Heidi Radabaugh received an important phone call at what seemed to be an inopportune time. She was dealing with her baby’s blowout diaper, and her 4-year-old was clinging to her leg . But she didn’t mind.
Gabby, the young woman on the other end of the line, had recently walked by Sacred Heart Church in Florissant. She looked up the parish website and found Heidi’s contact information under the young adult and young family ministry. Heidi was thrilled for the opportunity to invite her into the community.
“She wanted to know if she could come pray at Sacred Heart,” said Heidi, who spent time on the call getting to know Gabby. She ended the conversation with an invitation to an upcoming ladies’ night with parishioners. “She was looking for real community, a place to pray,” Heidi said, “and answers to a lot of questions she had about the Catholic faith.”
A week later, Heidi, her husband, Marc, and about 30 young adults added Gabby — who intends to start the Rite of Christian Initation of Adults (RCIA) in the fall — to their prayer intentions at a formation meeting held at another couple’s home. The evening gathering — a discussion on evangelization — was part of a new ministry at Sacred Heart to form disciples, especially among young adults and young families.
“This is a reminder we’re doing this for the Gabbys,” Heidi said. “We’re doing this for the Andres,” a man that Marc recently stopped after Mass and invited to a men’s social event at the parish.
“We’re here for our kids,” she said. “We’re here for our own sanctity. We want disciples who love Christ and His bride, the Church. That’s the end goal. We want disciples who are going out and bringing Christ to other people — even if that means leaving Sacred Heart and doing that somewhere else.”
Setting the foundation
When Heidi and Marc Radabaugh moved to St. Louis in July 2021 for Marc’s work as a physician, the couple was intentional about choosing a church community. Heidi had grown up in north St. Louis County, and they eventually landed on Sacred Heart as their new parish home. The two had experience in young adult ministry at a parish in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, where they previously lived.
Heidi taught in a Catholic high school for several years before becoming involved in young adult ministry. She spent some of her teaching years encouraging teens who were catechized but hadn’t yet been evangelized.
The Radabaughs saw that the fruits of their ministry came primarily through the one-on-one encounters they had with others. “At young adult events, we noticed that people would get together, but it wasn’t long-lasting,” Marc said. “It was hard to capture all of these people. There would be a lot of people there, but afterward no one was inviting them into a community. So they just float and maybe find other events to attend.”
The Radabaughs met with another couple to focus their sights on parish-based evangelization and developing a framework to form relationships with others, leading them closer to Christ and His Church. They received a grant through the Young Adult Initiative from Lily Endowment Inc. to undergo training in young adult ministry, which opened their eyes to the specific needs of young adults, typically individuals who are 18-39 years old.
The parish is the ideal foundation for evangelization work, Marc said. But it comes with the understanding that the parish is a mission field now — rather than a culture of Christendom, where Christianity prevails in society. It’s about meeting people wherever they’re at and welcoming them into the fold.
Evangelization at Sacred Heart
Upon their arrival at Sacred Heart, the Radabaughs connected with several key individuals — including pastor Msgr. Mark Ullrich, associate pastor Father Anthony Gerber and Deacon John Heithaus, as well as several other young adult couples. They proposed a framework, starting with forming disciples from within the pews.
The structure is modeled from a biblical interpretation, including Jesus’ inner core of three disciples (a core team of six couples), His 12 disciples (a group of 27 young adults who are committed to ongoing formation) and the 70 (outreach to the larger community, primarily through one-to-one encounters and social and spiritual events).
The framework also has a “win-build-send” approach — similar to one taken by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a Catholic outreach program for college students.
While the seeds are being planted by lay young adults, the intention is for the roots to spread throughout every aspect of the parish community, avoiding a silo effect.
Deacon John Heithaus, a lifelong Sacred Heart parishioner, said he believes forming individuals so they can make disciples of others is a key aspect of the new approach to young adult ministry. He sees his role as a bridge between older parishioners and the new ministry efforts.
“The old model was to get people involved, which is good for the parish and good for the social aspect, but it wasn’t always spiritual,” he said. “Jesus took three years to form His disciples. We have to invest that time. Evangelization sounds intimidating. How do you do it? We have to show them.”
