The Word Among Us

September 2006 Issue

Membership Or Discipleship?

How God helped me change boats in midstream

By: Caroline Pignat

I saw her at the park a few times. We made small talk as we shared the bench. But we had never spoken about God. Recipes, sure. Gossip, yes. A great sale on school snacks, most definitely. But mentioning God, faith, or church sounded too much like "evangelizing." Besides, Catholics don't do that, right?

Some friends and I were starting up a mom's prayer group. The "stranger at the park" kept popping into my head. I mentioned it to one of my friends and she said, "Why don't you ask her if she wants to join us?"

It made sense. Obviously God was nudging me to speak to this woman about our group. But did he honestly expect me to invite a stranger to come pray with me? I had known those other friends for years. We had shared retreats, deep conversations, the highs and lows of our faith journeys. And still, I had felt shy about inviting them to start this group. I couldn't invite a stranger. Especially not one in my neighborhood. I'd be labeled for life!

I saw her the next day, and the next. Still, I could not bring myself to go beyond our usual banter. But the nudges were getting stronger.

The Choice. That weekend, I went to a workshop on discipleship. "Membership is joining in," the speaker said. "Discipleship is reaching out." And with that, it was as if a light flicked on. I saw what "ship" I was lounging on: membership.

Membership was passive, anonymous, and safe. It was easy. All it required was joining, showing up now and then, and participating (if I felt like it). Like my gym membership, for example. I've been a member for years but never really committed myself. Since I never worked at it, I never grew stronger. Being a member just lulled me into thinking I was doing something, even though I wasn't. I realized that being a member of the church wasn't any different.

Discipleship was a whole other craft. Discipleship wanted me right out there in unfamiliar waters. And it didn't sound like any pleasure cruise either. Discipleship involved work. If I wanted to be a disciple, I would have to overcome the obstacles that held me back and kept me from reaching out in faith to someone else—the doubts, the indifference, the fears.

I spoke with some other people at that workshop, and it became obvious that we all faced similar struggles. We all had that heckler in our heads voicing uncomfortable questions: What if he asks me something I can't answer? What if she thinks I'm some kind of Jesus freak? What happens if their questions make me wonder, too? What if I offer to help and end up having to run the whole thing?

The workshop was a turning point. It nudged me to examine whether I was just floating or whether I had my sails open to the wind of the Spirit. Was I living out the call and privilege of being a disciple of Christ? I had to admit I wasn't.

The speaker told us that discipleship is love in action. It means continually being alert to where we are and what we can offer to the person next to us. He said that disciples are always asking themselves how they can best serve this relative, friend, neighbor, or stranger at this moment. When he put it like that, I knew what I had to do.

Taking the Plunge. The next morning at the park, there was a lull in the conversation.

"So," I blurted out, "I don't know if this is something you'd be interested in, because we haven't really talked about God . . . but I'm starting a mom's prayer group, would you want to come?" It came out all in one long breath and hung there between us. But at least it came out.

She looked surprised. The heckler in my head wouldn't shut up. I can't believe you did that. She thinks you're an idiot. She won't want to talk to you again. You must be some kind of religious nut if you think that . . .

"I'd love to!" she said, smiling. "Actually, I've been praying for that very thing!"

In a beautiful unspoken moment of communication, we both realized what had just happened. God had confirmed his nudges in my heart and given me the courage to act. And he had answered her prayer for sisterhood and Christian support. Our excitement and joy resonated.

"I'm Wendy, by the way," she said.

I grinned. "Caroline."

Fruits of Discipleship. That was almost two years ago. Not only did Wendy join our mothers' group—she hosted it, welcoming all ten moms and our tots and toddlers. That group continues to give each of us the insights, affirmations, support, and strength for motherhood. God knows we need it!

This past year, Wendy asked me to help her create a faith committee at our school. We pray for the community, teach the rosary, and create a monthly "faith and fun calendar" of activities that Catholic families can use at home. More recently, we were asked to make this tool available to all the schools in the area.

I was afraid to share my faith with one stranger at a park, and now that "stranger" inspires me to share it with the whole community! I am amazed at how God's hand has worked around me, through me, and often despite me.

Time and time again, God proves his faithfulness to us all. He provides the opportunities, the support, and the courage to set sail and "put out into the deep water" (Luke 5:4).

All we have to do is say "yes."

Caroline Pignat (shown left, with Wendy) lives in Kanata, Ontario, Canada. She and her husband, Tony, have two children.