How one Denver parish is making disciples

Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish trains parishioners to be disciples of Christ

Aaron Lambert

It was one of Christ’s chief commands to his apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” (Mt 28:19). Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has lost its way in some regards when it comes to living out this call.

Father James Spahn, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn, has decided to do something about it. Disciple Maker training is an eight-week program designed to help Catholics in the pews more fully live out the call of discipleship that Christ commissioned. With this program and others, he is attempting to build a culture of discipleship at his parish, among both the staff and his parishioners.

Mica Brougham, 39, is a one such parishioner at the parish who has gone through both of the Disciple Maker training sessions the parish has held thus far. It was a personal invitation someone gave her at the right time that spurred her to go, she said – discipleship in action.

A parishioner of six years at IHM, the program has helped her to see what she can do as an individual to help her impact the Church as a whole.

“I felt like it made you think about what you could do at an individual level, instead of always thinking what the greater Church could do or what the priest could be doing,” she said. “It’s opening up doors to think of ways that you can really step into peoples’ lives.”

Her husband, Joe, went through the second session with her, and they’ve discerned that they’d like to try and be mentors to other married couples. Brougham has also started a classical learning group with other families from Frassati Catholic Academy, where she will be sending two of her four kids starting in the Fall, and has brought lectio divina (the prayerful reading of scripture) to that group, which she learned from the Disciple Maker program.

The seed for the program was planted when Father Spahn was a pastor at Our Lady of the Valley in Windsor and St. Mary in Ault. He was part of a ministerial alliance with other ecumenical leaders from around the area that would meet occasionally to discuss how to get more people to Church. However, six years ago, he had a paradigm shift – one that he thinks came from the Holy Spirit.

“I began to really feel in my heart a conviction that before we can look outside and get [more] people to come in, we need to look at the people that are coming in the pews. I began to see more and more that even the people in my pews needed [to be evangelized],” Father Spahn said. “The people in my pews didn’t know how to pray. The people in my pews didn’t know Jesus.”

The reason for this is, in part, a failure on the Catholic Church’s part, he said. Too much focus on doctrine and dogma has mixed up the sequence in which authentic discipleship should happen.

“In some ways, for decades, I think the Church has kind of failed because we focus so much on dogma, doctrine and Church teaching – which is important – but that comes secondarily in my opinion,” he explained. “I’ve come to see that first, people need to know who Jesus is.”

The result of this failure? Lots of “cafeteria Catholics,” or those Catholics who pick and choose which Church teachings to follow.

“Why would they listen to the Church if they don’t even understand what the Church is or what the role of the Church is?” Father Spahn said. “They don’t understand that the Church is Christ Jesus – there is no distinction between Jesus and the Church.”

Around the time he was assigned to Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), Father Spahn had just finished reading Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell. The book confirmed what he learned about people in the pews not knowing how to have a relationship with Christ, he said. He, along with other pastors of the archdiocese, also attended the Amazing Parish Conference that year, which served as the catalyst for starting discipleship programs at IHM.

Father Spahn “deliberately handpicked a group of people who had experience in ministry” and appointed them to be part of a special committee at his parish that focused solely on ministry and evangelization efforts. After meeting with them on a regular basis and discussing ways in which the parish could better reach people in the pews, they came up with the concept for Disciple Maker training.

“We wanted to hand pick the people in our parish who we saw that kind of already ‘got it,’ that already had a relationship with Jesus, but wanted to help them get to that next level,” Father Spahn explained.

The goal of Disciple Maker training is to equip those in the program with the necessary tools to be mentors and build relationships with others – just as Jesus did with his apostles. The program teaches various practical skills such as how to engage with others, how to be hospitable and how to pray using lectio divina. Ultimately, however, it’s about making more disciples of Christ.

“It’s really about spiritual multiplication,” Father Spahn said. “It’s a snowball effect. Once you get this going, it feeds on itself.”

Andrew Barga, who has been a part of the evangelization committee at the parish since the beginning and teaches some of the Disciple Maker classes, has learned how to better utilize those moments in everyday life as an opportunity to share the good news of the Gospel, and he said the goal of the program is to help every Christian realize that evangelism is a crucial part of following Christ.

“We tried to help people realize that the essential call of the Church has an evangelistic nature,” Barga said. “We all have a part to play in that. Even though they might work at a food bank or teach at a school, they can still evangelize.“

In addition to disciple maker training, Father Spahn has introduced several other programs to help with evangelization at the parish. He hosts discipleship nights every Wednesday during the school year, has introduced the Alpha program to help reach people who have never had a relationship with Christ, and implemented Christ Renews His Parish retreats for men and women, which he said are setting people “on fire for the Lord.”

