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How one Denver parish is making disciples

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

Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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