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Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus – Chapter 9

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 in the bulletin and include on line. 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.

Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry A. Weddell

Chapter 9: Break the Silence
Summarized by Brad Bursa, edited and revised November 2018

Five Percent:  Diocesan and parish leaders around the country were asked, “What percentage of parishioners, would you estimate, are intentional disciples?” The consistent answer was five percent. What do we do about this?

Weddell comments that obviously, we can’t force people into intentional discipleship, but we can “prepare the soil” – we can “intentionally and intelligently work to create an environment that is conducive to the growth of personal faith and discipleship. We can intentionally shape the atmosphere, experiences, structures, and spiritual culture of our parish life so that it fosters the journey that Jesus Christ asks all of us to make: following him.”

In other words, the parish needs evangelization goals. If the parish is serious about making disciples, some serious steps must be taken. Weddell breaks these into four beginning steps: Chapter 9: Break the Silence; Chapter 10: Do Tell the Great Story of Jesus; Chapter 11: Personally Encountering Jesus in His Church; and Chapter 12: Expect Conversion.

Chapter 9:  Break the Silence: Weddell gives us four directives on how to Break the Silence.

  1. Talk openly about the possibility of a relationship with a personal God who loves you. Talk about your relationship with God. Talk explicitly about following Jesus. Drop the Name! Do Ask: Ask others about their lived relationship with God. Do Tell: Tell the “Great Story of Jesus” (kerygma).
  2. Offer multiple, overlapping opportunities for baptized and non-baptized people to personally encounter Jesus in the midst of his Church.
  3. Expect conversion. Plan for conversion.
  4. Lay the spiritual foundation through organized, sustained intercessory prayer.

Brad comments from his own experience: “I remember my first meeting with Paul – my sophomore year of college, and his junior year. Paul was a highly respected leader on campus and I wanted to get to know him, and I wasn’t expecting him to care so much about getting to know me. Not long into our conversation, he asked the most blunt question that I, a cradle, cultural Catholic had ever been asked – ‘How is your prayer life?’  Who asks that of someone? Who cares to know so deeply about a person that he is willing to talk about spiritual matters? I found myself surprised, and excited to share a bit about what Jesus was doing in my life. It was unlike any conversation I’d ever really had before.”

In breaking the silence, Weddell notes that discipleship and conversion must become a normative part of parish life and conversation, or else the spiritually curious and open will continue to walk away having never been asked about their journey, and disciples will continue to hide or minimize their newly awakened personal faith. The code of silence must be broken if it is in place within a community, and Weddell points out “one of the most powerful ways to challenge the silence is by making a safe place for others to talk about their own lived relationship with God.”

Threshold Conversations: A “safe place” wherein someone feels comfortable enough to share about his/her relationship with God (or lack thereof) must be built by establishing a bridge of trust. Once this trust is in place, people are surprisingly open to what Weddell has termed the “threshold conversation.”

This conversation is the initial step of listening evangelism, whereby one invites another to share, simply and directly, about his/her lived relationship with God. One must listen prayerfully, seeking to learn what the faith journey has been like and, if possible, what threshold the person is currently at, in order to start encouraging and facilitating the next step in the journey to intentional discipleship. The thresholds are not an attempt to fit people into airtight compartments, but are a helpful tool for ministry. The threshold conversation breaks the code of silence and raises the issue that underlies all we say and do as Catholic Christians – having a personal relationship with God. Once trust is established, a threshold conversation can take place anywhere (in a coffee shop, the back of the church, a ministry at the parish, etc.) and within the span of mere minutes (or hours, of course).

Weddell continues by stating that before touching on the basics of a threshold conversation (below), a few important things should be noted.

  1. A threshold conversation is a supportive, inviting, open-ended, prayerful act of listening evangelization.
  2. We need to listen to more than facts, but hear emotion and meaning behind the story.
  3. Understand that the goal here is not catechizing and correcting ideas.
  4. It is not faith sharing – the focus is on listening to the other and most especially, the Holy Spirit as he prompts us with questions.
  5. It is not time for counseling, apologetics, and it is never judgmental.

The ABC’s of a Threshold Conversation: Every threshold conversation begins with some variation of a basic question: Can you describe your relationship with God to this point in your life? or Can you tell me the story of your relationship with God so far?

Based upon Weddell’s experience, the answers typically tend in one of five directions:

  • “I don’t believe in God” (atheist) conversation.
  • “I don’t know if there is a God” (agnostic) conversation.
  • “I believe in a Higher-Power or Impersonal Force” conversation.
  • “I believe in a personal God but have no relationship with God” conversation.
  • “I believe in a personal God and have a relationship with God” conversation.

On the rise, as well, is the category of “nones” – those who consider themselves spiritual (having a relationship with God) but not religious (not identifying with a particular tradition or community).

This brings us to the cardinal rule of threshold conversations: Never accept a “label” in place of a story. Always ask people what they mean if they identify as a religious “label.” One can move beyond the “label” by asking questions like: What do you mean by atheist? Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Do you believe in any other kind of God or universal spirit? Have you ever believed in God? Why did you stop? Do you ever pray? If so, how? What gives meaning to your life?

In short, the threshold conversation breaks the code of silence and allows one to listen for what the Church calls “seeds of the Word” which often lie hidden in our neighbor. Remember that this may be the first time anyone has asked a question about their relationship with God and sometimes simply asking the question raises the issue for one who may have never thought a relationship was possible.

Weddell recommends ending the conversation with a question like: If you could ask God one question that you knew he would answer right away, what would it be? The answer to this question usually reflects current questions, struggles, or felt needs that might be addressed in the future by some person or resource in the parish.

During threshold conversations, our minds must work at two levels simultaneously: taking in what the person is sharing (on the personal level), while identifying where the story touches on pivotal moments in the spiritual journey (i.e. thresholds). Threshold conversations are often spontaneous, happening within the midst of a longer conversation. They are the fruit of the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Listening to someone’s personal story opens the door for sharing the story – the good news of Jesus Christ.

Have you ever asked someone about their relationship with God? How did that conversation go? If not, why?

Who in your life would you be comfortable having a threshold conversation with?

If someone asked you about your relationship with God, how would you respond?