Parish Growth via Fellowship & Discipleship

There are five elements all growing parishes have in common. In this post we'll take a look at the first two.
As we said in the last post, all healthy parishes grow warmer through fellowship, deeper through discipleship, stronger through worship, broader through ministry, and larger through evangelism. These five elements must be balanced if they are to work in having a healthy and growing parish. Let’s take a look at them fellowship and discipleship.

Growth through fellowship
Fellowship is more than just having dinners and get togethers. While those are important, they are wasted opportunities if they don’t include opportunities for parishioners to discover ways for additional knowledge of the faith and spiritual growth. They should also provide opportunities for lapsed and non-Catholics to be invited and made to feel welcome. Every single thing a parish does should have as its focus some spiritual motive, whether it be evangelization, advancing in catechesis, or improving the devotional lives of parishioners.

I find it disturbing when I go into a parish and find the only thing alive there is the ivy growing up the outer wall. This is not to say that fellowship should be touchy-feely, because it shouldn’t. In fact, that sort of fellowship is a major turn-off to most people. While everyone likes to feel welcome, nobody likes undue attention and being fawned over. It makes people feel very uncomfortable. Still, one of the most common objections I hear from both non-Catholics and Catholics who have left or are leaving the Church is that it's so terribly cold.

At this writing, I've been a member of the parish I'm in for thirteen months. I've joined the Knights of Columbus, worked at fundraisers, and attend Mass almost every single day. Despite this, there are only six people in the parish who even know my name or speak to me beyond saying hello. Our parish is in decline, like most parishes in the country.

One of the best examples I can give to explain what I'm talking about is an event we had at the beginning of autumn for a fundraiser that organizers called the End of the Summer Bash. My wife and I attended this event, which included some interesting booths, a meal, beer and soft drinks, and a live band with a little dancing. We intentionally sat at an empty table, because I was interested in seeing how long it would take for someone to come speak to us. We left that night without having met a single person. A lot of people walked by, some staring at us, but nobody bothered to ask who we were or to introduce themselves.

My pastor couldn't believe it when I told him about our experience. He told me our parishioners are very friendly people. I agree that they are very friendly…when speaking to people they've known for years. Father doesn't notice it because he sees people interacting all the time, but he never notices how unaccompanied people are ignored. This is not good fellowship.

Even worse, this was a wasted opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission. Not only should it be pointed out to parishioners that fellowship is associating with others attending an event, but they should actually have a motivation for doing so. The Great Commission is beyond a doubt the best possible motivation for promoting good fellowship, because everything about the Great Commission, which is the Church's mission, is geared toward the salvation of souls. So every single fellowshipping event should have as its focus an advancement in knowledge of Church teaching, devotional practices, and evangelization.

Growth through discipleship
Discipleship is being a disciple, being
one who follows a discipline. Poor or lazy discipleship goes back to the ignorance of the laity. How can parishioners grow if they don’t even know what they’re expected to believe? As a convert from Protestantism, one of the things I’ve always loved about the Catholic Church is how we differ from Protestants in the way we bring adults into the Church. When you go to, say, a Baptist church, you listen to the singing and preaching, then they have an altar call and if you feel convicted to join…you simply join. Then they begin teaching you what you’re expected to believe. That’s like building the house and then trying to put in the foundation. This isn’t at all how we do it.

Most people decide to become Catholic when learning what they Church teaches. When others decide they want to become a Catholic, they are first taught everything they are expected to believe. If the totality of divine revelation as given by Christ to His Church cannot be accepted, then membership to the Catholic Church is not possible. This is building the foundation upon which the house is built.

The problem, then, comes not with converts but with cradle Catholics. An unfortunate effect of Vatican II, which was not intended by the Council Fathers, was the dumbing down of catechesis during the late ‘60s, ‘70s, and into the early ‘80s. Through three decades, Catholic children were robbed of the beauty of their faith through faulty catechesis. And that situation has only perpetuated itself, because today’s religion teachers and authors of children’s catechetical texts are yesterday’s ill-educated children.

What has been the result? Surveys show that 70% of Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. I absolutely disagree with the survey’s conclusions. It’s not that our people have stopped believing in the Real Presence, but rather that they never were taught in the first place!

