As you may or may not know, I work as a Director of Religious Education at a large suburban parish in the Detroit area. Recently, our Faith Formation and Education Department was renamed “Discipleship Formation.” My teenage daughter frowned when she heard this new name and said “discipleship? Sounds like a cult or something.” Quite an alarm bell. Seems “discipleship” is one of our “churchy” words that needs some rehabilitation.
First lets briefly address the second word of our department’s new name and point out the difference between Education and Formation (two words that certainly deserve their own “Strong Language” column, but not today). Simply put, Education is more about information. Formation is more about inspiration. Education is what you do in a classroom. Formation is what you do when you participate in a retreat or a service project or (hopefully) what happens in our homes and our daily life, because we know our children watch, scrutinize, and learn most about who we are and what we believe in the way we live our faith.
Without question THE most effective and lasting Christian formation occurs by example in the context of family. Parents, you are your child’s first and primary catechist; the first gospel they will ever read. All the “discipleship formation” we do here at church is but an addendum to what is happening in our homes. Even weekly Mass makes little sense without our families regularly gathering to share a meal and say grace together. Home is where all the lasting seeds of faith are planted. We water and tend to your sprouts a bit here at church, but in the end, all the members of our parish staff, including Fr. Bill, are only your support staff in growing and forming your children in the faith. (I know, it makes my knees knock a bit too. Parents have much too much power, but that’s the way it goes <insert shrug here> .)
Now, back to the word “Discipleship.” In Christianity, the word “disciple” primarily refers to a dedicated follower of Jesus. But there is even disagreement on what “following Jesus” looks like, especially in these days of Covid when many people have yet to return to weekly Mass – one of our primary and traditional ways of practicing our Catholic “discipleship.”
I look around on Sunday morning and see but a fraction of our pre-Covid community. Many of the most devout, cradle Catholics I know express that they have not felt a deep loss these past two years and have little to no longing to return to church (yikes!). As the mother of three feisty, smart, young adult daughters and a husband working 60 plus hours a week, I’m having a hell of a time getting my family back to church too, which frankly has me a little spooked. Their lack of interest leaves me wondering – were my children just going along with the family norm? Did they ever really believe? Were they ever genuine disciples? So, I asked them “what’s going on?”– and this is what I heard.
Without a doubt, it is clear that the ever-changing challenges and decay of our societal bonds make staying a believing, committed Christian disciple difficult, for all of us – not just our kids. Having worked for the church for 30 years now, I have certainly observed this progressive trend. But, surprisingly, that was only a small part of why my daughters said they aren’t missing going to church.
I heard that young people are not having a crisis of faith. They fully recognize Christ and find hope and joy in the God that authors and leaders such as Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ speak and write about – they just don’t recognize the irrelevant divinity being preached by the well-meaning but ineffective and weary parish priests and ministers on the front lines, or the “jesus” who has been commandeered and twisted by our politicians and violence ridden and vacuous culture. They only see a handful of people really trying with all their might and integrity to live out the dream Jesus had for our world (and many of them are very loyal, vocal and forthright “falling away” Catholics).
They are frustrated and impatient with our “Churchianity” (as Marcus Borg puts it). What they are seeking is a convincing “Christianity.” They know and love the Jesus who hung out and broke bread with so called “sinners” and took the religious authorities to task, but what they see is political strife in our pews, scwabbling over internal details around our rituals that couldn’t matter less to them, and rolling their eyes as they hear of people being “banned from communion” – something clearly Jesus would never do. They minced no words in clearly stating that it is our institution; our navel-gazing, misogynistic (yes, that is the exact word my SAT-word weilding 17-year-old used), legalistic, Catholic leadership that is failing them, not Jesus.
My kids said they have no doubt that God is at work in the world and fully acknowledge the beauty of our Tradition, Eucharist, Catholic social teaching, etc. but they said that young people today, thankfully, have no tolerance for institutionalized discrimination. They don’t see our church as a model of progress in promoting the equality, mercy, justice, and inclusion that Jesus died trying to teach us.
What could I say? We all know the truth of the reality we are living.
Vatican II defines “the church” as the “People of God” and I would certainly include my daughters in that lot. They know they belong to God. Just not the small and petty God we sometimes preach who is less merciful and forgiving than even WE are (as a lowly humans). They are spot on when they ask “What kind of God is that?”
Are we, the ones still here at mass each week, truly living out our discipleship? Do we believe and promote the lavish God who loves without boundary or breaking point? Who Jesus preached so passionately with his words and actions during his earthly life? Do we faithfully “follow Jesus” in courageously, but lovingly, speaking truth to our leadership? How is our daily discipleship a witness to our children of the life-giving, transforming love and mercy of God?
We humans are mighty new on the scene of creation – perhaps too immature and epistemologically haughty to be making bold and absolute proclamations of any sort. Perhaps the church might not be listening very well to God’s ongoing revelation at the moment. Even at the most local level of leadership, (the presbyterial council) not one lay person or women is invited to share their experience of God. That’s a huge loss for the collective wisdom of the Body of Christ, no? Maybe God just needs a new public relations team?
Instead of asking what’s wrong with our kids and those not returning to church, maybe we need to take a good, hard look at our own discipleship? Isn’t the onus is on us, as the church? Aren’t we the ones being ineffective? Are we really witnessing to our children (and the world) the “convincing” Christianity they are seeking and hungry for? I don’t know.
However, I do know that Jesus told the thief hanging beside him on the day of his crucifixion, a criminal who knew his sinfulness yet made no formal statement of repentance, that he would be with him in paradise. So, I suspect my daughters are going to make the cut. I think we’re all going to be okay.