The path of discipleship is one which individuals must walk from the first stirrings of curiosity about Jesus and his message, through to wholehearted committment. A parish neccessarily contains people at all stages of the journey. Indeed, a core function of a parish is to enable its members to make that journey, and to be equipped to invite other people to do so, too.
Some of the work which helps people make that journey is necessarily one-to-one work in the context of a relationship of trust. A parish needs to plan and provide for that to happen - but also needs a broader strategy about its corporate life. Elsewhere, I offer a resource page with useful links for materials which can help individuals and small groups grow through the different thresholds of discipleship. This web-page suggests what this might mean for the strategy of a parish as a whole.
Those who passed through sacramental preparation as children may not yet have accepted the challenge to change; they may not be actively interested in finding out what Christ or the Church teaches.
If most parishes currently have 95% of their attendees in pre-discipleship, how should this shape the preaching and pastoral activity?
Most of the preaching should aim to do one or more of the following things:
After some years of this it may be the right time to run a parish mission or similar programme which allows people to accept the Challenge to Change... but what should be done with those who accept the challenge? Weddell notes that the temptation is to train them for ministries, but in fact they will be hungry for catechesis, to understand their newly-awakened faith better.
When working with individuals, it is inadvisible to tackle moral issues which affect lifestyle until the person has accepted the challenge to be open to Christ and His message. But if the vast majority of Sunday churchgoers have not yet reached this threshold, what does this mean for preaching when moral topics arise naturally in the Lectionary? The preacher might choose to emphasise that following the Lord's high standards is a natural thing to do for anyone who has already chosen to accept Jesus' teaching, and remind the congregation that the Lord is always willing to forgive those who fall short and to offer grace, including through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to those who wish to set their sights higher.
Any courses or study groups put on should be grounded in relationship with Christ. Many existing catechetical resoruces focus on content rather than relationship; and it is all too easy to deliver the content as a "lesson" rather than make it a true apprenticeship in which participants are actively reflecting on the implications for their lives.
A parish serious about being open to those on the threshold of exploring the Catholic faith will create an easy and welcoming atmosphere for those who drop in to test the water. They may offer a "seeker" experience - one successful model in cities is Nightfever. The Proclaim15 Resource Index is useful to help parishes develop a vision and strategy for evangelisation, or to focus on particular sectors such as youth, families, those with no church connection, or non-churchgoing Catholics. Southwark Archdiocese has produced an excellent Handbook to help parishes review parish provision and set up a parish team.
What about the 5%-10% who are already disciples? In a typical British parish that means there will be a core of 10-50 worshippers who will benefit from catechesis and discipling. If Sunday preaching is oriented to the 90+%, there will need to be another forum for the deepening work. This could be in the form of cell groups following the Guildford model, Orpington (Milan) model or Wimbledon (Florida) model. Divine Renovation tells of how a Canadian parish priest used the Alpha Course as a starting point to challenge his parishioners to become "engaged" in the mission of the Church.
Finally, remember the importance of intercession. Who in the parish is praying - and especially for those on the thresholds of openness or of discipleship, where much spiritual warfare takes place?
A "threshold conversation" of the kind outlined in Forming Intentional Disciples can help highlight people's disappointments and misunderstandings about God.
Rick Warren's book Purpose Driven Church observed that there were five distinct tasks every church community needs to undertake in order to be the full expression of Christ's church on earth: Worship, Ministry (by which he meant social outreach, charitable work in the local community), Mission (his term for explicitly inviting others to become followers of Jesus), Fellowship (becoming part of the community of worshippers) and a fifth purpose of consciously seeking to grow as a follower of Jesus - Warren labelled this one "Discipleship" but since living out the other four purposes are also aspects of discipleship, a better Catholic label might be "Ongoing Formation".
In a Catholic context, Divine Renovation tells how a Canadian parish priest, appointed pastor of a newly-merged parish of 1800 worshippers, applied the ideas from Rick Warren and set out a specific expectation that members of his parish would commit to five priorities: attending Sunday worship; volunteering for at least one parish project or ministry; networking with other Catholics; developing their prayer life and/or understanding of the Catholic faith; and giving financially to the parish. As a result, volunteering and financial giving has doubled, participation in courses has tripled, and more than 40% of parishioners are actively engaged with the life of the parish. The parish priest is now developing the best ways to draw in those who approach the Church seeking sacraments – ways which deeply challenge our current culture of applying the sacrament and waiting with forlorn hope for the grace to manifest!
If there are enough members in a parish at the right stage of discipleship, the Called and Gifted programme could be very useful. Wisdom on managing volunteers in parishes is also available.