Forming Intentional Disciples

Lots of people are talking about Forming Intentional Disciples, by Sherry Weddell, and with good reason; here’s my somewhat personal take on it.

Forming Intentional Disciples is a book the Church desperately needs today. It is first of all a description of the Church (and of Christianity in general) as it currently is—not as it was fifty or even twenty years ago, but as it is now. Sherry has all of the statistics in hand. It is secondly a vision of what the Church can be, is meant to be, with glimpses of parishes where the vision has already taken root. And finally, it is a deeply pragmatic book with practical steps for achieving that vision given the situation we currently find ourselves in.

The core of the vision centers on Christ our Lord, and on what Sherry calls “intentional disciples,” people who make it their business to be disciples of Christ, who devote themselves to the love of Jesus before everything else, and to their fellow men and women because He loves them. She makes the point over and over again that a strong, living relationship with Jesus is crucial—and that if we want our parishes to be bursting with life and service to God and our neighbor, we must first foster that strong, living relationship.

Any evangelicals among our readers are nodding and saying, “Well, duh—of course that’s where you have to start.” I need to say a few words to them; the rest of you, feel free to follow along if you like.

I was a member of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship when I was in college. I was a member of a rather evangelical Episcopalian (later, Anglican) parish for many, many years before I returned to the Catholic Church. I’ve known about the importance of a strong friendship with Jesus since I was in my teens. And it’s only since I rejoined the Catholic Church in 2007 that I feel like I’ve begun to get the hang of it.

“What’s this?” you ask.  “That’s not the usual way.” And, alas, it isn’t the usual way.  Sherry makes that point, that those who leave Catholicism for Evangelicalism are doing so because they want to grow in Christ.  The evangelicals they know are used to talking about that, and are excited to talk about it; and the Catholics they know aren’t.

And yet, at the same time, it is the usual way.  For almost two thousand years, the Catholic Church has had members who have stepped apart from the world and devoted their lives to building their relationships with Jesus. We call them monks, and friars, and sisters, and nuns, and canons, and hermits. We call them Dominicans and Franciscans and Benedictines and Carmelites and a whole host of other names. There are those in the Church who not only know the way but have mapped it out in detail; and not only mapped it out in detail, but have mapped out a number of routes, suited to every variety of temperament. Dominican spirituality is not the same as Benedictine spirituality. But all of them are about coming to Jesus, knowing him, loving him, and accepting his discipline and teaching.  And all of this is available to the layman as well as the consecrated monk or sister.

As a Protestant, I felt like I had a do-it-yourself kit and no hardware store in sight. The books I read were some help, but they only went so far. As a Catholic, on the other hand, I’ve got the experience of the ages available to me, and I’ve done my best, with God’s help, to take advantage of it. I look back on my days as an Anglican, and I feel like I was trying to get the job done with one hand tied behind my back and a blindfold.*

The Catholic Church as a body understands how to know and love and follow Jesus. But many of us in the pews do not; and that’s what this book is about: encouraging Catholics like me to spread the word, as well as sage advice on how to go about it. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t look like a sales call. And mostly it involves listening, not speaking.

This is not properly a review; I don’t feel qualified to review the material in this book, especially after only one reading. But I’ll be reading it again; and I’ll be passing it around.

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* I’m not criticizing my non-Catholic brothers and sisters here; I knew many people whose spiritual life was deeper than mine.   I’m talking about my own personal experience trying to put my faith into practice.

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