The theme that has been bombarding me lately is “personal relationship with Jesus”. My wife and I had long been aware that one can attend a Catholic parish for years – or, from what I gather, any liturgical denomination, and even some evangelical Protestant denominations – without entering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or even knowing that such a relationship is possible. Reading Sherry Weddell’s book, Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor Press), confirmed our observations and gave some alarming statistics from the Pew Research Foundation to support them.
These stats were reiterated at a recent Catholic men’s conference here in Omaha. One of the presenters (Curtis Martin, founder of the FOCUS missionaries and an EXCELLENT speaker) noted that we have about 100 million Catholics in the U.S.; of these, 30 million attend church occasionally (the others don’t at all). Of the 30 million, a fraction (10 million?) attend church most Sundays. Of these, about 5 million regularly contribute to their parish financially and through active participation in ministries and apostolates. Of these, probably 1 million are “intentional disciples”: that is, they have entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and actively submit to His leading and lordship. So, about 1% of self-identified Catholics have a relationship with Jesus Christ. I would imagine the numbers are no better in the other liturgical denominations.
Sherry Weddell was surprised (my wife and I weren’t!) to discover that many priests and others in long-term ministry in the Church do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. She discovered this through her in-depth interviews with them in attempt to discern their spiritual gifts. As she realized the gravity of the situation – for example, of adults formally entering the Church through RCIA, only 30% are still attending Mass within two years of being welcomed into the Church – she realized that something had to be done: hence, Forming Intentional Disciples and the program she developed out of that.
Matthew Kelly’s The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic addresses the same problem, though perhaps not as directly. He frames it in terms of the 4-7% of Catholics who are “actively engaged” in their Catholic Christian faith. Different terms, same idea. Both he and Weddell note the tremendous need for Catholics to become, first, comfortable with evangelization; then, proficient at it and enthusiastic about it.
Curtis Martin of FOCUS pointed out at the Omaha men’s conference that we don’t need more programs as such to learn how to evangelize: we need more people who have met Jesus and can’t wait to tell others about Him. He used the analogy: if you just went to a restaurant in your town that had phenomenal food, stellar service, impeccable atmosphere, and reasonable prices, would you need a workshop or a book to instruct you how to tell your friends about it? Similarly, if we’ve truly experienced how AMAZING and LIFE-CHANGING Jesus is, how can we possibly keep it in?
Movingly, Martin recalled how, having read the parable of the treasure in the field (Mt 13:44), he suddenly realized that the man sold all he had to obtain the field and its treasure – with joy. In St. Paul’s words, he had “come to rate all as loss, as so much garbage, in the light of the surpassing knowledge of [his] Lord, Jesus Christ” (Philip 3:7-11). Martin compared it to the joy of marrying his wife – “I realized that, if she doesn’t back out in the next two minutes (of the ceremony), I’m really marrying UP! I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh darn, this’ll mean less time for golf; more chores; less space to stretch out in my bed.'” If it’s truly Jesus Christ you’ve come into a relationship with, you’ll know it’s worth whatever it costs: you have gotten by far the better end of the deal!
I have come to realize that many Catholics, many Christians, many people are consciously hungering for that relationship, but they do not know how to enter it. My wife and I have talked about how we can’t make any assumptions in this area: the dots have to be connected very clearly and very simply. For example, in our parish, the previous pastor, the present pastor, and the associate pastor all have spoken openly and beautifully about their relationship with Jesus Christ. Yet I would bet that a surprising number of people, even among the very active in the parish, do not have that relationship because no one has explicitly shown them how to enter it. I gave a couple of teachings at a parish men’s group recently, geared toward leading the men into that relationship. As I’d suspected, several of them indicated their desire for just that, along with their uncertainty as to how to enter it.
For those of us who have that relationship, then, our mission is to bring others to relationship with Jesus: specifically, simply, assuming nothing. For those of us who don’t, my next post will address how to enter that relationship.