I briefly mentioned yesterday the work of Sherry Weddell on the five threshholds of conversion (which you can read about in depth in FORMING INTENTIONAL DISCIPLES: THE PATH TO KNOWING AND FOLLOWING JESUS), so I thought I would follow it up with a small dilation on that since I think her work both important and prescient. Here is a nice summary from Gareth Leyshon:
Sherry Weddell famously introduced the Catholic world to the ‘thresholds of discipleship’ in her seminal work, Forming Intentional Disciples. But Sherry makes no secret of the fact that the thresholds were not her own invention, but the discovery of two evangelical Christians, Don Everts and Doug Schaupp. I have now had the opportunity to read their book, I Once Was Lost, and reflect on what further insights they bring to the great task of making disciples. Page numbers cited like this refer to the 2008 paperback edition. The publishers also offer relevant online resources.
Both Everts and Schaupp are university campus ministers in the USA, Everts working in Colorado and Schaupp in California.12 From the start of the 1990s they sensed a cultural shift: postmodern youth were no longer willing to accept claims about Jesus and Christianity made by authority figures; they now required authentic witnesses.15 After working with more than 2000 young people making the journey into Christian faith, they noticed a very predictable pattern of conversion, represented by the thresholds; despite taking time to debate possible counterexamples, Everts and Schaupp find that the thresholds continue to be a reliable description of the path of conversion. At the end of the book114 they offer a suggestion by Shannon Lamb that the pathway to a marriage could be used as analogy to committment to Christ, and I use that framework here. They also note that there are five stages in the growth of the grain used by Jesus in the parable of the sower: seed, stalk, head, full grain, ripe.21 Yet Jesus also spoke of the growth of grain as mysterious and unpredictable!18-19
We can only share the Gospel effectively in a relationship of trust – and the sad reality is that not everyone will come to trust us. We can work on being more open by learning not to defend our own viewpoint, become condescending or argue back; we must beware the temptaton to avoid other people or become so tender that we bruise easily.34-35
The book concludes by returning to the beginning: an evangelist must have a servant heart and must lovingly care for the people they come into relationship with. Only in a trusting relationship, earned by loving service, does it become possible to discern where an individual might be along the journey to Christ.133-134
Flirting with Jesus (Curiosity)
Non-Christians pass through different levels of curiosity. First comes awareness – they realise these is such a thing as Christians. Second comes engagement – a willingness to spend time with the Christians they trust, hearing what they have to say. The highest level is exchange – entering into dialogue and being willing to share their own opinons.52-53 We may note that evangelistic courses such as Alpha create the space precisely where people can share their own opinions.
There was a time when it was said, “Just behave kindly to people, and eventually they will ask you to give an account of what motivates you – then you can witness.” This no longer seems to work in the postmodern generation – Christians can easily get stuck in the box of being “kind people” whose kindness needs no further explanation. To get unstuck, we may need to be provocative. Use parables and seek to break out of conventional “either/or” scenarios. You may need to think out loud: “I wonder how many people around here think of spiritual things? I wonder how many people here pray?”56-60
Surviving the First Row (Openness to Change)
It is possible to create an event designed to promote openness. Think of the participants not as seekers but as skeptics or cynics. Such an event should not have overt worship music or prayer, but the arts may be used to communicate encounter with God; topical movies and stories can also be used. There should be clear leadership which presents something about who the real Jesus is, but this event shouldn’t have an altar call – the participants won’t be ready for it.79-80
Dating with a Purpose (Seeking)
A Seeker, in threshold language, is a person who is specifically asking questions about Jesus. This goes beyond general questions about God – a Seeker has heard the Christian claim that Jesus is our Teacher, God incarnate, and wishes to investigate this further. A true Seeker asks these questions with urgency, willing to pay the price which comes with a hard answer.86-88 Seekers can be appropriately exposed to the practices of believers: worship, Bible Study, prayer, church socials and service projects.85 But in service projects, there needs to be an explicit presentation of the Gospel; we cannot expect participants will join the dots for themselves and link the teaching of Jesus to the volunteers’ motivation.101
A possible format for a Seeker Group is a GIG: Group Investigating God. Consider offering a scripure passage (Gospels seem to work best) on a printed sheet where the investigator can highlight, circle, etc. Take 5 inutes to work on the sheet on your own, and then share what you highlighted.93 It is good to set out clear rules and expectations in a Seeker Group, such as:
- You must grow!
- Be curious; ask questions.
- Share honestly.
- Take risks.
- Listen to others.
