Among the many great books that were published during the Year of Faith in 2012-2013 was Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. The book is meant to clarify an important distinction between being “Catholic” and being a “disciple.” It begins with the statistics about participation in the Catholic Church today that confirm what many of us see and experience in our parishes. Then the book introduces process of disciple-making that focuses on the progression through thresholds of conversion:
- Initial Trust
- Spiritual Curiosity
- Spiritual Openness
- Spiritual Seeking
- Intentional Disciples
Although I read the book months ago, it hasn’t really been until now that I’ve given much thought to applying her book to the way we form disciples at various stages of childhood development.
I won’t claim to speak for the author and I may be highly misinterpreting or oversimplifying her thoughts on evangelization and catechesis. My hope with this short post is to lay out how I have seen signs of young, intentional disciples in my experience as a parent, teacher, and catechist.
My own children are pre-school age and younger and I have taught at every grade level from second grade to middle school and to high school. That doesn’t make me an expert, but I hope you will benefit from this perspective in the way you form the young disciples in your care.
I think you could make an argument that my observations below place children at various thresholds on the way to intentional discipleship, but not yet as intentional disciples. I’m open to that and welcome feedback from those who are deeper into the book that I am.
What is an “Intentional Disciple”?
First things first, what is an “intentional disciple”?
Weddell’s thesis, if I understand it correctly, is that while we have many baptized Catholics (both practicing and non-practicing), there is a key distinction between being “Catholic” and being a “disciple.” A disciple must consciously commit to following Jesus Christ. In other words, to be a disciple, you must be an intentional disciple.
“Discipleship is never unconscious,” Weddell writes (Kindle version, loc. 936).
So in the examination below, I will do my best to create a distinction between what child disciples might look like compared to children who are not intentional disciples.
The key distinction from what I understand in Weddell’s book and have seen in my own experience is whether or not someone conceives of God as a person with whom they can have a relationship and whether he or she consciously chooses to commit to that relationship.
Intentional disciples, as Weddell points out, “drop their nets” like Peter and make the decision to dedicate their life to following Christ.
Although young people at various stages of childhood development may not make life-long decisions to be a disciple of Christ, I do believe it is worthwhile to examine how they might envision God as a personal or impersonal being through various stages of growth and recognize that a relationship with him is not only possible, but taken for granted.
What Young Intentional Disciples Look Like at Various Ages
I think this needs much more thought and study. This is only based on my own experience working with each age level. For a more detailed and quantitative study of faith at various levels of childhood development, check out Dr. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith.
Infancy to Pre-school
We all know the story, but the lesson is essential to understanding discipleship at young ages particularly pre-school:
People brought infants to Jesus and the disciples rebuked them. Jesus fired back at his disciples telling them that, in fact, the kingdom of God belongs to those who accept the kingdom like a child.
My own kids are pre-school age and younger. They are all baptized, go to mass regularly, and pray daily (with the help of their parents of course), but are they disciples?
When my wife and I talk to our children about God (once they are able to talk), they do not question his existence. They have no doubt that he is indeed a “he” with whom we can talk. Just a few weeks ago, I had the following exchange with my four year old daughter:
Daughter: Dad, why do we have to pray to God all the time?
Me: Well, in my experience I just can’t do anything without God’s help. Why do you pray to God?
Daughter: [Pause] Because I want him to watch over me.
Me: That’s a very good reason.
Then I had another exchange with my very literal-minded two year old who kept asking me during Mass, “Where’s Jesus?” To try to quiet her down during the homily and later during the Eucharistic Prayer I kept pointing to the crucifix above the alter, which was nowhere near an acceptable answer to her.
“No,” she said looking around the church, “Where is Jesus?”
Of course, pointing to the bread and wine just didn’t get the point across either.
What does this suggest about their level of discipleship?
I can’t say we’re perfect parents by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe we’ve done a good job so far witnessing to our personal faith in God to our kids. Why? Because they view God as a reality with whom they can come to know and have a relationship.
When we pray, they know we are talking to someone not just saying fancy words to ourselves. When we go to church, we go to see Jesus.
The key to forming intentional disciples at this stage is to constantly refer to God as a someone rather than a something. Prayer, mass, and children’s catechesis are all related to a person not just things we do or stories we tell. Christ has to be the center and purpose of everything we do.
