Saturday, August 11, 2007

On-Fire Protestant or Lukewarm Catholic?

The Need for an Adult Sunday School in Every Parish.

A Proposal and a Request for Best Practices.

In very recent months I have come face-to-face in conversation with regular attenders at Mass who have proclaimed to me:

  • Jesus isn't God, Buddha is just as good.
  • I don't pray with my kids because they aren't into that.
  • It doesn't matter that I'm living with a man who isn't a Catholic (and who isn't my husband), I'm a good Catholic and I go to Mass every week.
  • Suicide is not the result of a lack of faith, but insanity.
  • I'm all alone, and I have no one to help me.
  • I don't know anyone at Church.
  • Wearing occult jewelry and partaking of Holy Communion is not a contradiction.
  • I can't expect our priest to visit my son in the hospital.
I'm 60-years old now. When I was a kid, in the 50s, I hung around with Catholic friends in my neighborhood, and got to know their parents who went to Mass every week. These were not people that I would have thought were Christians. (Sorry if I come off as judgemental here; I don't mean to suggest I know if these people were going to heaven or hell. But by their language, topics of coversation, and lack of personal witness of any Christian faith -- there was certainly plenty of information to evalutate that Christ and Christianity was not central to their lives.)

Today, I know people that go to Mass that are likewise faith-challenged or are holding out for a god of their own choosing—the new atheism, e.g. "I believe in God, and he's just like me" (Dr. Ray Guarendi). I know many that are great and holy Christians. But too many, I conclude, have no clue what their faith means or how to appropriate it for their everyday needs. They worry, but prayer to God is not the first thing that comes to mind. To many Catholics, God is as distant as FEMA appeared to be to the victims of Katrina....a long way off, disinterested, incapable, and under funded.

Our bishops know the problem, however -- at least those that had something to do with drafting USCCB's statement Our Hearts Are Burning Within Us. The first section of this statement is titled, "A Renewed Commitment to Adult Faith Formation." The third & fourth paragraph, in part, read:
To grow in discipleship throughout life, all believers need and are called to build vibrant parish and diocesan communities of faith and service. Such communities CANNOT exist without a strong, complete, and systematic catechesis for all its members. By "complete and systematic" we mean a catechesis that nurtures a profound, lifelong conversion of the whole person and sets forth a comprehensive, contemporary synthesis of the faith...[that] will help ADULTS to experience the transforming power of grace and grasp the integrity and beauty of the truths of faith... Adult faith formation, by which people consciously grow in the life of Christ through experience, reflection, prayer, and study, MUST be "THE CENTRAL TASK in [this] catechetical enterprise, becoming THE AXIS around which revolves the catechesis of childhood and adolescence as well as that of old age. (some emphasis added, some are the bishops)
The bishops go on to pledge their commitment to make this vision a reality. Coming from Evangelicalism, the descriptions in this statement sure sound like adult Sunday School.

In the DVD program Common Ground: What Protestants and Catholics Can Learn From Each Other, in response to Evangelical pastor Steve Andrews' questions about what Catholics can learn from Evangelicals, Father John Riccardo says this:
To many Catholics, their faith is like a book on a bookself that they pick up only on Sundays. But to an Evangelical their faith is the WHOLE bookcase.
As an Evangelical for the first 50 years of my life, I learned that it was important to make Christ and my faith the bookshelf of my life -- or at least try hard to reach that goal. When I had a problem of any kind, I was imbued, automatically, to turn to God for help...and then turn to other Christians in my life—my pastor, my Sunday School teacher, my friends, my prayer partners, my deacon. When I was a youth pastor, it was a normal part of my life to get calls from those under my care asking for help with everything from a flat tire to sexual temptation.