Seekers are likely to ask the question about why God allows suffering. The best response is generally not abstract philosophy but a personal testimony of how you have experienced God’s presence the midst of your own suffering. You may also find citing C. S. Lewis useful.91
An event aimed at true Seekers can appropriately include an Altar Call. But discernment is needed with each person who responds by coming forward. Who has actually committed their life to Jesus, and thereby crossed the fifth threshold? Who is simply declaring that they are interested in Jesus and want to know more, signalling that they are at the fourth?85
The Wedding (Intentional Discipleship)
Will you follow Jesus? No groom would get away with pledging to love his wife four days a week and trying to be there for her in hard times – he has to go all-in. There can be an urgency about challenging a Seeker to cross the line and make a commitment before their questioning heart cools down. The challenge must be clear – not dressed up in obscuring church language, but not over-simplified either. The challenge is not to “say a sinner’s prayer”. The challenge is to become a follower of Jesus, to seek His will and live by His commandments.112
Like the third threshold, this one can be surrounded by intense spiritual warfare. Potential converts may be gripped by a ‘fear of change’ which requires specific ministry.111
Surviving the Honeymoon
Following the key moment of making a personal commitment to Christ, there’s often a honeymoon period of around three weeks, followed by a deep spiritual attack. It is good for a discipler to intensively mentor a new Christian with 2-3 contacts a week for the first 6-8 weeks or so. The discipler should make it clear that such intensity is useful (in case it feels heavy) but does not set the pattern for the long term relationship (lest the new Christian expect enduring regular contact).126-129
In the early days after committing to Christ, the new convert will have many emotions to process and may wonder if they made an authentic decision. After these days, the discipler will need to help the new Christian form a good habit of regular prayer, Bible reading, witnessing when appropriate, serving others and taking their place in a worshipping community. Towards the end of the honeymoon, the discipler should ensure that the new Christian has a stable relationship with believers who will support their onward journey in that fellowship.
Catholics may note some similarity with the Mystagogia period from initiation at the Easter Vigil to the time around Pentecost seven weeks later. Insofar as there is a real change in the new Catholic’s life – access to the sacraments – and the cessation of a discipleship group (the RCIA fellowship) then attention to the new member is important. But we must also recognise that the sacraments of initiation celebrate publicly a decision to be a disciple of Christ which may have been made interiorly some months earlier – not fitting neatly with the date of Easter. It is equally important to offer spiritual mentorship at the time of personal conversion to Christ.
I mention this because lots of people have all sorts of myths in their heads about what the process of conversion looks like. Many think the Pauline model of sudden conversion is normative. It is not. Indeed, even Paul’s conversion was not all that sudden. As Jesus hints when he say, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), what we are actually seeing in the “conversion” on the Damascus Road is the culmination of a long process of struggle with conscience, reflection on Paul’s lifelong religious tradition and the battle with his own habits of pride and sin. He will allude to all this in his writings, notably in Romans 7. Indeed, to speak of Paul as a “convert” does a certain violence to what, in fact, occurred since he is not somebody repenting belief in a pagan god that is no god at all, but somebody coming to a deeper belief in and understanding of the God he has worshipped all his life as a Jew. (Note that this has applications to so-called “converts” from other Christian traditions to the Catholic communion as well. Every Christian “convert” already believes in the God of Israel who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If he is baptized, he already is in a real union with the Catholic Church. He is not beginning, but coming into a deeper union with the Church of which he is already, in some sense, a member.
But all that said, that is not primarily what Weddell is getting at. Rather, she is discussing the psychological/emotional/intellectual/spiritual journey that those attracted to the person of Jesus Christ, present in his Church, make.
People make that journey from all sorts of starting places, with all sorts of baggage, for all kinds of reasons. And they never make the journey unaccompanied since God is with them every step of the way, often accomodating their fears, loves, delusions, needs, psycho-emotional makeup, idiosyncracies, and a host of other things as he draws them further up and further in. He is, as George MacDonald says, easy to please but hard to satisfy. That is why, as I said the other day, God will unscrupulously use even such a terrible reason as “spiting my lib culture war enemies by using Catholic aesthetics” as an avenue into human hearts. Any time a human being approaches God, God responds by approaching that person. Jesus dined even with people who were looking for reasons to accuse him and turn even such fraught occasions into attempts to teach and offers of relationship. The goal is always to grow in relationship with us, as far as God is concerned, and many a dabbler has found that God is not kidding around the moment they have opened the door even the slightest crack to him.
Our trouble is that we are pretty sure we know who is “serious” and who isn’t. But the reality is we know virtually nothing. We often manage to be wrong about everything. We mistake people who have barely crossed thresholds of trust for committed disciples and we mistake people who are already so in love with Jesus that they would die for him for culture war enemies to be lightly tossed aside as CINOs. That a man like Paul could be treated with suspicion and contempt by his brothers and sisters in the Church is all you need to know about our amazing capacity for misjudging the situation.
That said, the five thresholds are a useful metric for helping those seeking Christ to come closer to him as they make their way through the chaos of this world. It’s not an infallible system, of course. Nothing manmade is infallible. But it is useful for helping people find Jesus, dwelling in the heart of his Church.