Book Review: Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry A. Weddell
As I write this I am just a few weeks shy of completing the forming intentional disciples program with a group of men from my parish. Our weekly meetings have been a blessing for me to attend, and I have enjoyed our time which has been focused on prayer, study, and fellowship. I enjoy small group discussion and furthermore, I find learning more about my fellow parishioners to be enriching. In her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry A. Weddell brings to light the critical importance that intentional discipleship plays in our church communities.
The first portion of this book is full of many statistics related to religion, but more importantly, highlights of the reasons people have left Catholicism. I am not typically a numbers guy, but I admit these numbers are worth reading and paying attention to as we explore ways to keep our parishes vibrant. Interestingly it appears one key reason that people leave the faith is due to a lack of having a personal relationship with God, or as the author states, “only 48 percent of Catholics are absolutely certain that the God they believe in is a God with whom they can have a personal relationship.” In other words, according to the author, “The majority of adult Catholics are not even certain that a personal relationship with God is possible.”
Sometimes I get caught thinking that God is distant from me and is up in heaven with a big ledger keeping track of all of my faults, sins, and less than holy actions vs. those times when I have followed His will and His path. In short, I have reduced the God of the universe to a cosmic scorekeeper rather than a loving and forgiving father who desires a relationship with me. I have missed opportunities to build a strong relationship with God through my own self-imposed stumbling blocks and flawed theology. Admittedly, there have been times where I have attended mass merely out of the fear of mortal sin rather than attending, as the book points out, per Sacrosanctum Concilium, which states, “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain.”
I may have just “strayed off into the weeds” a bit as we say in our group, but a common theme throughout this book is relationship and the need for all of us to stay close to Jesus and to trust Him with all parts of our lives. Even deeper than relationship is the need for the kerygma to be shared throughout our parishes, as well as with those who are non-believers. Until the last month, I had never heard the word kerygma before, but now it seems to be showing up everywhere. The word kerygma is essentially the sharing of the Gospel, especially the gift of salvation through Christ. As disciples, we are all responsible for sharing the good news of Christ’s sacrificial love for us.
I think a major strong point from this book is that it lays out a blueprint for discipleship and evangelization. To be honest, I am not strong at thinking on my feet or always knowing how to start a conversation; however, I can usually follow directions well. The author outlines thresholds of conversion which are trust, curiosity, openness and seeking, and intentional discipleship. Each of the thresholds has a chapter dedicated to them and expand on practical ways to connect with people and help them develop a relationship with God. For a person like me, I found those chapters helpful.
Some other vital advice is shared in this book to help encourage all of us to reach out a little further and become active in our roles as intentional disciples. For example, the author stresses to be sure and ask people about their relationship with God, but first, be available to listen. If you are talking to an atheist you might ask, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in,” and if you are talking to someone from another religion you could say, “Tell me about the God you do believe in.” Those seem like very reasonable questions or statements that are both non-threatening, but also open-ended enough to allow the person to speak without feeling intimidated.
The final chapter of this book is titled “Expect Conversion” where the author expands on seven ideas and proposals for making disciples, and those are: 1. Prayer 2. Identifying the Unbelieving and Unchurched 3. Sharing the Good News 4. Evangelizing: How and Where? 5. Forming and Equipping Disciples 6. Transforming Society: Compassion and Mercy and 7. The Financials. More importantly she expands on the actions of the Holy Spirit, stating, “If we are going to seriously evangelize our own, we had better be prepared for the Holy Spirit to do things in people’s lives and in our parishes that are not part of our five-year plans, things that we could never have accomplished even if they were part of our five year plans.” To quote a David Niles shirt, “I am a big picture kind of guy” or something along those lines, I think the takeaway from this book is that we need to share the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection with humble confidence to not only non-Christians, but especially with those in the pews around us each week. So don’t be afraid, pray, and ask for the Holy Spirit’s help. Then reach out with unwavering trust that God is at work.
By: Kent Keithly, Fortunate Husband and Father