We heard from a lot of people who were excited about our organization and wanted to know more about what we were doing, so we decided, since we're all on the same team anyway, let's just tell everyone exactly how we go about transforming a parish culture. For parts one and two of our series, click here and here.
In part two of our series, we talked about how we go into a Parish Partnership ready to encounter the myriad of variables each parish culture presents as advantages and challenges specific to that community, but, at the same time, how we also come in with five major looked-for outcomes or deliverables.
Our first outcome was to cast a vision for discipleship across all aspects of parish life. Number two is...
2) CREATE AND IMPLEMENT A STRATEGIC PROCESS FOR FORMING DISCIPLES AS THE CORE OF THE PARISH'S EFFORTS BY HELPING THE PARISH PRIORITIZE, CREATE, AND LAUNCH KEY TACTICS FOR HOW IT: (1) WINS PEOPLE TO CHRIST, (2) BUILDS THEM INTO DISCIPLES, AND (3) SENDS THEM ON MISSION.
There are basically four steps to making a disciple as the Church articulates in the General Directory of Catechesis. They are:
1) Pre-Evangelization: prepping the soil including removing obstacles to the proclamation of the Gospel. Think of the parable of the seed and the sower. Anything that might not allow the "seed" of a relationship with Jesus to take root, must be uprooted, gently. This happens best in the context of personal relationships but could also include something like philosophical formation to help work around intellectual hangups or even a welcoming culture at your parish that can help to create an attitude of comfort in what is often an uncomfortable setting for many. I find that a lot of pre-evangelization happens surrounding the or "feel" or "vibe" of a parish or event. Much that is unspoken is still experienced.
2) Evangelization: the proclamation of the kerygma, the core message of the faith proclaiming Jesus as savior and restorer of a relationship with the Father which leads to an assent of faith and someone making an intentional commitment of their life to God.
3) Catechesis/Discipleship: I use the word discipleship here interchangeably with catechesis because many see catechesis as education only. It is not, in the most full sense of the term, but, rather, the work of catechesis and discipleship is to bring someone who has given their life to Christ to full Christian spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and human maturity.
4) Apostolate: following a period of formation in the lifelong work of mission that is required of every Christian, a disciple should be given an opportunity to discern their charisms, or gifts of the Holy Spirit that are given for the building up of the Body of Christ, and the specific way in which the Lord is calling out to them to put those gifts at the service of the Church.
For a parish to be effective at forming disciples, it has to know, cold, how it accomplishes each of these four steps and moves people through a process where they are given the proper formation relative to each. Then, it has to hold itself accountable by continuing to discern whether the tactical methods it is using to execute at each level is actually effective at serving its purpose and bearing fruit. If not, a parish has to be flexible enough to adjust as it moves forward.
These steps represent the work on the part of the parish to accompany individuals through the five thresholds of discipleship, made famous in the Catholic scene by Sherry Weddell in her work, Forming Intentional Disciples. These thresholds of trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, and intentional discipleship, represent the five basic movements of a human heart as it walks into a relationship of following Jesus. The efforts of a parish should be catered, not in a consumerist but in a pastoral way, to reaching out to individuals represented by each threshold and should be aimed at walking with them through a process of giving their life to Christ. If everything we do as parishes is just aimed at insiders, though, we run the risk of missing completely those in the earlier stages which is where a surprising amount of Catholics (certainly, a majority of those even in our pews on Sundays) are.
As an aside, it has become vogue to say that only a person-to-person movement is needed to transform a parish into a disciple-making parish. While such a movement is essential to parish transformation (see key outcome #4), all of the efforts of a parish, including its programming, need to be transformed. Not all programs are bad. They are not ends in themselves, to be sure, but it is, in fact, okay for there to be some structure applied to our efforts at evangelizing.
When we work with parishes, we like to present this four-fold structural effort from the GDC and retool it using the simple language popularized by several Christian and Catholic organizations of Win, Build, and Send. We combine the pre-evangelization and evangelization steps into the concept of Winning people to Christ, catechesis/discipleship is Build, and apostolate is Send. When rolling out our initiative to the parish, we encourage them to re-brand that lingo to fit their particular situation and to be more "parishioner facing" than reflecting our own efforts: what do you want THEM to do, not what are WE going to do.
For example, here is how this looked for a parish we worked with in the western suburbs of Chicago. They called their overall strategic process for forming disciples Ignite @ SJN (an acronym for their parish's name) and the three steps were articulated as wanting parishioners to Encounter Christ, Grow in Christ, and Be Sent by Christ. To help people Encounter Christ, they launched the Alpha program and made efforts to teach people how to have a life of prayer. For people to Grow in Christ, we launched a discipleship process (more on that later) and they were going to ramp up their efforts at providing solidly Catholic catechetical formation programs. To help their parishioners Be Sent by Christ, they use an augmented version of the ReLit program to cast a vision for evangelization with their parishioners ready for leadership, help them discern their charisms, and then provide more outreach specific training for the ministry in which the parishioner decides to serve.
So, basically, it looks like this:
IGNITE @ SJN:
Encounter Christ: Alpha / Prayer
Grow in Christ: Discipleship Groups / Formation Programs
Be Sent by Christ: ReLit / Charism Discernment
By having only two initiatives selected to achieve each goal, they avoid the risk of overwhelming parishioners with too many options. They also end up prioritizing a few things to do really well which ensures that they can devote more effort to each initiative remaining at a high level of quality. In 'n Out, a fast food chain on the West Coast, has an obsessive following due to a similar "recipe" for success. They use fresh ingredients and have limited options, but they do those few things really, really well. McDonalds initially made its mark doing the same thing. Now, as they continue to multiply menu options, they have created tremendous overhead for their franchises to keep up with, diluting profits. The conclusion? Excellence in fewer things is better than mediocrity in a multiplicity of offerings.
Once that strategy is set, the mission becomes simple: do it! Start forming disciples! Train people who can be key leaders in each of these areas and let them start accompanying people. This process of transforming a parish will take many years and many cycles of walking with people into a relationship with Jesus Christ, helping them to mature into a fully Catholic disciple, and sending them to put their gifts and talents at the service of bringing others to Jesus.
Part four of this series, on building a leadership structure to sustain the long haul of forming a culture of missionary discipleship, is coming soon!