Going out to the Peripheries: Accompanying the "Nones"

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Going out to the Peripheries: Accompanying the "Nones"

Dr. Matthew W. Halbach, Ph.D.

Insights: Nones Data suggests . . .

"Nones" describes a cohort of people who do not affiliate with any organized religion—people who often consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Nones can be found in any age demographic, though the vast majority are young adults (18-40). Data on the Nones suggests, among other things, that they value meaningful relationships over institutionalism, authenticity over authority. This suggests two things: (1) engaging the Nones requires an effort on the part of the whole church (2) and that accompaniment might be an effective model for evangelization and catechesis. But, first, let's talk about accompaniment!

Engaging the Nones

Engaging the Nones is an ecclesial effort. Here I wish to note my book on missionary discipleship, published in August 2018 by Twenty-Third Publications. In it, I address three important questions regarding missionary discipleship (1) What is it? (2) What does it have to do with me? (3) Where are the mission fields in my life? Focusing, now, on the second question—What does missionary discipleship have to do with me?—the answer is: it has everything to do with you!

Everyone is looking for meaningful relationships, especially the Nones, who seem desperate to find authentic witnesses of Christ. This should not surprise us. All people are social beings by nature. We are created to be in relationship. As a church, where we have failed, at times, is when we forget that each of us is called to be a missionary: to go out into the mission fields of our homes, communities, and parishes and share our witness of faith. Much of this type of mission work happens organically and situationally. There is no blueprint for missionary discipleship. There is, however, the need to share your own story of faith with others. This is our baptismal calling!

We share our stories of faith—particularly, how we have personally encountered Jesus— after we come to recognize them as such. This begins with personal reflection on the presence of Christ in our lives, how God has accompanied us on our own faith journeys. The next step to sharing our story of faith is to believe whole-heartedly in the truth that God has encountered us each in unique ways for the express purpose of drawing us (and others) closer to him. Your relationship with God is not just for your sake but for the sake of others, too. There is someone out there right now—None or not—who is waiting to hear your story of God's love and mercy alive in you! It will be your story that ignites (or reignites) their faith in Christ.

A Best Practice: Accompaniment

The word "accompaniment" was recently made popular by Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. There, he urged the entire church to learn and practice this important "art" (no. 169), which he described as the way the Church must evangelize (and catechize) today. Accompaniment is a process of interpersonal relationship-building that moves at a gradual pace. Key to developing a relationship rooted in trust, respect, and love is that the witness or (companion) be a credible one. He or she must live the faith, not just talk about it! Finally, accompaniment has a definite trajectory: it aims at initial and/or deeper conversion for all involved. This is not about commiseration or process for the sake of process. When we accompany others we are going somewhere: in and through the Church, to the heart of Christ.

While the term may seem new, the Church has been accompanying others from its earliest days. Accompaniment, as a process, is outlined well in the New Testament by two stories of unlikely and unexpected encounters. The first story is the encounter between the risen Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, otherwise knowns as the "Emmaus Story" (Lk 24:13-35). Another story of accompaniment is the encounter between St. Peter and the Roman centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48). In this story, Peter and Cornelius are guided, by prayer and the work of the Spirit, toward a life-changing encounter with each other. As a result, Peter realizes that God's promise of salvation is for the Gentiles as well as the Jewish people; and foods once thought forbidden by Jewish dietary laws are now deemed "clean." The story ends with the Peter baptizing Cornelius and his entire household.

In both stories, the process of accompaniment includes three phases: encounter, sharing faith experiences, and articulating the faith. In the Emmaus Story, Jesus goes out of his way to encounter the two disciples (Emmaus is in the opposite direction of Jerusalem). During their meeting, the disciples share their experience of faith—the joy and hope they have lost and the struggle to understand why Jesus had to die. Jesus receives their concern, pain, and confusion, without being judgmental; and he takes the opportunity to articulate the faith of Israel, as it is found in scripture, to catechize the disciples. He explains to them why the Messiah's death was necessary, and how death was not the end of the story. Similarly, Peter and Cornelius, led by the Spirit, encounter one another. Both men share their experience of faith, telling the other about their respective visions during prayer, and how the Spirit has brought them together.