In January, Father Gerber started Gerber’s Garage, a monthly gathering for men at the parish. He describes the meetings — typically sitting around a fire pit with some adult beverages — as a low-pressure opportunity to build community. The conversations often can lead to further invitation into the life of the parish community.
“There’s no agenda, and just a way to be together in a safe spot for good, wholesome conversations,” he said. The success of these gatherings relies on a personal invitation. “We don’t say a generic ‘all are welcome,’” Father Gerber said. “We tell people individually they’re invited.”
Evangelization is not just another apostolate of the Church, he said. Rather, the desire to share Jesus with others should be integrated into our daily lives. “If you don’t have a prayer life and an encounter with Jesus in prayer and in Scripture, it’s going to be hard to share that with others,” he said.
A ‘right and duty’
On a warm August evening, Theresa and Lucian Matoushek hosted more than two dozen young adults at their historic Florissant home for dinner, followed by eucharistic adoration and a talk on evangelization, led by Brian Miller, director of evangelization and discipleship with the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
The formation session offered practical tips on how to evangelize others and lead them closer to Christ. There has been a shift in the narrative in recent years on what it means to evangelize, Brian said.
A Dynamic Catholic study published 10 years ago showed that roughly 7% of Catholics self-identify as being strong in prayer, study, generosity and evangelization. But only 0.6% felt equipped to go out and make disciples of Christ.
The answer to evangelization in the past would be to share faith-related books or CDs with others, Brian said. In recent years, though, through the pontificate of Pope Francis and resources such as "Forming Intentional Disciples," by Sherry Weddell, the narrative has shifted, with evangelization seen as a “right and duty as a lay Catholic,” he said, and doing that through building relationships with others.
“The opportunity for parish life is to be a community where we do these things together,” he said. “If we share the day-to-day life, we also share the Gospel.”
Walking with others
As they sat around a kitchen table sharing pizza and some beers, the core team of six couples discussed what’s been working in their efforts — as well as areas for improvement. Heidi shared from her laptop a database of dozens of names and contact information of people they’ve encountered along the way. The goal is to assign individual disciples to each person, she said, “to have someone walk with them. We want to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks and also have ongoing contact to build relationships.”
Lucian Matoushek said he’s learning about the importance of getting out of his comfort zone and being consistent with inviting others. He recently invited an acquaintance to a social event at the parish, and it took a couple of attempts before he got a response: “When is the next one?”
“I thought, ‘woah, praise God,’” Lucian said. “You have to be courageous. The formation is a reminder to be intentional with others.”
While this kind of approach takes extra time and effort, it’s very reminiscent of the early Christians, who hung out in people’s homes in small communities, said Dennis Stoll.
“We’ve made evangelization too complicated — at the core, it’s simply that we want to introduce people to Jesus Christ.”
Living the Mission, an All Things New website dedicated to resources on evangelization: allthingsnew.archstl.org/mission
Preparing for Mission evangelization guidebook from the Archdiocese of St. Louis: https://stlreview.com/3wPOoXE
Evangelization 101 video series, produced by the Archdiocese of St. Louis: https://vimeo.com/669461713
Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States, from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: https://stlreview.com/35oJ9CJ
Revive Parishes Evangelization Training: https://reviveparishes.com/stl
Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Discipleship: https://stlreview.com/3IUfxL4
Young adults in the Archdiocese of St. Louis
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) defines young adults as individuals ages 18-39, “persons in their late teens, twenties and thirties who represent diverse cultural, racial, ethnic, educational, vocational, social, political and spiritual backgrounds. They are college students, workers and professionals; they are persons in military service; they are single, married, divorced or widowed; they are with or without children; they are newcomers in search of a better life.”
The results of the Disciple Maker Index survey conducted during Lent identified a dozen opportunities for growth in parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Of those responses, the top answer — with 4,720 responses — was a desire to see more young people involved in parish life. Read more here: www.archstl.org/you-are-both-needed-and-welcome-here-7684.
To learn more about young adult ministry in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, see stlyoungadults.com.