Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus – Chapter 5

From Fr. Bennet Tran, Pastor: One of the more significant books that has influenced my thinking and ministry is Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. I hope that we as a parish will engage with the insights offered by Weddell. In the coming months, we will print a summary of a chapter of the book the first and third Sundays of each month. I hope this book will spark interest in our discussions about what is happening in the Church among our family members and friends and encourage us to take action to respond to the signs of the time. The book is readily available on line.

Chapter 5 – Thresholds of Conversion: Can I Trust You?

Summarized by Brad Bursa, edited and revised November 2018

Where do we start when seeking to make disciples of un-evangelized Catholics? Let us get a common assumption out of the way first. With most twenty-first-century people (there are always exceptions), we can’t start with catechesis. They aren’t ready for it yet, and if they aren’t ready, it will just roll off like water off a duck’s back. In any case, catechesis is designed to foster the maturation of disciples, not the initial conversion of those who aren’t yet disciples.

The National Directory for Catechesis outlines two critical steps that should precede catechesis: pre-evangelization and initial proclamation of the basic kerygma, or the Great Story of Jesus Christ. Both are necessary to awaken initial Christian faith, and as we have seen, Christian faith is necessary for catechesis
to be fruitful

Catholic pastoral practice has few structures for these two preliminary stages. We typically presume that pre-evangelization and initial proclamation just happen automatically during basic catechesis. All the evidence suggests that even if true evangelization once worked that way, it is not working that way anymore. Catechized Catholics are clearly not necessarily evangelized Catholics.

There is a series of thresholds or stages of conversion – five in all – that culminates in a commitment to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple. Each transition to a new threshold is a genuine work of grace, empowered by the Holy Spirit, but each threshold also requires real spiritual energy and real choices on the part of the person making the journey. Let’s look at these five thresholds briefly and then zero in on the first threshold in more detail.

  1. Initial trust: A person is able to trust or has a positive association with Jesus Christ, the Church, a Christian believer, or something identifiably Christian. Trust is not the same as active personal faith. Without some kind of bridge of trust in place, people will not move closer to God.
  2. Spiritual curiosity: A person finds himself intrigued by or desiring to know more about Jesus, his life, and his teachings or some aspect of the Christian faith. This curiosity can range from mere awareness of a new possibility to something quite intense. Nevertheless, a person at the threshold of curiosity is not yet open to personal change. Curiosity is still essentially passive, but it is more than mere trust.
  3. Spiritual openness: A person acknowledges to himself or herself and to God that he or she is open to the possibility of personal and spiritual change. This is one of the most difficult transitions for a postmodern nonbeliever. Openness is not a commitment to change. People who are open are simply admitting they are open to the possibility of change.
  4. Spiritual seeking: The person moves from being essentially passive to actively seeking to know the God who is calling him or her. It is, if you will, “dating with a purpose” but not yet marriage. Seekers are asking, “Are you the one to whom I will give myself?” At this stage, the seeker is engaged in an urgent spiritual quest, seeking to know whether he or she can commit to Christ and his Church.
  5. Intentional discipleship: This is the decision to “drop one’s nets,” to make a conscious commitment to follow Christ in the midst of his Church as an obedient disciple and to reorder one’s life accordingly.

It’s a Mystery: There is no one-size-fits-all way of negotiating the journey to discipleship. People will move through at different paces. There may be great leaps forward as well as relapses to earlier thresholds. The thing to remember is that we are not in control of this process. We are dealing with the mystery of a relationship that God himself is initiating in the human heart.

Let it be stressed that we cannot bring anyone to faith through pressure, guilt, argument, or cleverness. Conversion and true faith are works of the Holy Spirit. But it is also true that we can, by our responses, help or hinder another’s journey.

The First Threshold – Trust: The threshold of trust is not the same as active personal faith. Trust, in this case, refers just to a basic, felt trust of something or someone associated with Christ or the Church. The task of evangelization is to find out if a bridge of trust already exists. Does our friend or colleague or roommate or family member trust or have some kind of positive association with Jesus Christ, the Church, a believer, or something identifiably Christian? If this trust does not already exist, then our first job as an evangelizer is to help build that bridge. We earn such trust primarily through relationships: through the integrity, compassion, warmth, and joy of our own life and faith. As we work to rebuild trust or to build it for the first time, we must pray and work to avoid the natural reactions to the distrust directed at us. We need to avoid such things as defensiveness, seeing ourselves as a “victim,” and avoiding or judging those who don’t trust us.

Many don’t trust God or the Church, but they do trust a Christian in their life. Maybe they trust you. You may be the bridge that one day will lead them to a life-changing encounter with Christ. For someone at this very early threshold, it is more important that trust exists than that it make theological sense. Our joy at this point is to affirm, strengthen, and if possible, broaden whatever trust exists.

We Will Never Evangelize What We Do Not Love: Each generation is largely responsible for the evangelization of its own. But trust cannot be built if the evangelizers regard the un-evangelized with fear and disdain. Francis Cardinal George, the late Archbishop of Chicago, summed up our dilemma brilliantly years ago: “We will never evangelize what we do not love.” We should never cease to pray for, long for, labor for, and call every man and woman to encounter Christ in the midst of his Church. We can never accept, cooperate with, or most appallingly, rejoice in the events and changes that endanger the eternal happiness of millions of those redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and baptized in Christ’s name. Evangelization isn’t about us. It is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, seeking the lost sheep through us. When we forget that, we can alienate and even lose those who God has called us to bring to Jesus.

An RCIA candidate describes the transforming power of love that builds trust and that changed his life: “I am not a Christian because it ‘makes sense’ or because someone sat down and diagrammed it for me. I am a Christian because I have been loved deeply and unconditionally by Christians. Some of them…troubled me with hard questions. But all of them loved me when I did not love them…Reason is a wonderful tool, but it is a weak force for deep change in human beings. Faith, hope, and love are not tools; they are virtues, powerful and exceedingly difficult to employ, and much more efficacious than reason for changing lives.”

What do you think of the five thresholds of conversion that are outlined?  Do they make sense?

Do they line up with your own story or the story of someone you know well?

What opportunities do we have for people to be pre-evangelized and introduced to the story of Christ?