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"If I Left the Church" and the Culture of Intentional Discipleship PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 16 August 2007 06:14
I'm reviewing some of the many things that I have written over the years.

What is surprising to me is how relevant most of my early observations as a Catholic still seem to be. A million air miles and conversations with tens of thousands of Catholics have only show me how wide-spread the phenomena that I first encountered in Seattle and that I describe in the essay below is throughout the Catholic world.

I wouldn't write the same way today. I wouldn't use the same language. But my conclusion would be the same: As Catholics, we have a wonderful rich theology of evangelization and mission and the apostolate of the laity - but we aren't living it.

An absolutely critical piece is missing for 99% of Catholics: an experience of a culture of intentional discipleship and all that flows from that. Most people won't "get" the theology until they experience the reality on the ground. That's how most of us grasp new concepts. We see it enacted before us and around us by other people with whom we can identify.

The one percent of US Catholics who have been part of a lay movement like Communion and Liberation or the charismatic renewal or an evangelization process like Cursillo or some kind of evangelization retreat or part of a most unusual parish (and for links to some really remarkable parishes, check out our links here)tell similar stories.

I lost track a long time ago of how many like stories I've heard on the road. At least half of the pastoral leaders who attended Making Disciples last week expressed very similar frustrations. They were from 22 dioceses all over the US and Australia and yet they told us over and over again how isolated they were back home and how incredibly healing it was to be able to talk to other Catholics who cared about the same things they cared about.

Even more telling is the fact that five deeply committed, orthodox, and theologically sophisticated Catholics have used the same ominous language in totally unrelated conversations over the past two weeks, "if I left the Church". And the reason was always the same: lack of a community of friends with which they can pursue their relationship with God. ( I need to make it clear that I am NOT considering leaving the church myself nor did I bring the subject up - they used this language spontaneously)

Most of these people are cradle Catholics. It really transcends the issue of "Catholic or Protestant?". The central issue is whether or not you have ever experienced being immersed in a culture of intentional discipleship. Christians who have been part of a culture of discipleship have much in common with other Christians who have done so, even if they come from different ecclesial backgrounds. And many Catholics who have left us for the evangelical world would come back in a heartbeat if we could offer them a truly Catholic environment where they felt truly supported in their attempts to follow Christ.

So here's my take on the same dynamic from 10 years ago. It is fairly long and covers briefly the story of my conversion (I think I wrote it at the request of a Catholic media group)and ends rather abruptly but still manages to give a pretty vivid sense of what it means to move from a culture of discipleship into a Christian culture that is not primarily centered around discipleship.

"When I think back on my early life, the thing that is most striking is how easy it was for me to find instruction and support for my Christian faith. I was not a Catholic but was raised in a Christian family that took the faith seriously. Every member of our family was strongly encouraged to make a personal commitment to follow Christ. I studied and memorized the Bible at home as a child. We played games based on Scriptural knowledge during mealtimes. Our Christian culture and local church assumed that every member had a call from God and should be actively discerning that call as a teen-ager and young adult.

As a college student I received training in Scripture study, how to share my faith with others, how to lead a small group, how to pray, and how to discern God’s call. All kinds of practical formation in Christian living was available in my tiny local church of 150 people or through local branches of para-church organizations that worked hand-in-hand with local parishes. For instance, I received one-on-one mentoring in the faith by another young woman who had been specifically trained to help me in this way. I was strongly encouraged to study on my own as well and taken on a tour of several local Christian bookstores to familiarize myself with the resources available through the wider Christian community.

While I was still in college, a remarkable woman leader in my local church took me under her wing and changed the direction of my life. She taught me how to listen to my own heart, how to listen to God’s voice, and how to pray for others. I was deeply impressed by the her wholeness, the way in which she had integrated her life and faith, and the way in which she used her gifts and exercised leadership as a lay women.

Because I had an interest in missionary work to the Middle East, I was able to link up with other young local Christians in my neighborhood who met to pray for missions, to prepare themselves for missionary work and to reached out to international student studying in the US. With this support, I switched majors and studied Arabic and Near Eastern history. I lived in a house near the university run by a young woman who had already spent 6 years abroad with a lay missionary organization. The day after I graduated from college I drove across country with some friends to a national conference on Christian outreach to Muslims put on by an organization dedicated exclusively to the formation of the lay evangelists.

