Adult Faith Formation and the Problem of “Church Groupies”

adult faith formation

When doing faith formation with young people, one of the problems is that no one wants to show that they enjoy being there; that would not be cool. I have found that, when doing faith formation with adults, there are some folks present who are at the opposite extreme. I call them “church groupies.” I’m not talking here of the same loyal folks who faithfully support everything and show up most of the time. I’m talking about those few people who are obsessed with “churchy” things (e.g. they are way too excited about issues like ad orientem, intinction and hypostatic union). While they mean well, they can make other adults—especially seekers who are checking out a parish or an adult faith formation event for the first time—feel very uncomfortable.

I experienced this recently at an adult faith formation experience I attended. (I was not presenting.) When the presenter arranged us in small groups to discuss, there was one individual at our table who used every opportunity to dominate the conversation and to impress us with his knowledge of all things Catholic. We were directed to talk about our experiences of prayer. After one person spoke about an insight from her own experience of prayer, this other person interjected with what he thought was the crux of the matter and then proceeded to wax on about an issue of theological conflict from the Council of Nicea. This person did something like this repeatedly, pausing just long enough to make it look like he was listening to others before launching into another soliloquy. To those who are novices when it comes to sharing their faith, this person seems like some kind of an expert and, feeling intimidated, they don’t know how to respond to him/her. The problem is that this type of individual never shares anything personal. At one point, this person went on and on in a very dramatic voice about how, when they recently opened the tomb of Jesus, the cell phones of everyone there allegedly (although he stated this was fact) went dark because of electromagnetic disturbances. Frustrated that this person kept hijacking the conversation, I said, “And this relates to our prayer how?” The person stopped and said, “I don’t know,” at which point we were able to get back on track.

I run into church groupies like this all the time at adult faith formation events and, while I feel for them because they often seem not to fit in, they can make others feel uncomfortable for not being capable of showing the same level of zeal and knowledge about churchy issues. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but I am very sensitive to the chemistry that is so important for creating a healthy climate for faith sharing. And I am saddened when I see people stop showing up because they’ve concluded they’re not as knowledgeable as the “groupie.”

Has anyone else experienced this? How do you respond in such situations?

About Joe Paprocki 2115 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press. He has more than 30 years of experience in ministry and has taught at many different levels. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestseller The Catechist’s Toolbox and Under the Influence of Jesus.

10 Comments on Adult Faith Formation and the Problem of “Church Groupies”

  1. It would be best to take that person aside privately and express what we are trying to do with faith sharing, and ask them to keep their remarks personal. Or gently express “that is very interesting, but what we are doing here is talking about our own personal prayer life, not religion or faith topics in general.”
    I have been at meetings where priests have “faith shared” by teaching — and as you might expect, people listen and affirm it because he is a priest.

    • Thanks Theresa…yes, good advice about taking a person on the side to gently express and offer “course-correction.” Not easy to do when it’s the pastor, though, eh? 😉

  2. Having been in involved with adult catechists at our church the past year and a half. I have found discussion groups like this game changers. The adults want to share for the most part and excepting a few who I think haven’t done much religious living and are just discovering it, are the ones I hope are at least listening. I try not to sound to preachy when I talk about faith matters and I need to have someone remind me to not get too much like the person you described. It does have a numbing effect on the group! Thanks for bringing up this issue.

  3. Very interesting article, Joe. Yes, I have seen this type of behavior and I agree that it does affect the faith formation experience that others have. A few things that I think help to prevent or mitigate the impact: having a designated facilitator for each small group discussion. The facilitator is responsible for doing “time checks” on any one person’s comments, inviting multiple people to share their questions/comments, and redirecting the dialogue back to the topic at hand. Theresa makes a great point – it may take a private conversation on the side to gently reinforce the objectives of the group discussion and gain the person’s commitment to change his/her approach. Timing is important too – the facilitator’s intervention must happen as close to the observed behaviors as possible.

    I think another factor is the overall environment set by the Pastor or Faith Formation leader. In our Parish, our Pastor repeatedly emphasizes the need to “meet people where they are” in their faith journey. We are to invite, support, and walk with people to help them grow in faith and encounter Jesus – without pre-judging their situation or drawing conclusions too quickly about their spiritual needs.

    • Well said, Mary. I hesitate in many ways to even address this issue because it can sound like an “us and them” thing and I can come across sounding like the Pharisee…”I thank God that I am not like other people…” We do indeed need to take people where they are at and not be judgmental. At the same time, we need to be sure that no one person adversely affects the dynamics of a faith sharing group. It is not an easy situation to handle and I appreciate you sharing.

  4. Thank you for bringing this up. I have encountered “church groupies” several times and really never know exactly how to handle them nor do I ever really understand their intentions-whether they are selfish or genuine. I am interested in hearing responses. There have even been attempts to undermine what I am trying to accomplish as a catechist.

    • Thanks, Kara. Yes, sometimes these folks have an agenda and I too have had attempts to undermine me as a presenter/catechist. For the most part, however, I seem to encounter people who have awkward social skills and a need to belong (which we all have) and they find a church setting to be a place where they feel most welcome. That’s a good thing, however, it takes a strong facilitator to keep them focused.

  5. Thanks for that article. I’m sure this scenario happens at most class setting at one time or another where discussion groups gather. And as another responded stated, having designated leaders to keep conversation on track is crucial. But something I question about adult faith formation is: to what degree do we discuss, and what degree do we learn? I’m always interested in learning more about my Catholic faith, but am not interested in spending half the time listening to other peoples opinions. I want facts. A great example (in my opinion ) of a Class well done was the ‘Bible time line” by Jeff Cavins. It was a great mix of lecture, study and conversation.
    I really like the other article you posted where the “class” was set up in talk show fashion with power point, and in depth questions making the Rosary relevant to the audience.
    Our church sadly lacks adult faith formation. The pastor needs to be behind promoting adult formation if there is going to be any kind of turn out. The rewards of going beyond Sunday Mass to further your relationship with Jesus, makes going to classes, time well spent.

    • Susan, thanks for sharing. You make some great points. In particular, it is important for sharing that occurs at adult faith formation experiences to be facilitated as you mentioned and also highly structured so that people are clear what they are to be speaking/sharing about. Thanks again.

  6. Like others, I also encounter this all the time. My parish has recently had great success running Alpha Catholic (and it has generated 4 folks for RCIA–pray for them!) However, sadly, one seeker was pushed away when “beat up” about the Bible by a well-meaning older parishioner who begin every theological treatise and correction with “when I was in seminary”, as thought he knows better than everyone there. The kicker is that Alpha was promoted and is billed as such an entry-level faith development or encounter opportunity, I think the trouble we may have with having the church groupies at what we hope will be great seeker-friendly faith formation or sharing opportunities is largely our own fault: he inconsistency or lack of variety in our adult ed opportunities and offerings! Far too many parishes are still allocating 90% of faith development resources to children’s programs, while there may be 1 or 2 adult ed opportunities! We should ask ourselves: “well, where are they supposed to go?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*