10 Years Later. Still a Gem.

Musings on ordinary Catholic culture, from Sherry Weddell…10 years later, and this tongue-in-cheeck writing from real-life mission work is still a gem:

When it comes to talking about eternal things. Jesus. Holiness. And more…we have:

Widespread discomfort with “conspicuous conversion”…Sometimes referred to as “enthusiasm” or “pietism” or “Protestant”.

A don’t ask, don’t tell [culture] because that’s what you do when we are all saved and we’ve all earned it–but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

Because, “we’re all saved and we’ve all earned it, but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.”

Here’s the full post (from the Catherine of Sienna Institute’s not-currently-available blog site): 

We Are All Saved and We Have All Earned It But None of Us Are Saints Because That Wouldn’t Be Humble.

10 years of nearly continuous travel from parish to parish and thousands of personal interviews have given us a fairly good sense of typical ordinary-Catholic-in-the-pew’s worldview regarding intentional discipleship and our ultimate salvation — at leastKristin Thiel Embarassed among Anglo laity in the US.

(The worldview of the clergy is naturally very different but many clergy share in the assumptions described here in surprising ways. Priests are remarkably like human beings in this regard.)

The American church is huge and very complicated, so the culture I am about to describe would not include those groups of Catholics heavily influenced by evangelicalism (such as in the deep south), the charismatic renewal, traditionalism, lay movements or third orders, parishes that regularly do evangelism, groups with a strong social justice orientation or Catholics in “hotbed institutions” like Catholic universities or seminaries. Neither would this describe Hispanic Catholics, Vietnamese Catholics, etc.

The worldview I’m describing is common among ordinary-Anglo-cradle-Catholic-laypeople in ordinary parishes in the west coast, midwest, high plains, intermountain west and east coast.

Caveat: I am writing in a hurry and my tongue is rather firmly in my check. But I am also really describing attitudes what we have encountered over and over again in the field. There are remarkable exceptions everywhere but there is also, in our experience, a startling consistency across dioceses and regions.

The major premises could be summarized as follows:

We are all saved and we’ve all earned it but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

A fascinating, if unlikely, mixture of practical universalism, Pelagianism, and work-a-day Catholic humility seems to have been absorbed by Catholics across the country.This homespun version of universalism runs something like this: *Decent* people are automatically saved because of their decency, and almost everyone is essentially decent or at least means well, which is basically the same thing as being decent. God would never condemn a decent person. Salvation is pretty much yours to lose and you can only do so by intentionally doing something really, really, not decent like mass murder and then not saying you are sorry.

Pelagianism was an early 5th century heresy that held that original sin did not taint our human nature and that human beings are still capable of choosing good or evil without God’s grace. Pelagius taught that human beings could achieve the highest levels of virtue by the exercise of their own will.

The contemporary American version holds that human beings can attain acceptable levels of *decency* by their own efforts. We earn our salvation by not doing the really, really bad things we could do if we chose. In real life, it is pretty close to impossible for most people not to attain the minimum decency requirement. (See caveat above).

Since basic decency suffices for salvation, holiness is completely optional, and is the spiritual equivalent of extreme sports. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place. They do not pretend to be something they are not (see point #2 below).

Note: the role of Christ and his Paschal mystery in this view of salvation is extremely obscure.

There are two basic Catholic “tracks”:

a) The “ordinary Catholic track” which includes 99% of us. Your parents put you on this track by having you baptized as a baby. This track can be divided further into 1) “good” or practicing ordinary Catholics; 2) “bad” or non-practicing ordinary Catholics; and 3) pious ordinary Catholics.All ordinary Catholics, good, bad, or pious, are saved through their essential *decency* or meaning well and nor screwing up horribly. (see #1 above). God does give extra credit for visible devotion or piety.

b) The “extraordinary Catholic track”: priests, religious, and saints (.1%).

God plucks a few people out of Track “a” and places them on track “b”. That is what the Church means by having a vocation.

Priests and religious are also saved by being decent but the standard of decency is a bit more rigorous for them because they can’t have sex.

Sanctity is reserved for the uber-elite: When someone becomes a saint, it is the mysterious result of spiritual genius or an act of God and is not expected of or related to salvation for “ordinary” Catholics (see #1), because God decreed they should be on a different track. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place.

c) There is no “disciple on the way” track. When many Catholics hear the phrase “intentional disciple”, they immediately think of the only known alternative to the “ordinary Catholic” track in their lexicon, which is that of the saint and is supposed to be reserved for the uber-elite. They naturally presume that the aspirant to discipleship is pretending to have been plucked out of the ordinary track by God and is, therefore, an arrogant elitist (see #1 above).