Signs of an Intentional Disciple:
- Refer to God as a person
- Expect to see Jesus like they see other people
- Ask God to watch over friends and family
Elementary School Children
Between the ages of five and ten children have incredible imaginations. Still at these ages the idea of God as person with whom we can have a relationship is easy to grasp. At the “age of reason,” young people are able to at least accept (even if they don’t understand) that when they eat the bread and drink the wine at Mass, they receive a God with whom they can have a relationship.
At this stage of development, children still play imaginary games. They pretend. They have imaginary friends and make swords to fight dragons and set tables for tea parties. They are dreamers and they ask questions constantly.
One key, I have noticed, is to cultivate questions about “who” rather than “what.” If the students are asking questions about the “who” of Jesus Christ and relating the “what” of our beliefs and spiritual practices to our relationship with him, then we are heading in the right direction.
Signs of an Intentional Disciple:
- Sincere desire to receive their first communion
- Ask questions about what God and Jesus are like
Middle School and Junior High Children
At some point prior to junior high school, children stop playing pretend. Things become very black and white, good and bad, cool and uncool, real or not real.
Among the many challenges to forming intentional disciples at this stage is making sure God doesn’t get put into the “not real” category along with realizations about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It is critical that young people at this age “believe in” God in a different way than we all might “believe in” the spirit of Santa or the Easter Bunny. In other words, it is during this time that we have to pray that young people will maintain a belief in God’s reality and purse a relationship with him.
Pre-teens and teens want to desperately to be an adult, but they can be easily be misled as to what that ideals should be. At this age, it is critical for them to have role models who have personal relationships with Christ so they can come to understand what being an intentional disciple is really like.
Signs of an Intentional Disciple:
- Relate moral decisions to a relationship with God
- Participate in faith even when it isn’t “cool”
- Look up to and respect teens and adults who are intentional disciples
This is a critical time in a person’s faith development. As young people approach adulthood, they start to develop meaningful relationships with other people. At the same time, they have developed the capability of entering into a mature, personal relationship with Christ.
During the teenage years, young people rely highly on the development of their logical thinking. They start to defy their parents because they can logically think their way around rules and habits, which often creates a divide between them. That same divide often occurs between teens and God. It is so easy for teens to use their logic to defy God’s existence (using short-term, observable events) that developing a relationship with him doesn’t make sense to them. In fact, to many teens, all spiritual practices start to seem empty because they use only their heads and not their hearts.
At the same time, teenagers are suffering. At this age, they feel what may be the height of our human disconnect and divide from other people. Almost all teenagers compensate for this divide by trying to fit in and create an identity for themselves that will protect them from getting hurt. When young people take refuge in God and base their identity on him, they find healing. From that source of healing and strength, a foundation can be set for lifelong discipleship.
Signs of Intentional Discipleship
- Mature, authentic relationship with Jesus Christ
- Belief in Jesus Christ amid a struggle to logically believe God is real
- Sincere interest in learning without a claim to know it all
How to Form Children and Teens as Intentional Disciples
How do you form disciples at young ages? Here are some basic principles that I have found to be helpful at all levels of religious education and youth ministry. Keep in mind, they are only principles. The details of your situation and the age group of your students are very important.
- Disciples make disciples. Are you an intentional disciple? There is no amount of training, formation, or education that can replace the impact your own relationship with Christ can have on the young people you serve. Before anything else, focus on your own relationship with Christ as his disciple.
- Share faith in God, not abstract truths. Our job as religious educators is to pass on the faith in a person, not teach a series of abstract truths. Every lesson we teach needs to relate back to our relationships with God and with each other. Every Church teaching has to have a foundation in that relationship otherwise we’re just expecting young people to accept things with their heads and not their hearts.
- Ask about their relationship with God. Whenever you have the chance, ask young people about their relationship with Christ. If you don’t ask, will anyone else? In FID, the key question in what Weddell calls a “threshold conversation” is “Could you briefly describe for me your relationship with God to this point in your life?” It wouldn’t hurt to ask your students this question no matter how old they are.
- Read the Bible. We encounter the living God when we read the Bible especially when we practice Lectio Divina. Make sure the Bible isn’t just a book of stories used to analyze abstract truths and lessons. Introduce the Bible as an opportunity to encounter the Word of God.
- Share the sacraments. Celebrate the sacraments as a real encounter with Christ. Participate in eucharistic adoration as well.
- Pray for them. We can never pray for our students enough. They need our prayers. They need the help because you and I both know how hard it is to stay on that journey of discipleship when we’re young and some young people have it harder than others. Pray for them as often as possible.