One of our adult daughters goes to an active and generally well-run Evangelical Church where they just assigned new deacons and deaconesses. Their job is to be ready to help those in the church assigned to them in any and every way possible. Phone numbers are exchanged, prayer chains established, small prayer meetings gather weekly. Bible studies are held weekly as well. And it should be noted that the entire congregation is continually encouraged to join and attend these weekday small groups, AND regularly attend a Sunday School class for adults.
In such an environment you grow up knowing that your first line of defense in any and every kind of problem is your Christian leaders and friends, e.g. God.

The central technique that Evangelicalism uses to create this culture is Sunday School, which is not just for kids, but for adults of all ages and interests. Evangelical Sunday School is an EVERY week event for the REST OF YOUR LIFE. It becomes the single most important event of your week, next to worship, that strengthens your spiritual commitment. The classes are organized around interests such as business, evangelization, parenting, singles, music and so on. This week in The Michigan Catholic, Sr. Janet Schaeffler, OP, the archdiocean associate director for adult faith formation lists over 100 topics that could serve around which to structure Sunday School and other faith formation classes. Regardless of the topics, however, the center is always the faith and how we can make Christ the center of our life and at the heart of ever decision. The idea behind Sunday Scool or any faith formation activity is not just head knowledge, but heart and soul application.

Evangelical Sunday School provides a comprehensive focus to the concept of faith community. In preparing for this article, I came across a website that answers the question: How to Start a Sunday School. I recommend it to our Catholic bishops, priests, and DREs. This page from the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptism Convention provides a good addendum to the bishops' published vision. This short but comprehensive page explains the purpose and elements of a successful Sunday School program around nine building blocks: Explore, Examine, Engage, Educate, Enlarge, Enlist, Encourage, Embark, and Evaluate.

In my experience, my Sunday School classes (from childhood through my adult years) became the center of my Christian community in which I operated. Many Catholic parishes are too large to establish support communities without activities outside of Mass. Most parishes have many such groups. But there is only one kind of group that directly affects the spiritual growth (in knowledge and faith and service) all at the same time... and that is a group that operates like a Sunday School class.


When I first started to suggest a Sunday School program that ran in the educational center of the church at the same time as Mass, I was told that it would be inappropriate because people might go to Sunday School instead of Mass, and that would be a sin.

Hello, folks, let's not be ignorant about this. First, Catholicism isn't an either/or religion, it's an "and/both." Platooning Mass and Sunday School is a natural . EVERYONE goes to BOTH, EVERY WEEK. Second, if someone goes to Mass, but would rather be somewhere else, well, they need to go to confession just as if they weren't in Mass at all. ALL of Catholic doctrine, especially dealing with the sacraments, requires the right disposition of heart or the sacraments have no effect. Better that a person skip Mass and go to Sunday School, if while they're IN Sunday School they learn the reason for attending Mass. Every bishop and priest knows that there are far too many people attending Mass that believe that attending it physically, but wishing mentally they didn't have to, is of absolutely no spiritual good. Maybe some spiritual good may come out of belligerent attendance, but such individuals might as well go practice their faith on the golf course.

A Catholic customer told me last week that when their children became teenagers, they stopped going to the Catholic Church because it was robbing their children of the enthusiasm for the faith. You can blame these parents all you want for not knowing how to inculcate a passion for Catholicism at home, but when the priest only allows one verse of the recessional hymn because he's trying to keep Mass short so people will not leave too soon for the beach...something else is wrong. Their parish was one that gets significant operating revenue from Bingo. If this was my parish, and another Catholic Church wasn't close at hand, I'd take my teens to the local Evangelical church if it had an alive youth group that would get my kids excited about Christianity. It may be far better that our kids be on fire for Christ and their faith vigorus while attending a Protestant faith community, than lukewarm about Christ while half-heartedly attending Mass at a Catholic Church. Christ has warned those that are lukewarm that he will spit them out of his mouth.