Corollary A: Widespread discomfort with “conspicuous conversion” because it violates #1 and #2. Sometimes referred to as “enthusiasm” or “pietism” or “Protestant”.

Corollary B: don’t ask, don’t tell because that’s what you do when we are all saved and we’ve all earned it–but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.


Not Accepting Labels: Pharisees & Evangelization

How many of of us have a positive impression of Pharisees? Probably not too many. For most Bible readers, the Pharisees stand out, memorably as the best known opposition to Jesus and his followers.

230px-rubens-feast_of_simon_the_phariseeHowever, this Sunday’s Gospel reading for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Luke 7:36-8:3) reminds us of the absolute folly in settling for a label instead of a story in our relationships with others, even those we don’t yet know.

In the end we see that Sherry Weddell’s maxim, “never accept a label in place of a story” was as relevant to Jesus’ ministry as it should be for us.

As Luke the Evangelist so often reminds us, Jesus did a lot of eating. Jesus ends up at this particular dinner party because, “a Pharisee invited him to dine with him” (Lk 7:36). Did you catch that? Jesus, the Good News personified, doesn’t set up some intricate plan to attract the “unchurched” or “dechurched” of his age to come to him–a Pharisee invites Jesus. This tells us that Jesus operated outside the circle of his immediate followers. He wasn’t known only to disciples, he wasn’t so busy with his disciples that he made no impact, or impression on the outside world.

This can be tough for us today in our modern day settings. We want to be part of our local Christian fellowship in a parish, it’s good to be growing and living life with other disciples in parish life–yet, without keeping a balance, of cultivating authentic relationships outside of the parish walls, we’ll never experience what Jesus did. Without the perception of a possible “yet” to such an invitation, even from someone of different worldview or religious convictions, who would reasonably want to invite me to dine with them? While we don’t know the full intentions or motives of this Pharisee, we do see that he is taken at face value. Jesus accepts the invitation. And we can do the same, assuming good will and genuine intentions of every person we interact with, especially those “in opposition” to us in some way.

In the meal conversation, we begin to see beyond the label “Pharisee.” This man who was interested (for whatever reasons!) in having Jesus attend his dinner has ideas about Jesus’ identity. He thinks that Jesus might be a prophet (Lk 7:39). He already considers Jesus a teacher (Lk 7:40). In short, if we were to accept the label “Pharisee” as the full picture, we as time-travelling evangelists might write this man off. We might see him as one in opposition to the disciples and Jesus. We might assume his religious viewpoints are absolutely fixed and decided. We might take this man as a hypocrite because other Pharisees acted that way publicly. And if we did that–accepting the label instead of a story–we’d never know that he was toying with the idea that Jesus was a genuine prophet, and already convinced that Jesus was a wisdom-filled teacher.


But Jesus is always operating beyond a label. Jesus makes it personal. He addresses this Pharisee by name (Lk 7:40). “The Pharisee” has become Simon, a man who is wondering if Jesus is a prophet and interested in his teachings. And Jesus enters into Simon’s story.

See Simon was put off that Jesus had accepted the attention and affection of a sinner who had slipped into the dinner (Lk 7:38-39). Jesus does not give Simon the answer. He does not issue a direct correction. Jesus leads Simon to be able to see things differently, telling him a parable of two debtors, and asking him a question. It’s still Simon’s story. The difference is that Jesus is in it.

Now, sometimes we imagine that when it comes to evangelization, it’s all or nothing. But this isn’t the case. Jesus loves to save. Jesus loves to save so much that he’s willing to take a little openness and work with it.

Simon answers Jesus’ question about the parable correctly. Kind of. See Simon isn’t so sure. He couches his answer with an uncertain, “I suppose” (Lk 7:43). But Jesus does not call Simon out for hedging his bets on the answer. Jesus affirms the faith present. He gives a Teacher’s approval, telling Simon, “You have judged rightly.” You. This is all about Simon, not the religious beliefs, convictions, and practices of all the Pharisees Jesus has ever met or heard about.

And, just as Jesus heals the son of the father who can only muster this statement of faith, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24), or Paul takes as evangelistic success the response, “We should like to hear you on this some other time” (Acts 17:32), I suppose is an occasion for rejoicing. Jesus is in Simon’s story. We don’t (this side of eternity!) know the rest of Simon’s story. But, we do know this–there would have been no hope for Simon if Jesus had accepted the label, “Pharisee.”

