be trusted as the carrier of God's tradition.

    We need to challenge people to move from openness to seeking, lest they stagnate. We might help them try out the corporal works of mercy, or various kinds of prayer. We might offer them role models and the stories of new disciples; we might tell how sacraments and church have helped our own growth. We cannot assume the current generation has any clear concept of "sin".

    The key Vatican document here is the General Directory for Catechesis, which sets out the Catholic Vision of Catechesis. Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the following links offer a Basic Syllabus for Catechesis in the Catholic Faith - Excel version and PDF summary.

    Kelly identifies the 4 signs of a dynamic Catholic as committment to prayer, to ongoing study of their faith, generosity and a willingness to share what they have received with others. In the committment phase, we can begin to teach these good patterns of behaviour to our catechumens. Chapters 2 thru 5 of 4SDC will be useful here.

    The various Movements in the church - Neocatechumenate, Focolare, Opus Dei etc - become attractive to those seeking to understand their faith and to make a committment in the company of others. But such movements can become divisive when non-participant parishioners get the message that they are "second class Catholics". The pastoral challenge is to offer formation which allows a whole parish to move forward, together.

    Choosing to Follow

    Once a person has reached the point of knowing that they wish to follow Jesus as a disciple, they may desire to express this by some kind of ceremony. For those preparing to become Catholics, this will be by a sacramental ceremony of initiation. For those who are already confirmed Catholics, more could be made of the Easter Renewal of Baptismal Committment. One resource to assist this is a book by Revd Ambrose Walsh.

    DISCIPLESHIP ZONE

    Once a person has made a conscious commitment to follow Jesus and live out his teaching, they become a disciple - in the language of FID, they have "dropped their nets" and set out on the journey.

    The journey requires a deepening and consolidating of the good habits already begun, so chapters 2-5 of 4SDC are still relevant.

    A person keen to serve may want to explore their own giftedness; FID grew out of a parish development programme, "Called & Gifted" which helps Catholics understand what their gifts are and how to volunteer in the most appropriate contexts.

    Some useful books here are Called and Sent again by Revd Ambrose Walsh, and Gifted and Sent by Revd Pat Collins CM.

    VOCATION ZONE

    A natural development of exploring one's gifts is asking what they mean for a person's overall direction in life as a whole. Should I marry or remain single? Am I called to consecrated life or holy orders? There are also less formal vocations to be discerned, such as making a serious, personal, long-term committment to one kind of apostolate or another, or giving serious consideration to the best way to spread the Gospel within one's own situation in life.

    In most parishes, there will only be a handful of people of the right age and spiritual maturity to seriously ponder questions of formal vocation, so individuals asking these questions will need personal attention or assistance from regional groups.

    Christ the King Parish, Ann Arbor, provides an exceptional example of a parish structure where these things can be explored together - but this is a non-geographic parish explicitly created to minister to Catholics who are seeking a deeper presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

    Some useful resources for exploring vocation:

  • National Vocations Framework for England and Wales;
  • Discernment Groups for England and Wales;
  • The Community of Our Lady of Walsingham specialises in helping others discern their vocations to different kinds of callings.


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