You spend hours preparing a bible study…
You talk it up, advertise, even phone people…
Only 15 show up.
Weeks later only five continued. There are 1300 people in your parish and same 15 keep showing up.
Is this what happens in your parish? It does at mine.
This is not, however, what happens at St. John Nepomuk Catholic Church, Yukon, Oklahoma. Father Rex Arnold tried something new. He started a process of missionary discipleship.
In 2014, their diocesan Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship trained one man and one woman from this parish the discipleship process.
In 2015, these two people lead 25 parishioners in three groups through a yearlong discipleship process. The next year, that grew to 70 people in 10 groups. By 2017, there were over 185 people in 26 small groups.
In just three years, almost 300 people took the yearlong training in missionary discipleship and that number continues to grow.
So, why is St. John Nepomuk different?
Why Missionary Discipleship?
St. Peter admonishes, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15). This verse is a rallying cry for a popular approach to faith formation–the more people know, the more their lives will change. What people need is truth and knowledge.
This one-size-fits-all strategy often takes the form of systematic catechesis on Church doctrine or the Bible. I call this the “educate to save” model.
Increased knowledge of the Faith is never a bad thing. However, if we’re honest, educate to save isn’t bearing much fruit in our modern world.
Speaking as a Church worker, I think we prefer this method because it benefits us so much. In general, people in charge of parish faith formation have advanced degrees in theology.
However, sometimes experts forget what it’s like to be a beginner. For the typical Catholic parishioner, the practicalities of life get more attention than theological knowledge.
These people don’t yet understand the benefits of systematic catechesis. We must understand how to draw them deeper and interest them in learning more.
Missionary Discipleship & the Process of Evangelization
The General Directory for Catechesis says systematic catechesis is a moment in the Church’s overall mission of evangelization…a moment that comes at the end of a larger process of evangelization.
The Church developed this process over hundreds of years of missionary work. It’s designed to take someone all the way from unbelief to mature belief. It’s gradual, progressive, and unfolds in stages.
Here’s what the process looks like:
- Initial Proclamation of the Gospel
- Initiatory Catechesis
- Mystagogical Catechesis
- Permanent or Systematic Catechesis
As you can see, a lot happens before systematic catechesis takes place.
Also, note that formation changes as people advance in Christian experience.
Missionary Discipleship structures faith formation in a way that respects the process of evangelization, thus making it more effective.
Missionary Discipleship: The Baseball Analogy
One way to picture the missionary discipleship process is to compare it to the stages of a baseball game.
To score a run, in baseball, players must proceed through a series of stages. After hitting the ball, the first goal is running to first base. The next goal is to get to second base, then third, and finally home.
In missionary discipleship, we call getting to first base initial evangelization.
The goal of this stage is deciding to make Jesus the center of your life. Before someone can reach this decision point, the evangelizer must lead him through a series of pre-evangelization thresholds that prepare his heart to consider the Gospel’s claims.
Using human trust as a bridge, the evangelizer connects basic human needs to the desire for God and his word. When the time is right, the person receives the Gospel message and an invitation respond.
This stage is for non-believers, those who have fallen away from the faith, those who follow other religions, and the children of Christians.
We call the journey toward second base initiatory catechesis.
This stage is an apprenticeship in the heart and habits of being a disciple. After someone decides to put Christ in the center, you need to nurture the Christian life in them.
A disciple learns to pray, meditate on Scripture, be part of a caring community, engage in the sacramental life, rely on the Holy Spirit, and develop a spirit of service.
All of this prepares the person for second base, which is where systematic catechesis comes place. Over the course of a lifetime, he or she learns the entire depth of our faith, as summarized in the Catechism.
This is an endless, life-long process. Yet this is not the final goal.
When we look at the words of Jesus in the Gospels, over 80 percent of what he says is practical. Jesus wants each one of us to spread the Faith through authentic Catholic lives.
Jesus wishes everyone to be missionary, not just a few.
The journey to third base equips the disciple with basic skills in evangelization. He also learns about the special gifts God gave him to help build up the Church and how to use them.
Home Plate…and Beyond
Someone completes the missionary discipleship process back at home plate. However, now he’s transformed and prepared to head out into the world leading others to Christ and helping them become disciples.
Thus, the process continues and multiplies.
One problem with the “educate to save” approach is that it ignores the above stages. It tries to catechize people to second base while skipping the necessary faith development.
The missionary discipleship process used at St. John Nepomuk respects the proven process of evangelization developed by the Church. It aligns faith formation to each essential stage and produces quite different outcomes.
Is it possible that neglecting the process of evangelization gives rise to our ministry frustrations?
Imagine the transformation that would occur in our parishes if we aligned all our programs to the goal of missionary discipleship.
Image: © 33ft / Adobe Stock