Process not Programmes
Five or so years ago, my approach to adult faith formation was all centred around the programme. I remember offering the Catholicism programme, shortly followed by a school of prayer, shortly followed by a school of faith. We’d get halfway through one, and then start to think about what our next programme was going to be.
You soon realise that, on the whole, the same people are taking up these opportunities. Out of 1000 people going to Mass every week, around 100 of them would at one time attend a programme.
There are a few mantras we are using in our approach to evangelisation and discipleship in the parish. One of them is: process not programmes.
This is something that hit us strongly at the Divine Renovation conference last June. Fr James Mallon speaks about how our typical approach to formation in the Church has been fixed and terminal, instead of intermittent and ongoing. In other words, for certain moments in life, e.g. preparing for a sacrament, we have a course of preparation, but that ends, and there is no ongoing process for discipleship. In my parish five years ago, we offered adult formation programmes, but with no overall vision for what we wanted them to achieve, or who we wanted to reach.
Now, we have a much clearer vision for reaching the whole parish. We are using Alpha as our central approach to evangelisation. Our longer term plan is to introduce Connect Groups (mid-size communities of 20-25 that meet fortnightly for food, worship, teaching, discussion and prayer). We know from the experience of St Benedict’s Parish in Halifax that these will require some momentum as well as well-formed leaders. At the moment, we envisage the starting point for Connect Groups as around 2-3 years away. (To hear a truly brilliant intro to Connect Groups from Fr James Mallon and Ron Huntley, see the Divine Renovation podcast here).
In the meantime, our plan is two-pronged, and it is all about building momentum and desire for community and formation. For most people, this involves discipleship groups. We are offering five levels building towards missionary discipleship. Mostly, small groups from Alpha stay the same, and we offer a new level each term. In other words, the groups are not permanent. They cover a certain discipleship topic for a length of time. But the expectation is that you keep moving forward, that you participate in a discipleship group of the next level when you are able to sign up for one.
The other half of the coin is the formation of leaders. To establish fruit-bearing Connect Groups, we know we need to invest in people in whom we can spot desirable attributes for future leaders (we use the FACT acronym: faithful, available, contagious, teachable). We have created a list of the skills and knowledge we want to nourish in these people, and we see them as our parish’s future disciple-makers. Our plan is to form a connect group with these people, building them up until we are ready to form a second one, with a new leadership team of four leaders.
I have to say… this approach is miles away from our programme-centred approach of five or so years ago. It has goals; its focus on discipleship is much sharper; it is oriented towards forming the disciple-makers of the future.