Book Review: Forming Intentional Disciples, the Path to Knowing and Following Jesus
This is the most important book that I have read in the last 10 years. Within these twelve chapters Sherry Weddell addresses the state of the Catholic Church in America today and how to go about fixing it. This is the book that any attempts at reform, rebuilding, or renewing parish life and culture needs to start with, because it is thoroughly Catholic, thoroughly researched, and the insights contained herein will give you the keys to understanding the problem of the modern Catholic parish.
The effect this book has had on the American Catholic landscape, especially in diocesan and parish-based ministries, cannot be understated. She single-handedly restored the language of discipleship to Catholic parlance, which is crucial because, as she points out, many belong to the Church in a sacramental way, but are not actually disciples of Jesus Christ. They are not following Him, though they may attend Mass on occasion. Simply put, many Catholics do not have a personal relationship with God, but only a formal and external relationship through the Church's practices.
One major insight that woke me up in my ministry as an adult faith formation coordinator is this notion of the three spiritual journeys: personal discipleship, sacramental initiation, and active practice. Sherry writes that these spiritual journeys that should all be interconnected, but for many Catholics they are divorced from one another. A person entering the RCIA should grow in their relationship with Christ as they prepare to receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and holy communion, while also getting connected with the life of the parish and its community. Instead you have people who come to daily mass or are leading Catholic institutions or ministries and have no living relationship with Christ, or you have people who spent two years in RCIA and left the Church after one year because they didn't actually make a commitment to Christ, but rather they just joined a club.
Another insight that deeply troubled me was the notion of not just preaching the Gospel, but preaching for repentance and conversion. Sherry's book exploded my kerygmatic style wide open when I realized how little I cared about repentance in myself and so I ignored it in others. I preached on mercy and talked about sin and catechized on Confession, but leading people to a point where their trust in the mercy of God can lead them to definitively repent of their sins and receive divine grace was foreign to me.
A third huge insight is how Catholic parishes have an infant paradigm of evangelization and evangelicals have an adult paradigm. Evangelical churches do not care how you were raised because they are going to evangelize you as an adult regardless. They propose the basic gospel message to adults, whereas Catholic parishes tend to assume adults already know it. Why? Because we've been through 10 years of RE, PSR, CCE, CCD, or faith formation and have our sacraments. Parishes invest their time, money, and volunteers towards the kids. We do this because we still operate from a Christendom perspective, meaning, once we form them foundationally, the culture can do the rest. The only problem is our culture no longer supports Christian values or virtues, so the kids are leaving the Church.
Lastly, I want to speak to the thresholds of conversion that occupies the center chapters of this book. It is crucial to know where people are in their walk with Christ and his Church. Sherry lays these out as Trust, Curiosity, Openness, Seeking, and Intentional Discipleship. The first three stages are largely passive, whereas Seeking and Intentional Disciple are, obviously, intentional and active. Many people in our pews are only in the opening stages but we often treat them like they are all intentional disciples. Some teens that attend a retreat may go from Trust to Openness, which is a huge movement, but we need to follow up with them precisely at this point to lead them towards Intentional Discipleship. Yet, because they had a good time and are speaking positively about their experiences, we tend to think they're converted. Lord knows I did!
Why should you read this book? This is a no-brainer. Put all your other books down that talk about how to fix the Church and read this one instead. In fact, as it has helped me, this book will contextualize all the rest, giving you a framework going forward to evaluate all those other parish renewal books out there.
How does this book help in the new evangelization? The problem of the new evangelization is that we have people sacramentalized and not evangelized. People have gone through the second spiritual journey but not the first, so we need to address thins, just as the three recent popes have tried to do in their writings over and over again (read Catechesi Tradendea, 19). There is no other book out there that does it from a research/statistical side with hard data, as well as the thousands of hours in ministry boots-on-the-ground work. Sherry Weddell knocked it out of the park with this one!