As Thomas Howard wrote, "Catholic is not Enough" and I will declare that "Mass is Not Enough." The Eucharist may be the center and summit of our faith, but that statement assumes that there is enough faith to understand the importance of The Eucharist. When the faith is lukewarm, or cold, The Eucharist, miraculous as it is, is of little consequence. In fact, if you don't believe the dogmas of the faith and practice them, the Church advises you to not take The Eucharist, as does the Bible for fear of illness. That is why Protestants that attend Mass are asked not to take communion with the rest of the community.

Our bishops know that the faith of too many Catholics is lukewarm. In paragraph 35 of "Our Hearts Are Burning..." they state:
Many Catholics seem "lukewarm" in faith (cf Rev 3:14ff). And as surprising as that statement may be to some, it is nearly an equivocation. Notice the couching and politically correctness of how it is worded. Al Kresta told me he read a book when he came back into the Church about how bishops are chosen -- they can't be confrontational. This statement from paragraph 35 underscores Al's discovery. The truth that our bishops understand, but that they were afraid to confront in plain language could probably be stated this way: "Too many Catholics are lukewarm in their faith and Christ has promised to spit them out of his mouth. We gotta do something about that." (cf. Rev. 3:14ff)" Let's get with the program, or Christ is going to spit all of us out of his mouth.

I propose that every parish start an adult Sunday School program... with all volunteers from the parish... and around that Sunday School program build up the passion for the Church so that not only will Christ embrace us, but we will attract those in our world, neighborhoods and communities that need what only Christ can offer — salvation... for now and for eternity.

At my company, Nineveh's Crossing, we may soon start a multi-year project that will collect and publish annually, the best practices in any Christian community for imbuing a vibrant, passionate, and practical faith. We will be particularly attentive to successful techniques found in Evangelicalism. But we will also include Catholic devotions, with suggestions of how to make the practices produce spiritual fruit and a passion for the faith.

Please send this article to others and ask them to send their observations of best practices and case study descriptions to me. I will give each credit for their contributions. With your observations please send contact information of the church or locale that is implementing the best practices that you share.

If you know of a Catholic Church that actually has a Sunday School program up and running, please tell me who it is. Send information to me at The project needs a name, as well.

To God Be The Glory. We have a duty to present the Church to Christ as His Bride, spotless. We have a way to go.

Stan Williams


  1. As a fairly conservative Catholic revert, I admit to wincing a bit when I read "Mass is not Enough". But, my own 19yo ds has left the Church for a small Christian community for reasons you state. The priest at our parish is very in love with Jesus, but the parishioners are very reticent and unresponsive.

    I think a small, vibrant faith community would have possibly kept my son in the Church.

    I do pray for his eventual return.

  2. Dear 4HisChurch:

    And I winced when I wrote it...deleting the phrase and then returning to it. I pray for all of our Catholic parishes to be vibrant faith communities, and I pray that your son may be a leader in that return of the people to the good, true, beautiful and perfect Mass. In the meantime, pray for his spiritual growth and understanding of Christianity. In so doing outside the Church, he can become excited about Christ, and then return to THE Church with that enthusiasm to pass on to others.

  3. I think the key is the layity. Sunday school would be a good way for us to experience each others faith. Grab a Catechism, a Bible and a pot of coffee. Pick one of those topics and get going. Our religious have far to long carried the church. Todays layity is smart enough and there is a lot of information out there to keep us on track. We've all heard St. Francis'quote, "Preach the gospel if you have to use words". Our children are leaving the faith (not only Catholics by the way) because they don't see a vibrant faith in their parents.
    PS Sunday school only works if it spills over into the rest of our lives.

  4. Thank you, Stan! Its nice to hear someone who understands the dilema that so many of us face with relatives who leave the Church.

    I know a very devout woman who told me once, "I don't worry so much about those who leave the faith for other Christian communities. They'll be back. I worry about those who leave the faith for new age and eastern religions."

    But, I think our job is to give these potential reverts something to come back *to*.

