Our parishes are busy. Many seem to be vibrant with activity. Yet activity alone is no guarantee that a parish contains discipling communities … where relationships that allow for apprenticeship in the Christian life abound … “encouraged by one another’s faith” as St. Paul was in his ecclesial community.
We all strive to create active, vibrant parishes. But what kind of vibrancy are we after? For many American parishes, to be vibrant is to have a packed calendar, to have lots of stuff going on. And there is an awful lot to do these days—we need to evangelize, catechize (both children and adults), advocate for human dignity and justice, run parish schools and sports teams, care for those in need, offer year-round RCIA, minister to young adults, and more. It’s almost as if every time we find a new need in parish life, something we were lacking before, our only pastoral response is to add another program.
On the surface, having more programs would seem to be an unquestionable “good.” We want to evangelize—reach the lost and bring back non-practicing Catholics—so obviously, the way to do that is to offer more. But here’s the paradox: while having an extensive menu of options might seem like an attraction, a reason to come, it often functions as a distraction that prevents people from focusing on what is most helpful for spiritual growth—for falling in love with, and staying in love with, Jesus Christ—what one might call discipleship. Now, if all parish activities were equally focused on growing disciples, then this discussion would be irrelevant. But, that’s simply not the reality.
In our present pastoral setting, most (if not all) of what constitutes parish life “often reinforces a Spiral of Silence about one’s relationship with God,” as our mix of social events, direct actions of service, and catechetical offerings that predominantly inform (not transform) leave even “active” Catholics at an “essentially passive stage of spiritual development.” 1 Our current plan for parish community—the status quo of offering plenty of opportunities for Mass and a litany of assorted groups and events for all ages—is not bearing the fruit we would expect, as only 18 percent of self-identified Catholics attend Mass weekly and between 3 and 15 percent participate in something other than Mass. 2 While some dismiss such statistics, arguing that surveys cannot capture a person’s relationship with God, at no point in Church history has authentic life in Christ not included liturgical worship, sacraments, and ecclesial community. Clearly, we have a problem.
One response to this reality has been to emphasize getting people back to Mass and the sacraments through outreach and/or focus on improving the experience of worship. 3 These methods of translating the theology of the New Evangelization into action are critical—but alone they are profoundly incomplete. Mass connects people to one another sacramentally and mystically, but not in a radically incarnational, relational way—we sit facing forward, with little direct interaction with those around us (and this is how it should be, as liturgy is corporate worship to God, not each other). Mass presumes faith, conversion, and the proper dispositions of the faithful so that we can truly cooperate with divine grace.4 Attending Mass, on its own, is not a silver bullet that functions in a vacuum to enable someone to progress in faith, from an initial turn towards God to a sustained, joyful, and affirmatively orthodox Christian life.
In 2012, the USCCB’s Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis reiterated the essential role of ecclesial community in this process of evangelization, explaining:
Our parishes are busy. Many seem to be vibrant with activity. Yet activity alone is no guarantee that a parish contains discipling communities—places where relationships that allow for apprenticeship in the Christian life abound, where everyone has a setting to be “encouraged by one another’s faith” as St. Paul was in his ecclesial community. 6 This is where our theology must be more effectively translated into pastoral practices. For decades, many parishes have offered small groups to form community, and RCIA programs inherently include apprenticeship—yet neither has become the typical experience for parishioners. Our managerial skills have not matched the wisdom of our theology. We need a system—a focused process for growing communities of disciples so that evangelization in the fullest Catholic sense of the term flourishes in parishes and overflows to the world.
What might such a system look like? Drawing from small group management resources from Protestant sources, combined with our rhythms of the liturgical year, emphasis on systematic and organic catechesis, and the cyclic nature of the RCIA process, I could imagine a parish with:
- Almost all parish activity—prayer groups, RCIA stages, children’s catechesis and sacramental preparation, youth ministry, marriage preparation, sodalities, adult formation, etc.—channeled into small groups with sign-ups capped at 20, with 12 to 15 realistically attending each week)
- Three sessions of small groups per year (i.e., one from the start of school to Advent, one from the start of Ordinary Time through the first half of the Easter season, and another from the start of summer Ordinary Time through the end of July) with four to six weeks between each session as a promotion and sign-up period 7
Now the name, “small group,” is not important—it could be a discipleship group, growth group, parish community, etc. Parish leaders could invest in these groups—participating, leading, and providing direction to volunteer leaders—to ensure that pillars of spiritual growth, of permanent catechesis (and/or initial catechesis, when needed) are fully integrated, not just an add-on. Parish leaders could craft multi-year plans of catechetical material to incorporate into groups so that the fullness of our faith is represented, while ensuring that in each seasonal session, in every group (diverse as they are in topic and audience) the kerygma is discussed, so that the initial proclamation might be responded to. During some sessions, groups might focus on more common material. But for most of the 10- to 14-week sessions, different groups could use different sets of curricula or activities, based on the unique character of the group. Thus the parish leaders would have flexibility to respond to the needs of the parish through an existing system, rather than constantly struggle to build and launch new programs and efforts. Groups could meet in parish facilities, in easily accessible and popular areas in the local community, or in private homes, depending on each parish, and at all different times during the week—with one or two common times for a significant proportion of groups to meet so that family schedules are simplified and nursery care for children too young to participate could be provided.