In retrospect, I am astonished that I never marveled at the abundance of personal formation and support that was readily available to me as an ordinary Christian lay woman. I assumed that it was normal for local churches and student organizations to provide numerous opportunities for apostolic formation. Since Christ had called every one of his sons and daughters to mission, we thought it was only natural that every Christian be readied for that mission in their local parish. Most importantly, I never found myself alone in my spiritual questionings or discernment process. I was surrounded by lay peers who were asking the same questions and wrestling with the same issues and perfectly at ease in talking about it. I was regarded as gifted (but then so was everyone else in different ways) but never exceptional.

We took St. Paul’s teaching in his epistles about spiritual gifts quite seriously and sought to discern the gifts each Christian had been given by the Holy Spirit to empower them for their personal vocation. In my small local church, a group of us took an inventory to help us discern our spiritual gifts or charisms. As a young adult, I had begun to see particular gifts of the Holy Spirit emerge. I had a strong desire to pray for others and saw remarkable things happen when I did so.

I discovered that I had a charism of teaching when an older married woman asked to meet with me every week to discuss prayer and the spiritual life. I prepared for these sessions by writing up little lessons on prayer, which she found extremely helpful. Our informal mentoring relationship continued for two years until she left to do missionary work with her family in a "closed" Muslim country, a choice which was not unique in my experience. I knew at least a dozen Christian families in the neighborhood who had done similar things.

By that time, I had started to teach small, informal classes in discernment and prayer for interested lay people in homes. I later taught similar classes to the staff of a Christian bookstore where I worked. The classes included prayer exercises that each person would do during the week, often at work, and then would share their experience. I received very strong positive feedback from those who took the classes and begin to discern that here was a specific area in which God had called and gifted me.

In light of my desire to do missionary work, it seemed only natural that I do further training and so I enrolled at the largest graduate missions training institution in the world. While there, I lived and worked on a college campus occupied by a lay organization which focused entirely on outreach to completely unevangelized peoples. I lived and breathed frontier world missions twenty-four hours a day with hundreds of eager missionaries and leaders from around the globe. I never knew whether the person next to me at dinner would be an experienced missionary to the Philippines or a Ugandan refugee. It never once struck me as odd that all these people training to spread the faith to the farthest and most inaccessible parts of the globe were ordinary lay Christians.

As the ways in which God touched other people through me became clearer, I began to call myself a "people-gardener". I wasn’t exactly a counselor or a healer but mysterious though it was, I recognized that Christians grew as human beings and as apostles around me. I was fascinated with bridging the gap between Christian ideals and the experience of average Christians. I strongly identified with committed Christians who were struggling or discouraged in their attempts to live the faith in a whole-hearted manner and desired to help them. In this area I did not find myself alone since many Christians I knew were concerned about the same thing. In a world where serious lay discipleship was normative, all leaders and pastors were asking "How can I help people live and share the faith in as full and joyful a way as possible?" I was not exceptional in my concerns, I was simply recognized to be especially gifted in this area.

In the midst of all, I was slowly awakening to the riches of the Catholic Church. When I began seeking out private places to pray for others, I found that most Protestant churches were closed during the day. And so I entered the lovely church of the Blessed Sacrament for the first time. Its austere beauty accommodated my Protestant sensibilities. But the truly compelling attraction was a sense of God’s presence there in a particularly powerful way. I was completely unfamiliar with Catholic belief in the Real Presence, an idea I would have rejected. Rather, I presumed that since Blessed Sacrament was old, what I was experiencing was the "residue" left from decades of prayer. In any case, I was hooked. Protestant churches, however lovely, weren’t filled with that same Presence. From that time on, I prayed as much as possible in Catholic churches.

Those hours spent in different Catholic churches as I moved around the US and then to Britain, and the Holy Land slowly and subtly undermined my anti-Catholic prejudices. My first Easter Vigil service marked the fall of another barrier to the Catholic faith. In my casting about for a fuller way to celebrate Easter, nothing had prepared me for the power and truth of the Vigil. The many Scriptural readings impressed me, and I found the Exultet majestically beautiful. Thereafter, I decided to attend the Vigil every Easter.

