Forming adult disciples in the faith: traveling the road to improvement

In his book “A Church on the Move,” Joe Paprocki offers a variety of suggestions on how to form adult disciples in faith.

Most of his observations will be familiar to anyone who works in adult faith formation, and many of his suggestions will be ones which parishes are trying to implement with varying degrees of success or failure.

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I think Paprocki is right that one of the challenges is that we haven’t learned to treat adults as adults.

“When [adults] come to church … we condescendingly invite them into a passive mode while one of the ‘experts’ on the parish staff or a guest speaker pontificates over the proceedings,” Paprocki writes.

“The overall dynamic is one of a ‘sage on the stage’ delivering content to passive pupils in the audience.”

“Guilty as charged!” I thought as I looked back on years of often futile efforts in adult faith formation (Although, to be honest, I once attended a workshop with Joe where he was very much the “sage on the stage,” with a very professional PowerPoint and all.).

I’m guessing that there are a variety of reasons for this failure, one being that as a church we haven’t been about this business of intentional adult faith formation very long.

Over the years we invested a lot of time, energy and resources in the formation of children and youth, and, truth be told, we were pretty good at it. When we realized that we needed to spend more time, energy and attention on adults we mistakenly assumed that we could pretty much do the same thing with adults that we were doing with children.

We forgot that adults are different from children and youth; they are older, better educated, more experienced, more thoughtful, more independent and much busier – “harder to control and harder to fool,” a colleague once remarked. On the whole, more challenging and, to be honest, more intimidating.

Many years ago, a seminary professor warned us: “Don’t underestimate adults,” by which he meant, I think, that adults are smarter than we think (or just as smart as we fear).

Early on in meetings with adults, I learned to preface the discussion with a disclaimer acknowledging that they might not learn anything they didn’t already know but hoping they would remember, understand or appreciate what they knew a little better. Often enough, at least the first part turned out to be true.

The point is, I agree with Paprocki that we need to improve the way we form adult disciples in the church, and I hope to continue the discussion next week.

But I think we should begin with the assumption that adult Catholics know more than we think they know.

What do you think?

 Pray and Reflect

Use one or more of the following questions for personal reflection, group discussion or private journaling:

  • On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) rate how well you think the church does at treating adults as adults. How would you have rated this five years ago?
  • Can you think of an occasion when you felt treated like an adult in the church? Can you remember a time when you felt like you were being treated as a child? Do you agree that adult Catholics know more about their faith than is generally assumed? Why do you think more adults don’t participate in faith formtion opportunities at their parish?
  • I think the key to forming adult disciples is ….

 Join the Conversation

Add your comments to this week’s discussion at facebook.com/FaithLeaders­Corner/.

Dave Cushing is director of adult faith formation for the Catholic parishes in Waterloo. The Disciple’s Corner is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Office of Faith Formation and Education and is funded through the Archdiocesan Educational Development Board. It is designed to help catechists, teachers, parents, grandparents, guardians and other adults grow in their appreciation of their role as disciples of Jesus Christ.

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