I returned from a speaking engagement in October, and this was one of the top questions that the diocese I visited was wrestling with. It seems to be a common question in parishes. Even with the big launch of a new program in a parish, recruitment efforts, etc., the long-term effect often seems to be that no more than 10% stay engaged in what the Church is doing.

My response to this question can be summed up in one statement: if we “actually engage” the 5-10% effectively, it will mean that the other 90% receive the invitation to be engaged through them. What does this mean? I would argue that in most cases, just because people are involved in a program at a parish does not mean that they are growing in their faith. They may be engaged at an attendance level, but not to a point where their involvement is affecting their lives and deepening their discipleship, culminating with engagement in the work of evangelization. One might contend that many of our programs are merely glorified social clubs.

Authentic discipleship is a lifelong journey of growth and depth. Some people are ready for it, and some are not. Discipleship Focused Ministry requires a leap of faith to trust that if we carve out the time and space to truly walk with those ready for the journey, their witness and initiative will inspire others to do so as well. It’s not that we have to do one or the other (general programming or discipleship); it’s that we must do both. If we had to choose one, I would opt for discipleship because it is through the fruits of that discipleship that the other programs come about (someone else recognizes the need and seeks to meet it themselves!).

What does this mean for those of us responsible for the programming and coordination of the ministry efforts in our parishes?

  • We are not expected to reach the other 90% by ourselves, including by thinking up more programs that we can create to reach them.
  • Fostering authentic discipleship involves intimacy in relationship with others and results in a clear experience of growth, which brings us to life. Our ministry becomes truly human!
  • Those we serve will mature in their faith and take on greater responsibilities within the life of the Church, and we get see Christ work in the midst of it all!

This is NOT idealistic. This is happening in many of the parishes that I am in contact with, including my own! It happens only through surrendering our busyness, our pride, and the lie that it depends solely on us. Those of us in leadership roles in the Church are not necessarily called to engage the other 90% of the people ourselves, but we are responsible for leading others in a way that makes it more possible. We have approached engagement one way for a long time now…it’s time to try it another way!

Let us not be afraid to go deeper in the ways the Lord is calling us to do so. Let us focus on discovering the beauty of Jesus Christ through relationships with people rather than the building of more programs. Let us have the courage to do so in order that others may be inspired to do the same. Through these faithful, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the invitation to the other 90% will be made.