Image credit: “Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee” (Rubens, c. 1618, via Wikipedia)

An Ever-Expanding Parish Circle: Large Parishes As Growing Parishes

Earlier this week we checked out some positive encouragement about the potential of large congregations (aka most Catholic parishes) to form disciples–based on what’s been demonstrated by many Protestant “mega churches.”

This week I want to highlight some [interrelated] differences between most Catholic parishes and most Protestant mega churches. Differences that we as Catholics shouldn’t necessarily be proud of. Here are 3 more insights from the report, Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches:

  • Nearly two-thirds of attenders have been at these churches 5 years or less.
  • Many attenders come from other churches, but nearly a quarter haven’t been in any church for a long time before coming to a megachurch.
  • New people almost always come to the megachurch because family, friends or coworkers invited them.

These trends are not the case in the vast majority of Catholic parishes in the United States. As Michael Gormley so helpfully depicts (citing Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, Ch 1), Catholic parishes in the United States “assume that religious identity is largely inherited and remains stable throughout one’s lifespan.”

While it’s certainly not a bad thing to retain as adults, those who were raised in a faith tradition as children, this way of thinking can no longer be the basis of pastoral practice. It’s a relic of a cultural/institutional “Christendom” society (or sub-society, in the case of the United States). We know that in our current cultural setting, mobility and individual choice generally trump any cultural affiliation with a set of faith beliefs. One can regret or complain about this–but it’s still the reality, and we must respond agilely.

Can you imagine your Catholic parish as a place where 5 years into the future (without increasing losses of current parishioners) 2/3rds of the new total membership has been attending 5 years or less?

Does this thrill you and inspire gratitude for God’s goodness? Or, does it make you a little unsettled or nervous. This is a tough question that many of us must honestly ask of ourselves and parish leaders.

Bottom line: In large congregations, there’s still room to grow! This is Jesus’ mandate that we see so powerfully played out in our daily readings from Acts this joyous Easter season. Let us be ever more inspired and filled by the Holy Spirit to do everything we can to expand and invite more people to enter into life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ in his Church.

Rebuilt and Forming Intentional Disciples: In Conversation on Discipleship

Without a doubt, Rebuilt (White and Corcoran) and Forming Intentional Disciples (Weddell) are two of the most important books on doing ministry that have come out in recent years. Yet, the books are quite different in focus. Forming Intentional Disciples provides an in-depth look at the movements and thresholds leading up to a person’s “drop the net” decision to be a disciple (and thus an intentional disciple) of Jesus Christ. Rebuilt, on the other hand, is a book about ministerial leadership and the role the Catholic parish should play in the lives of individuals and communities [Tools for Rebuilding, a follow-up guide of leadership/managerial applications, makes this focus even more clear].

The books do overlap when it comes to the theme of discipleship. The question is, are the visions for mature discipleship the same? Or different?

First turning to Weddell’s work, we find that intentional discipleship includes:

  • a “drop the net” decision
  • primary motivation from within, a “Holy Spirit-given hunger and thirst for righteousness”
  • worship and love of the Blessed Trinity with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love of neighbor as one’s self as source and end of all things (p. 65-66)

The authors of Rebuilt use similar concepts to describe discipleship, explaining:

  • “Disciples are students who are growing to love God and love others as Jesus taught us”
  • Disciples experience conversion and on-going conversion (p. 68).

For both Weddell and White/Corcoran, discipleship begins with a decision/conversion, and then a willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit (Weddell) and Jesus as Teacher (White/Corcoran) into ongoing conversion and desire for righteousness lived out in love for God and neighbor. Seems pretty congruent. 

Okay, so how do Forming Intentional Disciples and Rebuilt envision the life of discipleship?

Weddell’s book specifically focuses on the growth leading up to the “drop the nets” decision of intentional discipleship, not a detailed analysis of what comes afterwards (and this is good! books need focus). However, she does explain that intentional discipleship is recognizable by its fruits.


In comparison, White and Corcoran use the language of actions. That disciples do certain things. Disciples…

Love God. As put into action in both corporate worship and daily quiet prayer. “Daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours, Marian devotion, especially the Rosary, and regular disciplines of Confession, penance, giving, and fasting can be serious tools for the mature disciple. On the other hand, a few minutes alone with God each day, away from texting and technology, can be a great place to start”  (p. 68-69).

Love People. Friends, family, neighbors, the oppressed, the lost–everyone. Self-care is important preparation to loving one another.

Make Disciples. This is the single promise Jesus made to the first disciples–“they’d be disciple makers” (p. 70).

I see huge overlap between the “fruits” Weddell names and the “actions” White/Corcoran discuss. Though some of the fruits are more specific, they all fit into the three much broader categories of Loving God, Loving People, and Making Disciples. Again, the vision for discipleship in both books seems highly compatible.

