Evangelisation: Where to Begin
This has been an exciting weekend for evangelisation in the UK as Sherry Weddell, author of the best-selling book Forming Intentional Disciples has been visiting from the US. She was at Ealing Abbey on Friday and Saturday delivering a seminar to a packed hall of priests and lay people entitled Evangelisation: Where to Begin.
According to Sherry herself, she was expecting huge kick-back after the book's release and little wonder. In reality it is a factually backed up, damning indictment of the approach and lack of success in the Church's central mission over the last forty or fifty years: making disciples.
In a brave attempt to do something about this personally, and born of an evident and deep love of Jesus, Sherry researched and presented a well rounded study of the reality of Church attendance today followed by a plan of what to do about it. Now, having seen extraordinary fruit in literally hundreds of parishes all over the world, Sherry is one of the "go-to" people if you want to understand what is going on in your parish in terms of demographic shift, who joins, why and who leaves and why, and how to stop it and bring about new growth. Perhaps this is because, as she says herself, Disciples get involved, Disciples bear fruit.
She does not suggest she has all the answers, or that there is any 'golden bullet' which is going to provide all the answers, but she does offer a well thought-out strategy for building a parish of intentional disciples and changing the environment from maintenance based mentality to one that is mission focused.
The basic premise is perhaps a little difficult for the UK Catholic to hear: we have to be more explicit, more open about our faith. Catholics here in the UK have a tendency to be rather reserved about their beliefs. This is certainly something that struck me personally quite early in my own life.
While I could confidently claim that I have always had a deep, personal relationship with Jesus, even as a very small boy, I think I have always found it rather uncomfortable to be to vocal about it. I don't mean that I wouldn't happily talk to someone who asked—I've always loved the feeling I get when I am sharing the kerygma with someone who is seeking and curious—but rather I have always felt uncomfortable with the "shout it in the valleys" kind of expression of the Christian faith. I'm not embarrassed of it, I am drawn to it, and always have been, but having been drawn to Praise in the Park, or some such event, I have felt far too uncomfortable to actually join in (although watching brings joy and awe at the expressions of faith of others). For me, my faith is a real thing and a very private thing in many senses, a thing which is deep in the very core of my being. Perhaps Matthew 6:6 speaks to me of my own way of worship. The confessional constitutes a profound experience of encounter and prayer for me. A reverent whispered liturgy makes my soul feel fed. And yet, I am drawn to the joy and energy of a charismatic faith. I recognise Christ in my Baptist friends, many of whom are more intentional disciples than my Catholic friends!
I think this is one of the true wonders of Catholicism: the universality, that there is space for all. The key criteria is uniformity of belief— a symbolon as long as we start there, then, as St Augustine of Hippo is widely quoted as saying: "In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas" (commonly translated as "unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things". What counts most, what's clear, is sincerity of faith. If that is present, all the treasures of our faith are open to you and mean so much more. If you are sincere, you need to share the love and joy of your faith with other people.
I think the core message which resonates with me in Sherry's book is this idea that, if we mean it, we have to live it! If our relationship with Jesus Christ is a real, lived, encounter with the living God, how can we not live like this is, in fact the reality? Yet so many of us do not. We have an institutional faith, not a personal faith. We do not know Jesus and so we cannot share our knowledge and love of Him with others. We create an image of God in our minds and try and conform the Church to meet that image, picking and choosing which elements we believe. In reality we need to conform our own lives to Jesus. It is this metanoia, this change, which brings about our salvation.
So where do we begin? We begin in a small way, and in prayer. We need to start by changing our hearts to listen to Jesus' way and not just try to confirm Jesus to our way. We need to pray that we are open to change and willing to do the work that He wants you to do. We need to make a start today, perhaps that's having a conversation with a work colleague who has expressed an interest in matters of faith, joining the parish SVP or responding to Father's request for greeters at Mass. Take a small step and watch God work His wonders in you.
Sherry is speaking again at St Patrick's, Soho, tonight. It would be great to meet up with you there!