I’d be truly surprised to find any pastor anywhere who thinks his parishioners know and understand the faith as they should. However, just in case you’ve spent your priestly career living under a rock or hiding in a closet, let me offer you a challenge to prove my point. Over the next few weeks, pick any number of parishioners at random. You choose the number, but the more you choose the more you’ll see the problem. Ask each one of them this two part question: How many sacraments are there, and what are they called?
Here is the result you’ll get, and if I’m wrong let me know so I can publicly eat crow…and you can be sure I will. I’m willing to bet anything that no more than 40% of the parishioners you poll can tell you how many sacraments there are. I predict that no more than 10% of them will be able to name them all. A mere sixty years ago, any Catholic fourth grader could not only name the seven sacraments, but could tell you what each of them is for and how they effect the soul of the recipient. I’ll bet you’d be hard pressed to find a single Catholic fourth grader today who even knows what a sacrament is, much less be able to tell how many there are.

So discipleship goes to the heart of learning and understanding. Parishes that are healthy and growing have parishioners who know and understand the faith. No one has to be an expert, but the very least all Catholics should know are the basics of the twelve articles of the Creed, divine grace and the seven sacraments, Christian morality, and the life of virtue and prayer. It’s not rocket science. The reason God created us is to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this life so we can be forever happy with Him in the next. Knowing God is learning what He wants us to know and how He wants us to live. How on earth can Catholics serve God if they can’t love Him, and how can they love God if they can’t know Him, and how can they know Him if they don’t know the faith? It’s simply not possible. So the very first thing you have to do in order to get your parish healthy is to help your parishioners to learn and understand the faith. Indeed, all of the other problems that keep your parish from being a vibrant, growing, healthy parish will gradually solve themselves if your people are well catechized and have an understanding of what they know.

I realize this is much easier said than done. In my experience as a convert, most Catholics get pretty defensive if it’s even suggested to them that they don’t know the faith or perhaps need to learn more. Almost without exception I always hear one of two responses: “I’ve been a Catholic all my life” (which means nothing) or “I went to Catholic school” (which also means nothing). So the problem is, how do you get your people interested in learning the faith?

In my opinion, there are three things that, properly utilized, can start your parishioners on the right track to learning and understanding our holy and ancient faith. They are the
St. Paul Street Evangelization apostolate, the Joe Sixpack What We Believe...Why We Believe It bulletin inserts, and the Lighthouse Catholic Media kiosks. But those are just a beginning. I have a number of strategies and adaptable ideas that will work, and this is based on my nearly thirty years of experience as a lay evangelist, nearly fifty years in sales, nearly forty years in marketing, and my extensive research on why Protestants grow while we are in decline. It does little good to mention them here, though, as they would only become “programs” if you tried to implement them in your parish. I am firmly convinced that programs don’t work, systems do. And systems must be implemented on the basis of the unique characteristics of your parish, which are mentioned below. In order to use any of the strategies and ideas I use, they must first be tailored to the individual parish. And that’s what I do—I consult with pastors and develop strategies for parish health and growth based on the individual parish.

No two parishes are alike. Each parish has its own personality, demographic, and psychographic. You may find something that works in another parish, but that doesn’t mean it will work at all in your parish. If it works at all, I can almost guarantee it won’t work nearly as well as it does in the parish it was being used in when you discovered it. The reason is, the thing that works in the other parish does so because it was developed on the basis of the individuality of that parish. You can’t take a kid from a liberal black family in Harlem and a white kid from a conservative family in Scarsdale Village, New York and expect to make them respond to the same stimuli in the same way. Likewise, you can’t take something that works in St. Miscellaneous on the other side of the diocese or country and expect it to work in your parish. Parishioners simply won’t respond the same way.

If your parish has a school, there is something else you can do to ensure that future generations of Catholics in your parish don’t grow into adulthood ignorant of the faith.
Sophia Institute for Teachers has a program that is absolutely the best thing to happen for Catholic education in more than a century. The system used by Sophia Institute for Teachers isn’t just something to teach your religion teachers how to teach the faith. It teaches all your teachers how to relate all school studies—everything from physical education to mathematics—to every aspect of the faith. Children who have been taught by Sophia Institute for Teachers graduates will know and understand more about Catholicism by the time they get out of school than 99.9% of cradle Catholics anywhere in the world. I cannot recommend this systematic program for Catholic school teachers highly enough.

In the next post we will take a look at growth through worship and ministry. Until then, perhaps you would like to learn more about how
What We Believe...Why We Believe It can help your parishioners grow in knowledge and practice of the faith.
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