  5. As an alternative or in addition to Adult Sunday School, I would suggest that at the Archdiocese level with letters and schedules a Catholic Education Unit formation. The Catholic education would be announced from the parish pulpits of 2-3 hour sessions repeated throught the year. I would be interested in presentations such as Sacred Scripture, Early Church Fathers,Catholic Devotions,Phenomenal Saints such as St. Maximilian Kolbe. Topics on how to deal with anti-catholicism from government &media. I would attend a viiewing of Silent Scream or Bella. The diocese would have to continously need to promote it even employing old fashion Catholic guilt if necessary.

  6. As a recent convert from Evangelicalism, I am both amazed and disheartened by the lack of knowledge of many Catholics about the richness of their faith. I was talking to several cradle Catholics at work who knew nothing about incorruption or veneration of relics.

    I, personally believe that Catechism is stopped way too early, and that your idea is wonderful!

    Count me in!!

  7. I believe one of the best frameworks for bringing the faith alive in lukewarm, nominal, and mature Catholics is the powerful booklet, “A Vision for Ministry,” by Rich Cleveland. The booklet describes the three stages of spiritual growth necessary for a vibrant Catholic faith: Conversion, Transformation, and Mobilization. Conversion results in committed followers of Jesus Christ;Transformation develops growing, serving, faith-filled Catholics; Mobilization activates laborers for Evangelization.

    Whether it is in Sunday school, RCIA, CCD, or other faith formation ministries, every Catholic man and women should be offered the opportunity to experience conversion, transformation, and mobilization for mission. I recommend that all Catholic men and women involved in religious formation programs read and study this excellent booklet together. The booklet can be purchased on the National Fellowship of Catholic Men website at

    Maurice Blumberg
    Executive Director
    National Fellowship of Catholic Men

  8. Excellent idea. I conduct a Sunday School session at my Parish. I tell people I am trying to start a new Tradition in the Catholic Church: Adult Sunday School... to which one of my regular attendees says: "but we don't act like adults...".
    It is a struggle: in a parish with weekend mass attendance of about 600 at 3 masses, I get 4 to 12 people, and this fall is my third year doing this. But hey its a start.
    We are showing the Common Ground video right now, in 4 sessions. The people love it! I go back and forth between apologetics topics (including DVDs), and looking at the Sunday readings.
    This must be lay led. DO NOT let the paid staff run it. I am amazed at how little support and encouragement I get from the paid staff (none). (Somehow the paid staff have to be trained to reach out and enable lay people to do more stuff. Too much turf protection. too much thinking inside the box, and too much un-willingness to doing the grunt work for which we normally pay people, I think.)
    However, my Pastor is enthusiastic, and attends much of the time.

  9. This is what we need. More and more Catholics who love and know their faith to step and do something. There are so many lay apostolates out there providing information and format. Catholics United for the Faith is another great organization providing support and resources. Those of us who study and read about our faith also need to get those books off our shelves and give them out!!! What good are they doing us on the shelf.

  10. I am in the RCIA program right now, anxiously receiving my sacraments on May 8th along with my two teenage sons. After 42 years as a Lutheran I am so excited about the truth that I have received about the Catholic Church. My experiences have been as you wrote concerning most (not all) cradle Catholics. In fact I would have been Catholic 20 years ago, had my husband understood his own faith enough to enlightened me, but as a result we actively raised our children Lutheran--until now!

    I have never EVER been to a church like the one our Lord led us to last year. We drive 20 minutes each way twice on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for great educational opportunties for our children and ourselves. Our Sunday morning is called Family Faith and after we drop our young daughter off at her classroom, all the parents gather for an hour of adult Sunday school called Family Faith where we learn to apply the gospel to our adult lives and parenting. Occasionally we have intergenerational activities where all classrooms are gathered together (children and adults) for learning experiences. Their RCIA program has been excellent too. The DRE is awesome hear and I'm sure she would be happy to share.
    The church is in Ft Myers, FL called St. Columbkille Catholic Church.