“On Discipleship” Notes from 5/18 Radio Program


On Friday May 18, 2017 I had the privilege of being a guest on THY WILL BE DONE - a radio program hosted by Anne McGlone on In His Sign radio network (WTMR 800 AM). Anne and I go back to my days when I was Rector at Malvern Retreat House. The topic was Discipleship and we covered a wide array of material. Notes from our conversation are provided below.

Statistics - “Shadows” Within the Catholic Church :

  • For every Catholic who joins, 6 leave.
  • INFANT baptisms are down 25% over the past 5 years.
  • “Nones” (people who, when asked about a “religious affiliation say , “none”) are one of the largest religious groups in country. Many “millennials” are found din this group .
  • 10,000 Catholics leave the Archdiocese of Philadelphia each year.

Statistics, “Lights and Opportunities” Within the Catholic Church:
  • ADULT baptisms were up by 12% in 2014 (CARA study)
  • Mass attendance of Catholics in their 20’s in 2014 was up by 13% (2014 BARNA study)
  • 26% of lapsed/non-practicing Catholics are re-thinking their relationship with the Church
  • 2012-2014 witnessed a 7% increase of Catholics saying that their church affiliation was now “strong.”
  • Faith of “cradle Catholics” remain strong.

People, pastors and church officials tend to focus on numbers (baptisms, confirmations, wedding, finances, parish registrations). Numbers are important but numbers don’t tell full story and can mislead. For example, in 2003, Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois, did a study that was eventually released as the book, REVEAL. Based on the results of this study, Pastor Bill Hybels and the leadership teams stopped asking questions about “how many?” That number look great as they were getting close to 17,000 people attending services each week. But the study showed that many of these people were not growing in their faith. Thus they began to ask a totally new set of questions:

  • WHERE are you - in your relationship with Christ?
  • How can we measure this?
  • What are we doing that is helping people grow in their spiritual maturity?
  • What is not working?

This eventually led to a 1,000 church, multi-year study, the results of which were published in the book, MOVE. The results were sobering as many initial assumptions were totally incorrect:

  • You actually can measure “spiritual maturity”
  • Each person is at a different maturity level
  • Willow Creek’s primary strategy for spiritual growth was to get people into “Small Groups.” This was shown to be totally ineffective.
  • In fact, church activities - of any kind - were shown to have NO EFFECT on spiritual growth!
  • Spiritual relationships are a key driver.
  • If people leave your church, they are still searching. As St. Augustine once said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee O Lord” People will leave your church and search to fill that restless heart.

Similar findings in the Catholic Church were found by Sherry Widdell and Fr. Michael Sweeney, O.P. from the Catherine of Siena Institute in Colorado Springs, CO. Sherry details these findings in her book, Forming Intentional Disciples. She initially outlined 5 stages (or “Thresholds”) that people go through on the journey to spiritual maturity and discipleship:

  1. Trust
  2. Curiosity
  3. Openness
  4. Searching
  5. Discipleship

Sherry has subsequently identified two additional stages. One (Pre-Trust) is found at the beginning of the journey and represents a great majority of Catholics who simply do not trust, and might even be hostile to, the Catholic Church and Catholic faith. At the higher end of the journey, “Apostles” are people who actively go out to seek, to find and to form, other disciples.

Sherry, Willow and other churches have found that the people in these different spiritual stages have VERY different spiritual needs. Proper stewardship would then necessitate that churches and Pastors ensure that the right resources (the ol’ “Time - Talent - Treasure”) are more precisely allocated to people depending on their respective “spiritual threshold.” For example, people in the Trust/Curious phases want to “be seen,” they want to feel welcome and they desire a safe place to discuss their spiritual life. Small groups are an effective tool for people in these phases. Disciples and Apostles, on the other hand, might find small groups “nice” but they don’t need them and, for the most part, they might not even be interested in them. They want two things: they want to be challenged in their faith and they want to be held accountable for their faith - things that people in the earlier thresholds simply cannot handle. One-on-one spiritual direction is more effective and desired by people in the “Discipleship / Apostleship” phases.

To help people identify in which “threshold” they might be and to assist them along the pathway of discipleship, Sherry and Fr. Sweeney founded the Catherine of Siena Institute in Colorado Springs to help parishes move parishioners towards discipleship and apostleship. Additionally, within last 10-15 years other companies, initiatives and programs have appeared within the Catholic context that can compliment the support of this spiritual journey:

For people in the Initial Stages (for example: Pre-Trust, Trust, Curious, Openness):

For people in the Mid-Stages (For example, Openness and Searching):

For people in Discipleship / Apostleship stages:

Additional developments, companies and program supporting Parish Rebuilding and Leadership:



Audio version of the talk can be heard here:



Sviluppo: On the program, I made a reference to the Catholic Grandparents Association and that I would provide references to their ministry.

An overview of the history of the Catholic Grandparents Association is here.

A link to their news letter is here. In the newsletter you will see a reference to a possible conference in Philadelphia in August of this year. Tentatively I have heard that this event might be held at St. Charles Seminary. Nevertheless, with the latest news concerning St. Charles Seminary as seen in CatholicPhilly as well as an article in Philly.com, I would imagine that the venue could possibly change over the next several months. Stay tuned I guess….

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