While serving in Wales, I discover to my surprise that the most nourishing worship service available to me was at the local Catholic parish. The Welsh, mind you, are a people for whom singing hymns in massive choirs is a national sport. And so it was among this nation of choristers that I experienced the rhythms of the liturgy for the first time. Welsh Catholics sang most of the liturgy in parts. I was still very Protestant in my approach to worship. By the time I’d heard all the readings and listened to the homily, I figured the essential part of the service was over. But as I experienced the life of the Church from Epiphany through Corpus Christi, more of my misconceptions fell away.

Upon my return to Seattle, I went on an intense, three-week retreat overseen by a Christian psychologist. During one of the high points of this experience, I felt God's goodness and grace passing through me, a created being, into the world. In a flash, the whole sacramental notion that God's grace can and does enter the world through matter became real to me. This was a crisis! My tiny church didn't celebrate sacraments in any form. After a single visit back, I knew I could no longer make do with non-sacramental worship. For me, the sacraments had become spiritual necessities and I knew where to find them! My longing for the sacraments was enough to overcome my remaining reservations and I quickly entered RCIA.

It took a couple more years to resolve all my issues but in December of 1987, I was finally received into full communion. When astonished Protestant friends would ask me why I had joined the Catholic Church, I would simply reply "To follow Jesus". I longed to be at the center of the Body of Christ, not at the periphery. I wanted to be where Christ’s redeeming work was the center and focus of worship and His presence the heart of the sanctuary. I wanted to be united with the communion of saints throughout time and space. The Christian world I was entering was infinitely larger than the one in which I had been raised. The inexhaustible depths of the ancient, universal Church dazzled me. New spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and historical horizons beckoned in every direction
My reasons for entering were partly experiential, partly mystical, partly liturgical – but always centered around the compelling vision of Church universal. I had had the best of evangelical Protestantism and was tremendously grateful but now I was being called into an infinitely deeper and richer Christianity. In my joy, I felt like the inhabitant of Sheol being called forth by the victorious Christ in an ancient homily for Holy Saturday "Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you life"

But nothing I had read in any catechism could have prepared me for the reality of trying to sustain my faith in a local Catholic parish. During my first full year as a Catholic, I nearly drowned in loneliness and despair. Where I had once been surrounded by lay peers who shared a similar experience and formation, I now felt as though I were a freak of nature.

I had come from a world where our common faith was at the center of every gathering of Christians and at least alluded to in nearly every conversation. Outside of Mass, Catholics seemed to talk only about the weather or the Mariners. The lay men and women in the pews with me were strangely uncomfortable talking about the faith and were mystified and irritated by my enthusiasm for doing so. As one cradle Catholic told a convert friend of mine" if you’re going to pray, pray. If you’re going to socialize, socialize. Don’t mix the two."

I quickly discovered that it was better if I didn’t talk about my experience and training or about the accomplishments of the lay missionaries who were my friends. It was simply light years beyond the experience and imagination of nearly every Catholic I met. I was once asked to write an article on lay vocation for a national magazine aimed at serious lay Catholics. I broke my rule and wrote the true story of the woman friend whom I had mentored and who was now quietly doing remarkable things in one of the most oppressive countries on earth. The editor told me to take her story out. "None of our readers could possibly aspire to such a ministry" he told me.

Every summer, this very woman returns for a few weeks to Seattle and attempts to describe the struggles and victories of her entire year to me. I meditated on that Catholic editor’s comment during one such visit as I watched her talking. This five-foot-nothing, middle-aged housewife, her rumpled clothes and drooping eyes mirroring her exhaustion and jet lag, was this woman so very extraordinary? Could none of the thousands of lay Catholics who read that magazine never aspire to do something similar?

I knew that my friend was not unique. Ordinary lay people aspired to such things all the time in the Christian world I had known. I came from a quite ordinary family. We do not have a tradition of becoming missionaries or pastors or evangelists. And yet had I not listened to my cousin’s stories of his missionary work in Moscow? What about my roommate in seminary who spent five years as a lay missionary in Turkey before marrying a local Armenian. My 19 year old sister had served in Nigeria with a team of young adults supported by a vibrant church only three blocks away from my own parish. I knew that there were thousands of non-traditional lay missionaries in the world. What was it that made Catholics so certain that such a work was "too much" for a lay man or woman to undertake?

I once asked that question of a group of Dominican pastors to whom I was speaking on the lay apostolate. A very knowledgeable and committed lay DRE who heard my talk simply could not believe it. "You can’t have come from an ordinary Protestant family", she protested. By that time, I knew that Christians who had been raised Catholic shared a powerful, if invisible lay culture that wasn’t described in any catechism and was foreign to my own experience. In the world of ordinary lay Catholicism, my formation and experience was abnormal and alienating. I gradually ceased to talk seriously with other lay Catholics unless I was with other converts from the same background.

