If I had a dime for every email message I receive from former Catholics in a month, I might be able to afford a Grande Americano at Starbucks. Very often they disclose their reason for leaving the Catholic Church in favor of evangelical Protestantism. Among these factors, a friendly Bible study group is at the top of the list.
The movement is probably bigger than you realize. More than 10 million men and women in the United States were raised Catholic and now worship in an evangelical Protestant church. A great deal can be said about the dynamics surrounding the movement, but our concern here is to understand their point of entry. Here is what it often looks like.
Lauren Murphy grew up Catholic. Devout as a child, her family stopped attending Mass when she was in high school. By the time college orientation rolled around, Lauren’s Catholicism was in the rearview mirror. Life in her sorority was anything but Christian. Later she married Tom, whose Catholic commitment was analogous. But when she and Tom had their first child, the topic of “religion” suddenly entered the conversation.
Lauren first met Karen at a fitness club. Lauren mentioned that she and Tom had talked about possibly visiting church and were unsure about their local Catholic parish. Since they had both found the Mass boring, they were reluctant to return and force the experience upon their little one. Furthermore, having moved 800 miles from their Catholic family in Boston to Lansing, Michigan, they now enjoyed new freedom to explore other Christian traditions. Recognizing the evangelistic opportunity, Karen extended an invitation for Lauren to visit her women’s Bible study. On the strength of their relationship, Lauren accepted.
Pushing through some apprehension, Lauren showed up. Karen provided a Bible, and the other ladies extended warmth and kindness. Lauren went home dumbfounded. Never before had she experienced such community. The genuineness and vulnerability reflected in their prayers and seriousness toward studying Scripture seized her interest. That night, Lauren and Tom talked at length, and on Sunday morning they visited Karen’s church, where they have been worshiping for the last nine years.
Why Catholic Small Groups Are Uncommon
When I have the privilege of speaking at a church, I often enjoy chatting with folks after the session. In virtually every instance, someone (usually a lady) tells me about her Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) or Neighborhood Bible Study (NBS), which is now brimming with Catholics. After dozens of these conversations, I started to wonder why Catholics frequently join Protestant groups and not vice versa. In my humble opinion, the fundamental reason is the Catholic legacy of clericalism. Here is how Catholic journalist David Gibson accounts for it:
In a 1906 encyclical, Pius X said that the “one duty” of the laity “is to allow themselves to be led, and like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.” In 1907 the American hierarchy followed suit with a similar directive: “The Church is not a republic or a democracy, but a monarchy . . . all her authority is from above and rests in her Hierarchy. . . [While] the faithful of the laity have divinely given rights to receive all the blessed ministrations of the Church, they have absolutely no right whatever to rule and govern.”
It is not difficult to imagine how such a hierarchical model of church life would inadvertently undercut lay-led ministry. To be sure, Vatican II (1962-1965) initiated a trajectory of equipping Catholic laity for service, as evidenced in current movements such as the “New Evangelization” of Pope John Paul II, but old patterns die hard, especially when they have been reinforced through centuries. Interestingly, the most significant small group ministry among Catholics in America is the Alpha Course (an evangelical Anglican ministry).
Ingredients of a Vibrant Small Group
Galatians 5 showcases the contours of the kingdom. These values must also define our small groups. A leading edge of this vision, according to the apostle Paul, is a radically other-centered approach to service. Instead of using freedom as an opportunity for selfishness (“the flesh”), Paul exhorts the Galatians to serve one another through love. This sets up a vivid comparison between behaviors in keeping with the kingdom, also called “fruit of the Spirit,” versus conduct that is natural to this world. Kingdom behavior is characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. By contrast, the works of the flesh include sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry (including materialism), jealousy, rivalry, dissension, envy, conceit, and provocation.
How does this taxonomy apply to our Catholic friends, specifically to their evangelical point of entry? In conclusion, I would like to highlight three primary ways that a kingdom-focused small group is an ideal venue for Catholics who are searching for spiritual life.
1. Kingdom Purpose
When our groups showcase and strive toward realizing life’s purpose by joining God’s mission—-proclaiming the good news and embodying the Spirit-filled life—-we offer our Catholic friends a precious gift. Even though the Catholic Church has a doctrine of the priesthood of believers (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§1591-92), for many, the sharp Catholic clergy/laity distinction has tragically undermined personal Christian calling. By serving together, our groups experience the joy of kingdom purpose.
Just as Tom and Lauren were geographically displaced in Michigan, our communities are full of Catholic men and women largely disconnected from their families. Strange as this might sound, such separation increases the viablility of Protestantism in ways that would have been much more difficult back home. Jesus’ words, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” are applicable here. As Karen demonstrated in her winsome invitation, we can be good neighbors who express genuine friendship.
3. Seriousness about the Bible and Theology
If you want human interest stories with warm and fuzzies, join an Oprah book club. If you want life change, study Scripture. Granted, this is obvious to most Christians, so let me take it a step further. If your conversation immediately goes from reading a text to personal application without first exploring what the passage meant to the original audience (what was meat sacrificed to idols in Corinth or imperial citizenship in Philippi?) you are not really studying Scripture. You’re skating over the surface. Roll up your sleeves and dig in! Bring tools like commentaries and a concordance. After all, this is what makes us Protestant: we do business with the text. Catholics will be drawn to your group by serious theological engagement.
One final word: be clear about doctrine, especially justification by grace through faith alone, but don’t be an irritable Protestant who maligns Catholicism at every turn, at least if you want Catholics to remain in your group. Let patience, gentleness, and self-control rule, concentrating on the message of grace with a humble attitude of grace.