Avoiding Generic Discipleship

This is the third post in a series examining concerns and cautions about evangelization voiced by Fr. Francis P. DeSiano, CSP, President of the Paulist Evangelization Ministries.

Over the past few weeks, Fr. DeSiano has challenged us to ask some tough questions of ourselves and our ministries—an “Evangelist’s Examination of Conscience” of sorts. We’ve been called to honestly ask: Am I being directly or indirectly elitist? Do I think of myself as anything more than “one beggar telling another beggar where to find food?” and Do I turn “discipleship” into something other (i.e. a special club) than what the Church teaches? 

In the conclusion of his essay, Fr. DeSiano leads us to one of the most uncomfortable questions every evangelist must ask himself or herself—am I making judgments about others only out of love and when necessary for building relationships? Or am I being simply judgmental—condemning or putting down others? There can be quite a difference.

Judging itself is a loaded term with more than a few meanings. It can imply having a critical or negative opinion about something—for example, a person who has been misunderstood, replying, “don’t judge me!” or Pope Francis reflecting, “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”

In contrast, judgments can also be rendered fairly, rationally, and impartially based on available information. More neutrally, we might call this assessing or forming an estimation. I think this is the positive and necessary sense of judging that our Church speaks of in the methodology “observe, judge, act” (Pope John XIII, Mater et Magistra, §236).

Fr. DeSiano describes a framework for ministry where instead of “setting up criterion” and “judging” to determine where a person might be in their journey of faith, we “just presume an ideal and acknowledge that, inevitably, we all fall short of that ideal, even the most committed and active disciple.”

At first glance, this approach to evangelization seems very safe. We keep ourselves from even getting close to the temptation to sin by being judgmental.

But there’s a big problem—this approach is so cautious it can actually impede the spread of the Gospel by preventing us from having conversations about faith that are truly personal, truly relational.

Here’s how it can happen. Growing up in a Catholic parish, I was interested and open to following Jesus more explicitly, but I didn’t have the words to articulate it clearly. I was involved in the community—in music ministry, a family ministry, and altar serving, and had good friends of all ages in the parish. But there was never any direct conversation about my faith, encounters with Jesus Christ, or if I was explicitly trying to live as a disciple as the Church describes—or if I was even struggling or toying with the notion.

I was on the verge of discipleship. Yet, if everyone had played it “safe” and had not cared enough to lovingly assess my spiritual journey, I would have just drifted through to adulthood, under the presumption that I was a disciple with a lived relationship with God, producing all of the fruit God desired of me.

But this was not the case. I had not experienced that fundamental, life-changing decision that the Church speaks of. I needed someone to help me see my experiences through some objective characteristics (or “criteria”) of discipleship from the Christian tradition. I needed a person with the loving heart of an evangelist to come into my life—to quietly judge me, without being judgmental, and show me how to grow as a disciple.

As evangelists, we must cultivate a spirituality where we look for signs and acknowledge a person’s situation and spiritual journey out of love. Call it judging, assessing, or estimating a person’s spiritual state—but it really means getting to know a person as an individual, not just on a superficial level, and asking real questions about their life of faith. In short, we can’t “meet people where they’re at,” unless we observe and assess “where they’re at.”

Now, if our assessment turns from judging as a starting point to a judgmental attitude, or worse, the demonization or exclusion of others—then we’ve clearly gone astray. And let’s be real, this can happen. New and mature disciples alike, as Fr. DeSiano notes, need ongoing conversion in Christ. But the mere possibility of judgment turning sinful is not a good reason for the evangelist to shy away from estimating that a person is not a disciple or is in a very early stage of discipleship and reaching out accordingly.

Fr. DeSiano reminds us, “we need to call all Catholics to the fullness of discipleship…we can never let up on this.” Assessing where a person might be in his or her spiritual journey allows us to make that call personal and loving. The specific language, content, setting, and overall approach can and should be different for those in different stages of their faith journeys. Without making an initial judgment, our invitation becomes generic, impersonal, and certainly less effective.

Assessing without being judgmental is about objectively seeing all of the seeds God has planted—the latent seeds, the seeds that have grown into small plants, the medium sized plants in need of watering, and more—and responding appropriately. Not with a one-size-fits all approach, but with a call to discipleship that honors and respects where a person currently is, and has been in their spiritual journey. Making estimations, while praying constantly for protection against being judgmental is a tough, but necessary balance for every evangelist.

Copyright © 2013, Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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