When it comes to naming what doesn’t make disciples. Weddell and White/Corcoran again seem to be on the same page. Both agree that Church/Mass attendance and parish/group membership (e.g. Knights of Columbus, Rosary Society) are no automatic indicator of discipleship. Both specifically push against the misconception of the liturgical Sacraments as some type of “magic” that makes a disciple without the proper disposition of the recipient. Both agree that knowing Catholic doctrine in an intellectual/academic sense does not necessarily lead to decision/conversion–and has been a downfall of much of the “religious education” in our country.

White and Corcoran have a slightly humorous, but very real section on p. 81 where they point out the [obvious] that even building campaigns don’t make disciples 🙂 I think the deeper point here is that there is no silver bullet. The only thing that makes disciples is [drumroll…] making disciples. Or, as Forming Intentional Disciples might teach us, the only thing that actually breaks the silence regarding relationship with Jesus in parish life, is breaking the silence. No new building, no one curriculum, etc. can do it. Bottom line, there’s no substitute, no way around the essentials when it comes to these central challenges in ministry. 

Overall, I’d say that Forming Intentional Disciples and Rebuilt are quite compatible and affirmatively Catholic on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  The challenge is this: Both are mere books. They’re conversation starters, not solutions. It’s up to each of us to prayerfully discern and creatively adapt and apply these critical messages to our particular setting.

Discipleship: Intentional and Ecclesial

Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples (2012) talks a lot about the importance of a personal relationship with God. This is definitely rooted in the language of recent popes, and is in no way foreign to Catholic tradition. But is it too much “me and Jesus” spirituality?

I think a clue to how we might productively understand intentional discipleship, the liturgical life of the Church, social justice, and more lies on p. 54 of Forming Intentional Disciples. Without a doubt, I think this is the most underrated passage from this best-selling book 🙂 It’s a lynchpin for properly understanding intentional discipleship in the context of the Church.

The idea is that for every Catholic Christian there are three spiritual journeys, all equally essential. Ideally, they’d occur concurrently or with some overlap. But, our lives as human beings and our responses to God’s grace can get a little messy (to say the least!) and so our job isn’t to “enforce” a certain order, but simply to recognize that all three do need to occur. None of these journeys are optional…




Now, these three spiritual journeys are going to look different for just about every person. And it’s not just coming to a “yes/no” on a spiritual journey–there are stages, phases, different levels of enthusiasm, etc. The point is, there’s an incompleteness without all three in place.

Forming Intentional Disciples as a book is about digging into the details and function of Spiritual Journey #1, since this is the journey Weddell believes we’re most silent about in our current setting. Spiritual Journey #1 is critically important in our society of seekers, “nones,” and the like. Phrases from Forming Intentional Disciples such as “Spiral of Silence” and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are other ways of saying that Spiritual Journey #1 is the elephant in the room in many parishes and ministries. Overlooked. Not talked about. Not resourced. Not even consciously considered by many.

The sacramental theology presented in Chapter 4 of Forming Intentional Disciples is in one sense, an apologetic towards those who might think that emphasizing Spiritual Journey #1 has nothing to do with Spiritual Journey #2 or #3. The Five Thresholds (the how-to and focus of the second half of the book) are a practical framework for entering into Spiritual Journey #1.


Book Study Guides for “Forming Intentional Disciples”

Interested in organizing or structuring a discussion centered on Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples within your parish, staff, ministry, friends, small group, or faith formation setting?

The great news is, there are lots of free examples of study guides online. Two in particular stand out to me:

First, this chapter-by-chapter (including the Introduction) from Lawn Chair Catechism at CatholicMom.Com, available here as a .pdf download. The questions aren’t so numerous as to be intimidating, and each one-page handout contains a nice summary and key quotes from the chapter, so if members of your group get behind in reading (or maybe aren’t enthusiastic at all about reading the book), this is a practical way to keep them involved in the discussion.

Second, from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, comes this discussion guide. The questions are a bit more in-depth and presume familiarity with the book. It’s great for a guided discussion to help people reflect on how Forming Intentional Disciples aligns with their personal and community experiences.

Have other study guides to share? Add them to the comments.

And, check out other links, diagrams, and resources on Forming Intentional Disciples at this tag.

Introduction to Catholic Discipleship and “Forming Intentional Disciples”

This is a general introduction (edited for the web) to a presentation on Catholic discipleship, Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, and implications for those in formation for ministry. Other resources for “Forming Intentional Disciples” are available here.