The most painful moment came when I realize that I had to admit to myself that if I had been raised Catholic, I would not have received the years of personal nurture and formation that made me who I was. It simply wasn’t available to ordinary lay Catholics in their local parishes and communities. I believed that all that the Catholic Church believed and held to be true, but I was living off the spiritual abundance of my Protestant past.

I held on through a naked act of the will. Christ had called me into the center of His Church and I would not leave. But neither could I settle for so little. I would walk the three blocks to the neighborhood evangelical mega-church and look on with longing envy. This church was no larger than many Catholic parishes in Seattle, but it might as well have been on the far side of the moon, so profoundly different were the assumptions at work there.

Their motto was "every member a minister" and they meant it. This church had high-powered formation program for children, university students, and adults of all ages. It was normal for 6-9 different classes to be offered for adults every Sunday. This church’s largest department was "Urban and Global Mission". They supported lay missionaries and programs in 25 different countries and sent their own members on short and long-term missions every year. This was the congregation that had enabled my sister to go to Africa. This was the world I had given up by becoming Catholic.

I tried to participate in both communities for a while but found it surprisingly difficult. Although people were certainly welcoming, I was no longer Protestant in my theology and understanding of the church and I gradually realized that evangelicalism could never be "home" again. I felt, as have many other converts, personally torn in two by the schism that had riven western Christendom for nearly 500 years. Either I could have the sacraments, the communion of saints, and the Church universal or I could have a vibrant local community where I could really share with like-minded lay Christians and receive real nurture and support in living out my faith. I could not have them both. They belonged to two irreconcilable spiritual universes that dwelt in splendid isolation from one another.

Two years after being received into the Church, I felt that God was calling me to prepare for a new work of helping other lay Christians discern their vocations. By this time, I knew better than to turn for assistance or support from my parish or diocese. I was entirely on my own. I made plans to change jobs in order to return to graduate school. Co-workers innocently asked me if I would be getting help from my church. I laughed inwardly at their naivete. My confessor had written a nice letter of recommendation for me but I was quite certain that that was the only help I would receive from the Catholic church.

I truly did not know where God was leading me. I certainly never expected to work in a parish. I could not imagine a Catholic parish being seriously interested in serious formation for the laity. The pastors I had met regarded lay people at best as potential parish volunteers, not apostles. I could see no obvious forum for my work in the local Catholic church but felt that if I was faithful, God would make some informal opportunities available. I reminded myself that perhaps God intended that I help just one other person. My ministry might always be quiet and informal. My job was simply to follow as best I could. So I changed jobs and planned to gave up all my discretionary income and my weekends for three years in order to finish school. Those three years turned into six as I finished school and then began helping small groups of lay Catholics discern their charisms.

During this time, I kept getting called by lay Catholics who were thinking of leaving the Catholic church for the evangelical world because they longed for fellowship and real instruction. I did my best to support these individuals over the phone for a while. Then, in a single day, I talked to two Catholics on the verge of leaving and was called by a Protestant professor who was seriously considering becoming Catholic but despaired of finding a local parish where his family could be really nourished. I hung up from that call determined to do something.

I had been a Catholic for six years by this point and looked to my local parish for nothing beyond the sacraments. In my experience, pastors tended to dismiss Catholics who left the Church for such reasons as fundamentalists who wouldn’t be missed. If anything was going to be done about this, it would have to be done by lay people. I gathered a group of mostly convert friends together and started a fellowship group so that those on the verge of leaving or entering the Church wouldn’t have to wrestle with their issues alone. We met once a month for prayer, a potluck dinner, a talk and discussion. Since we couldn’t come up with a name for our little group at first, we called ourselves "The Nameless Lay Group". In time, we decided that we liked being nameless and nameless we remained.

We gave eager young lay Catholics their first experience of personal support and formation in their faith. A Catholic father of eight who had left in frustration found the support he needed to be able to return to the Church. We gave a young Baptist man his first positive experience of lay Catholics and he soon began to attending Mass regularly with his Catholic wife and eventually entered RCIA. Through the miracle of the internet, we helped a entire Protestant family in New Zealand enter the church."


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