The point is that in unifying parish life in such a way, the process of spiritual growth becomes clear. Vibrancy flows not from the busyness, from the quantity of activities, but from the networks of relationships centered on solid proclamation of the kerygma and catechesis that is “caught, not taught” through an apprenticeship model. Everyone in the parish knows the system, and can say, “if you’re coming to Mass, the next step, what we really want you to do, is find a discipleship group.” 8 For those not attending Mass, these groups would provide built-in “landing pads,” spaces where seekers can find immediate connection to life in Christ, made present in the parish community. The movement would be easily understood—a parishioner could see a new face in the pew and be ready to provide an invitation to find a small group, so that relationships can form, so that all can cultivate the readiness to encounter Jesus and grow into our baptismal call as evangelists. Rather than a parish staff constantly operating on different timetables, all parish staff could present a unified vision and mass efforts on promotion/recruitment, small group leader formation, planning and communicating catechetical emphases, and supporting active groups at designated times throughout the year.
While this may sound unnecessarily structured, the reality of parish size in the United States makes this intentional cultivation of community and disciples ready to evangelize critical. Research on congregation size reveals that in congregations with more than 500 members, “formal mechanisms, such as small-groups” are essential for integrating new members, and retaining current ones. 9 With 27 percent of Catholic parishes having over 550 registered households and 33 percent having over 1200 registered households, emphasizing and focusing on sub-communities or small groups within the parish seems essential to developing a systematic process for growing disciples who are continually transformed by encounter with Christ and prepared witness to the faith in word and deed. 10
Exhorting, encouraging, emphasizing, and resourcing the establishment of enough small groups for every person who regularly attends a parish may seem like an insurmountable task. It will not always be easy—change never is. Some “sacred cows” of parish life that do not contribute significantly to discipleship and distract staff and parishioners from a focus on discipling may have to be jettisoned (or at least retired for a while). But unified vision and exhortation from leaders can make a difference. Start with the number of group facilitators you have, and grow from there, as assistants within groups are identified and recruited as future group leaders. And while simplifying parish life into a small group system will inevitably mean decreases in activities that are not value-added for community or discipleship, it also sets in motion an increase in quality and participation levels in small groups toward a tipping point where participation becomes seemingly normal within parish life. When we make a system for growing disciples an intentional focus of parish life, Christ-centered relationships with other parishioners become a possibility for all, not just the especially devout, the “very active” Catholics. This investment and difficult change is worth it in the long run, as Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White write in Rebuilt:
…without Christ-centered friendships, our walk of faith will most certainly be a slower, less steady one, and we’re far more likely to fall and fail. When we have friendships in which Christ is a central part, we connect with him in a way we will not on our own. In other words, we grow in faith. 11
The theology of small groups, of being formed as a Christian through relationships centered on this common discipleship, is as Catholic as the examples put forth in the Acts of the Apostles or the witness of religious orders from the first millennium to the present. The importance of incorporation into ecclesial communities and the need for deeper evangelization and catechesis of Catholics has been echoed by popes and bishops since the Second Vatican Council.
I have offered one idea for a parish-wide system. It is only one schema—and probably not even the best out there. There are many systems that could also work. The point is that we must start with the end in sight—designing a system to unify parish ministries around cultivating discipleship and then striving to implement and refine it, rather than just proceeding with business as usual, adding more and more programs to parish life, without ever asking the question, how does a typical person experience continual growth, catechesis, and ecclesial community here? If the answer is not simple enough to remember, or systematic enough so that it would be nearly impossible for anyone in the parish to miss out, then it’s time to reassess what parts of the status quo is holding back parish life.
- Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 59, 11. ↩
- Weekly Mass attendance calculation is my analysis of Mark M. Gray, “A Micro-scoping View of U.S. Catholic Populations,” Nineteen Sixty-Four blog, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), 11 May 2012. http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2012/05/microscoping-view-of-us-catholic.html. Quantifying levels of activity and/or participation in parish life is more difficult to assess. Jack Rakosky analyzes CARA’s 2010 data in “CARA’s Parish Data & the New Evangelization: A Social Network Approach,” PrayTell blog, 15 May 2012, http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2012/05/15/caras-parish-data-the-new-evangelization-a-social-network-approach/ and concludes that 3 percent of those who identified as Catholic at some point in life are “very involved outside of Mass.” A 2008 CARA study, Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among US. Catholics, http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html notes 15 percent of Catholics were “somewhat” involved in parish or religious activities beyond Mass http://cara.georgetown.edu/devotionpractice.pdf. A 2001 Barna Research Group study observed 6 percent and 8 percent of Catholics participated in “Sunday school” or a “small group,” respectively. https://www.barna.org/barna-update/5-barna-update/54-protestants-catholics-and-mormons-reflect-diverse-levels-of-religious-activity#.UoA2y5TF1gI. While the impacts of varying survey methodology and shifts over time in these studies are open to debate, I believe we can agree than the numbers do not demonstrate success. ↩
- See for example, high-quality Catholics Come Home® evangomercials™ http://www.catholicscomehome.org/how-we-help-your-diocese/ and “Ideas to Increase Mass Attendance” http://www.archmil.org/ArchMil/Resources/OFW/MassAttendence-IdeastoIncrease.pdf. ↩
- Sacrosanctum Concilium, 9-11. ↩
- USCCB, Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization, (Washington, DC: 2012), 16. ↩
- Romans 1:12 ↩
- Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas, Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups, (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008), 16-17, 29-30, 35-38. ↩
- Thom S. Ranier and Eric Geiger, Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006) 62, 136. ↩
- McMullen, Mike, “Insights Into: Attracting and Keeping Congregational Members,” 2008, 8. ↩
- The CARA Report, Vol 16 No 3, Winter 2011, 1. ↩
- Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 153. ↩