In the story of Peter and the Cornelius, Peter takes the opportunity to articulate the faith to Cornelius vis-à-vis his catechesis on Jesus as the Christ, and adds to it his new understanding of God's plan of salvation: a plan that is universal in scope, embracing all peoples. The movement in these stories, from encounter to shared faith experiences to articulating faith describes the movement of accompaniment. Accompaniment is based on the reality that interpersonal relationships are integral to evangelization and catechesis. Trust begets a deeper, personal sharing of faith experiences which opens the way to a formal articulation of the faith (catechesis).

What is key here is that the companion be a credible witness; that is, he or she is already living the faith they profess. Credibility and authenticity are critical to evangelizing/catechizing anyone, especially the Nones. Accompaniment also includes a number of actions and attitudes the companion must cultivate. Given the limits of this article I simply wish to note that in my book, Becoming a Parish of Mercy, I list many of the actions and attitudes Pope Francis has frequently mentioned with relation to evangelization and catechesis. The most important and fundamental action, which I will highlight here, is "going out." This can mean "going somewhere" or "going out of one's comfort zone." We cannot encounter people if we do not go out to them.

A personal example of going out is the time when I decided to pray over my children at Mass. After communion, I placed my hands on our oldest son (Mikey's) head, saying "Lord, let Mikey know how much you and I love him. Amen." Mikey was inspired by this gesture. He spontaneously turned to Ben (the next oldest son) and put his little hands on Ben's head, saying "Lord, can you remind Ben to play with just his toys!" Ben, in turn, put his hands on our youngest son (Jo Jo's) head, saying "Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes!" He was five at the time.

There were two people in the pew behind us observing our family prayer. One had a smile on her face and tears in her eyes. She thought it was wonderful to watch. The other woman had her arms folded and brow furrowed, glowering at me. Seeing her, I felt that God was calling me to "go out" to this woman and find out what was behind the mean look. After Mass I introduced myself and asked if I had upset her in any way. She told me I was distracting her with all the "commotion" we were making. I then found myself going way out of my comfort zone, inviting her to coffee and donuts with my family. She accepted the invitation reluctantly.

Five-minutes into our conversation, the woman tells my family that her husband passed on a year ago, and that her oldest son had left the Catholic Church. Praying with my kids at Mass had stirred up these strong memories and feelings in her. In particular, she felt guilty about her son's break with the Church, and she needed to talk about it. Had I not "gone out" to her, she might be carrying around her guilt and frustration longer than necessary.

As catechists, pray for the desire to develop intentional relationships with those you catechize. Help them to trust the Christ in you. Don't just teach them that Jesus loves them. Show them you love them, too! Encounter them, share your own faith experiences, and allow them to do the same. Then, with deeper roots of companionship in place, articulating the faith (catechesis proper) will take more readily because it comes from a trusted source.


1. Nones, across age demographics, value meaningful relationships over institutionalism, authentic witness over authority.

2. Accompaniment is an effective model of evangelization/catechesis, because it focuses on intentional relationship-building.

3. Accompaniment includes three phases: encounter (going out and engaging others), sharing faith experiences (personal stories of faith), articulating the faith (catechesis proper).

4. Sharing one's own story of faith and providing a consistent witness of faith is key to establishing trust and credibility with those we accompany.

5. Establishing credibility as an authentic witness of faith helps others to receive the truths of the faith more readily.

6. Taking the time to "go out" to someone, get to know them on a personal level and affirm them, while sharing something of your own faith journey, is a critical foundation for catechizing the Nones.

Dr. Matthew W. Halbach, Ph.D. is the director of St. Joseph Educational Center and just published his first book, "Becoming a Parish of Mercy: A New Vision for Total Parish Evangelization." In his book he lays out Pope Francis' vision of a more merciful Church to life that gives readers practical advice for adopting actions and attitudes that will invigorate the church as a whole.

Dr. Halbach completed his Ph.D. in Religious Education and Catechetics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. in 2014. He received his M.A. in Theology from Franciscan University in 2006, and his B.A. in Economics from the University of Iowa in 2001.