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HomeApostolic MindsetFrom ‘lost’ to found’: Evangelization and the thresholds of conversion 

From ‘lost’ to found’: Evangelization and the thresholds of conversion 

Evangelization can seem mysterious. For much of my life, I had very little idea of the process of conversion. I understood that usually a person would have some questions, they would be told about the life of Jesus and things like the sacraments, and at a certain point that person would make the decision to become a disciple of Jesus. Beyond those incredibly basic ideas, I had no clue what went on in the life of a person who was journeying from being “lost” to being “found.” 

The lack of any substantial knowledge about the process of conversion led me to believe that only someone who was an “expert” could ever be effective in accompanying another person towards the decision of faith. I had resigned myself to the role of “pinch hitter,” trying to be prepared to answer general questions about Catholicism (if ever asked), but never imagining myself taking a leading role in the process. 

I imagine your experience may look or feel similar to mine. We understand the importance of sharing the faith, occasionally hear homilies encouraging us to do it, but we very rarely take steps to evangelize. Sometimes we may even fall into the misconception that evangelization is an “extra credit” assignment for those who are really well trained, motivated and have plenty of free time on their hands. Although it’s been almost 10 years since its release, I’m still struck by this short section from Pope Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel”: 

“…it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized” (Joy of the Gospel, 120). 

All of us, everyone who has been baptized, has a share in the mission of the Church. The mission of the Church is to evangelize. St. Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Evangelization in the Modern World, says, “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14). In this, the Church is simply carrying on the mission of Jesus, who himself says, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10).  

The reality, however, is that true evangelization is limited. This is not due to a lack of concern for those who are far from God — we’d all be hard-pressed to find a committed Catholic who didn’t have a family member or friend they were concerned for — but rather, it is due to a lack of being properly equipped. We haven’t been given the knowledge or the skills we need to feel confident and equipped to evangelize. The good news is that proper formation does exist to equip us — and it doesn’t take a master’s degree in theology to understand it and put it into practice. 

Thresholds of Conversion 

The Catholic world is indebted to Sherry Weddell for her insightful book, Forming Intentional Disciples. In her book, she presents the findings of a research study that aimed to answer the question, “Are there general stages a person goes through on their journey towards conversion?” Although each person’s journey is unique and unrepeatable, the research discovered that there were four general “thresholds” a person passed through on their way towards a conversion. This information is invaluable to us in better understanding where our family members or friends are in their journey towards Christ. 

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Understanding these “thresholds” is very much like understanding a trail that takes someone from the base of a mountain to its summit. Imagine you have a friend who has set out to summit, for the very first time, a peak you are well acquainted with. Having summited this peak before, you understand the different stages of the ascent. The first stage of the climb passes through densely wooded forest, after which you must navigate several small streams, which lead to a confusing set of switchbacks and finally a scramble up loose scree to the peak. As your friend is beginning this climb, they get lost. They call you up on their satellite phone and beg for your help! What is the first thing you would do to assist them? Find out what part of the trail they are currently on! Instructions for navigating the scree to the summit are going to be distracting (at best) if your friend needs help to navigate the final stages of the forest. Your assistance to them will depend entirely on understanding what part of the climb they are currently on and helping them take the next steps on the journey. 

The process of evangelization, of accompanying our friend towards conversion, makes use of the exact same principle. The first step in assisting someone on the journey to a conversion is coming to understand what part of the “climb” they are on. This is where the “thresholds of conversion” serve as indispensable markers.  

It would take considerably more space to give justice to each of these thresholds (and the “skills” used in each). However, I’d like to share with you a brief summary of those thresholds along with some key “indicators” that may help you identify where someone is in the process, and finally some tips on what you can do to partner with the Holy Spirit in helping them take the next step towards conversion.  

Trust

Tips on helping others cross into this threshold:
• Make and keep promises, find ways to relate to them on a personal/human level, remember important details about their life, delight in them, listen to their story.
• Avoid defensiveness or being judgmental! 

Indications that a person has crossed into this threshold:
• They have a bridge of trust built. It could be that they trust the institution of the Church (though this is very rare). More than likely they have come to trust an individual who is a disciple of Jesus.

Curiosity

Tips on helping others cross into this threshold:
• Speak the name of Jesus out loud, share your testimony, tell Jesus stories (stories from the Gospels or the lives of saints), ask questions (engage in spiritual conversations). 
• Avoid apologetics, focus on Jesus. Make sure to match their level of curiosity. 

Indications that a person has crossed into this threshold:
• They desire to know more about Jesus. They are intrigued by Christian things. They are asking questions.
• Important to note: They are not yet ready to change. Their curiosity does not yet imply a willingness to try something new, go to an event, or change their habits. 

Openness

Tips on helping others cross into this threshold:
• Intercede for them to become open, break the silence (don’t wait for them to take the initiative), connect the spiritual dots for them, ask for a sign, pray with them (out loud in person), have patience (there are usually many invitations before the one “yes”). 

Indications that a person has crossed into this threshold:
• They acknowledge their openness to change. They are now willing to be active in their curiosity and interest, willing to try new things, attend events, change habits.
• This can be triggered by major life events. 

Seeking

Tips on helping others cross into this threshold:
• Model the Christian life for them (both the ups and downs), introduce them to other disciples, keep the focus on Jesus, share the kerygma with them. 

Indications that a person has crossed into this threshold:
• They are seriously considering the invitation of Jesus to a lifelong, intimate relationship. They have an increased awareness of their sin, they are weighing the “cost of discipleship”; could be compared to “dating with purpose.”

Initial Conversion

• How do we help another person move from seeking to a conversion?
• A clear, direct, personal invitation to make a decision to become Jesus’ disciple.

Understanding the thresholds of conversion is a sure help towards building our confidence and effectiveness in sharing our faith with others. However, we need to avoid the serious temptation that leads us to believe we need to be “perfectly trained” before we can begin sharing the faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider the woman at the well in John 4. She had no training and displayed incorrect theology yet introduced her entire village to the person of Jesus. We should be intentional about growing in our ability to share effectively, but we should never let the knowledge that we have more to learn prevent us from beginning our mission now.  

So, with this knowledge in mind, let’s get to the good work of evangelization! Here are some parting words from Pope Francis, which he wrote in “Joy of the Gospel”: 

“Of course, all of us are called to mature in our work as evangelizers. We want to have better training, a deepening love and a clearer witness to the Gospel. In this sense, we ought to let others be constantly evangelizing us. But this does not mean that we should postpone the evangelizing mission; rather, each of us should find ways to communicate Jesus wherever we are. All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives. In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without him; what you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others” (Joy of the Gospel, 121). 

Have questions? Looking for a more in-depth conversation about the thresholds of conversion? Interested in a practical workshop to practice some of the evangelization skills mentioned here? The Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries would love to host a relational evangelization training at your parish. Contact Office.EFLM@archden.org  or 303.715.3220 for more details. 

Andrew McGown
Andrew McGown
Andrew McGown is the Executive Director of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries for the Archdiocese of Denver.
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