These programs make it easier for Father Spahn as a pastor to make a proper “diagnosis” of where people in the parish are at and where they need to be.

“You as pastors and parochial vicars and your deacons and your staff need to be trained and have eyes to see people to engage and find out where they’re at in their faith journey and then plug them into the right place,” he said. “It’s critical that you make a proper assessment.”

Featured image by Jordon Lebsock

COMING UP: Who is Jesus Christ?

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Who is Jesus Christ?

Alpha takes Christianity back to the basics

Aaron Lambert

As Catholics, it’s so easy to get caught up in the doctrine and dogma and theology of the Church that we often forget the fundamental question of Christianity: Who is Jesus Christ?

Alpha seeks to remedy this. The easiest way to describe Alpha would be to call it an evangelization tool, but as its proponents will say, it’s much more than that. Aimed primarily at people who have no experience with Christianity or the Church, Alpha is an introduction to the Kerygma, a Greek word meaning “teaching” and used to describe the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, upon which the Christian faith and all of its tenets are founded.denv

Originally started in the Anglican church, Alpha is designed to be used across all Christian denominations. The program is currently used in several parishes in the Archdiocese of Denver, including St. Joseph’s Parish in Golden, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver. The program is endorsed by the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries as one of three programs for parishes to utilize for evangelization efforts.

Alpha serves as a great starting point for those exploring the Church and many parishes have opted to use it as a supplement to RCIA, which assumes that a person has already taken the first step toward being a Christian—namely, entering and actively pursuing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. While RCIA is intended more as a means of catechesis, Alpha is a simple introduction to the Christian faith that can spark deeper conversion, said Scott Elmer, director of evangelization and family life ministries. However, he noted that the two should not be dependent on one another.

“[Alpha] could help people to make a decision to give themselves to Christ and enter into RCIA, but it shouldn’t be bound by that,” he said.

St. Joseph’s Parish in Golden is currently conducting its second session of Alpha. Andrew McGown, director of faith formation for the parish, implemented the program last year, and some people enjoyed it so much the first time that they’re going through it again. 

“It’s a safe place to come and really informally get a taste of Christianity and build relationships, which are really at the heart of Alpha,” McGown told Denver Catholic.

A typical Alpha night starts off with a free meal, followed by a talk, done either live or in the form of a video, and is capped off with a small group discussion. The casual nature of the program is a big part of its allure, McGown said, and makes it easy to invite people to.

“It’s a totally different atmosphere than any other church program. The three proposition statements of Alpha are: no cost, no pressure and no follow-up,” McGown said. “It’s always free, we’re not going to pressure you into doing anything you don’t want to do, and we’re not going to track you down and guilt you into coming back. It’s safe to try.”

While the program is designed with non-Christians in mind, McGown stressed that practicing Christians should not write the program off as being too basic or below them.

“The great things about Alpha is it’s not so focused on non-Christians that that someone who is coming to Mass couldn’t benefit from it,” he said. “It’s a revisiting of the Kerygma, the most basic proclamation of the Gospel, and we all need that.”

Mid-way through the program, Alpha participants go on a day-long retreat that’s meant to be an introduction to the Holy Spirit. This experience is often very powerful for those in Alpha, and is the “crux of the whole Alpha model,” McGown said. “It’s a chance to pray and be prayed over … and really experience God in a profound and personal way.”

Brandon Young, director of communications for Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish and a Catholic convert of two years, had such an experience on this retreat when he was in Alpha. Young had always had a relationship with God throughout his life, but he had never stepped foot inside a church before entering Alpha. At the time, the program was used as Immaculate Heart of Mary’s RCIA program, and Young entered because he felt like God was calling him to “step it up.”

He couldn’t have predicted the impact Alpha would have on him.

“Still, to this day, the most intense, personal encounter [with Christ] I’ve ever had in my entire life was part of Alpha,” Young said. “When we did the retreat, I felt the Holy Spirit enter me and Jesus talk to me so clearly that I couldn’t keep it together. It was overwhelming.

“After they were done praying over me, I left and went to the sanctuary and just wept. My heart had felt something it had never felt before.”

As a convert, Young said he can be critical of some cradle Catholics who are catechized really well, “but don’t know how to have a one-on-one relationship with Christ.”

[Alpha], for the first time, just let me focus on that, without any external influences,” he said. “It’s not Christianity 101, but it’s, ‘Who is Jesus, and how can I have a loving relationship with him?’ If we’re all called to be disciples, we need to understand Jesus.”

To learn more about Alpha, visit alpha.org. A new Alpha program starts at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish May 1.