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 themselve 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 committment before their questioning heart cools down. The challenge must be clear – not dressed up in obscuring church language, but not over-simmplified 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.