Yesterday the Diocese of Joliet and Our Sunday Visitor Press sponsored an all-day workshop with Sherry Weddell on “Forming Intentional Disciples.” It was a great day, much better than the well-intentioned ecclesiastical torture sessions such conferences often are.
Sherry Weddell is certainly doing her part to fulfill Newman's vision for the laity. She is PQ in action, a real Catholic Linchpin. She is practicing disruptive Christian leadership. She has identified a problem, and is offering effective solutions. In a church heavy with operators, she is an innovator. She is applying the best of her Protestant background with her Catholicism in a way that is completely faithful.
Her main insight, data-driven, is that Western Catholic churches are not effectively forming disciples. Many people self-identify as Catholic, but fewer make an intentional choice to “drop their nets” and follow Jesus as a living, encountered presence. This is not a judgment, just a recognition that relatively few Catholics understand that intentionally choosing to follow Jesus is necessary, or even possible. People are losing the faith or joining other churches. Sherry has sought to understand this and respond.
She began by citing some well-documented statistics. Only 60% of Catholics believe in a personal God; the numbers drop to 40% for twenty-somethings. There is a steady rise of “nones,” aka claiming zero religious affiliation. Most Catholic ministers say five percent of their flock are intentional disciples. Meanwhile, catechetical and sacramental programs, along with Catholic schools, pour resources into old models unequal to today’s real situation. She described it as trying to build first and second floors, without realizing there is no foundation.
I have identified seven of my own my take-aways from the workshop and the FID movement:
1) Biblical. All the information was refreshingly biblical. Sherry Weddell uses “disciple” and “discipleship” as the driving terms of the discussion. Biblical themes such as the Great Commission, bearing fruit, and life-changing encounters with Jesus abound. She is starting with revelation, not human ideas and schemes.
2) Post-culture wars. All day, my personal ideology-meter did not tingle once. There were no hand-wringing cultural critiques, politics, or doomsday editorializing to the left or right. This was about the joy of the Gospel and following Jesus. The emphasis was on how we need to change, not on how others do.
3) Post-institutional. The days of blind reliance on well-established institutions are over. Today's priority is the personal, not the institutional. This is simple realism. Institutional structures cannot do all the heavy lifting. They are of relative value, and can even get in the way when they are not strategic and intentional and informed by the signs and needs of the day. People evangelize, not programs or institutions.
4) Trust. Distrust of the church is the norm today. We can lament this and cry how unfair it is. Or, we can recognize that there are reasons for it, and work for change. For many, distrust is “wise skepticism.” Wounded postmodern people are tired of being burned by authority, including religion. Earned trust wins a hearing.
5) Speak Up. There is need of Christians willing – and equipped – to engage in what Sherry calls “threshold conversations” to bring up God lovingly and intelligently. Two useful questions were suggested: Can you describe your relationship with God to this point in your life? If you could ask anything of God, and be answered, what would it be?
6) Post-label. Today, labels like atheist, agnostic, and even Catholic mean little. They are not dictionary definitions, and even those who self-identify as such seldom know what they mean. We should never use such labels, or accept them, when engaging others. Rather, we should ask to hear people’s stories. Stories are what matter, not labels.
7) Lay-driven. Sherry is making the most of the freedom and agility of her lay status to effectively advance the Kingdom. Many historical movements of the Spirit have been lay-driven, from Benedict and Francis to twentieth-century leaders such as Chiara Lubich (Focolare) and Dorothy Day (The Catholic Worker). Weddell works closely with Dominican clergy who advise and support her.
A new generation of protagonists in the faith is arising, thanks to the efforts of this pastorally intelligent and zealous lay woman. I am eager to see how the Spirit continues working through Sherry Weddell and FID for Kingdom advancement and the help of souls. My prediction is that this is just first-fruits of a new and refreshing wave of lay-driven renewal in the church.
How can the church more effectively form intentional disciples?
* * * For a good overview of FID, you can listen to Sherry’s podcast interview with Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan on the home page of the Siena Institute, her evangelistic start-up.