Welcome back to the Lawn Chair Catechism, brainchild of the lovely ladies at CatholicMom.com, in which we’re discussing Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. An introduction to the project and information on ordering the book, as well as the study guide and links to all previous posts I’ve written on the topic, can be found on my Lawn Chair Catechism page.
This week, we’re discussing the fifth chapter: “Thresholds of Conversion: Can I Trust You?” I was really excited to get into this chapter because it was the beginning of the part of the book where we learn how to help build the Church back up. After reading many chapters of statistics and stories that threatened to make me despair about the state of the Church, I was happy to finally get to read about how we might go about fixing it.
One of the most surprising things to me in this chapter was the idea that catechesis is not for drawing people into the faith, but for helping those who are already there grow in it. While I know lots of people who have read their way into the Church, learning all they could about the faith and eventually converting, I realized that this was not the initial stage of their journey.
But more about that later. In this chapter, Sherry discusses a campus ministry at UCLA that saw a decline in students who had conversion experiences; the ministers began to investigate what it was that drew the students who did have such an experience to Christianity. After asking most of the 37 students who had a conversion experience in one academic year about their faith journey, they discovered that there was a definite pattern, various thresholds, that each went through as they moved towards true discipleship. There were five general stages involved, and how long each took depended on each person. Sherry puts them in terms Catholics can understand, and outlines the basic pattern all of us follow as we move towards intentional discipleship:
- Initial trust
- Spiritual curiosity
- Spiritual openness
- Spiritual seeking
- Intentional discipleship
Initial trust is what the rest of the chapter focuses on. Trust does not necessarily mean that a person trusts God or the Church, but that there is some connection with Christianity and Christ Himself that is comfortable, familiar, and easy to trust. She mentions a friend who grew up without any religion at all who nevertheless felt Christmas was not complete without Linus’ recitation of the Nativity story from Luke’s gospel. For other people, it might be the love they feel from someone who is a committed Christian. It might be the very idea that someone is simply living a joyful life as a faithful Catholic. This is the first step in helping someone move closer to Christ. Without this “bridge of trust,” as Sherry calls it, a person cannot move forward towards intentional discipleship and a life lived for Christ.
Of course, these days there is widespread distrust of the Church. While some of it could be categorized as misunderstandings, there are thousands of people who have been hurt by and lost their trust because of the scandals the Church has gone through in recent decades. There are people who have been so hurt by those they once trusted that their bridge seems burned to cinders; they seem to be on the other side of a chasm that nothing can cross. But nothing is impossible for God, and healing can be achieved, even for those whose bridges are nothing but dust. The first step in this is to build trust. Often, it just means loving a person no matter what. It means being that link back to the Church they once loved. It means praying for them.
Even within the Church, there are people who are on the threshold of trust rather than over it. They might trust God, but not the Church. They might trust the Church and the people in it, but not God. They might trust their priest, but not the Church as a whole. These people, too, need to be reached so that they can find the joy that’s available to them when they live as disciples of Christ and His Church. Again, the biggest thing we can do is just simply love people who are not over this threshold. Let them see your own joy. Let them see that being a Catholic who is also an intentional disciple means being happy. Before you can even approach them with facts and catechism, you must approach them with love and joy. This is what will ultimately help them begin their journey to (to back to) the Church.
I never realized it, but before someone can move towards Christ and His Church, this trust must be present. Somewhere along the line, all my friends who read and studied themselves Catholic had some kind of trust that was the spark that lit their fire. It might have been a person they knew who was happy and at peace with the Faith, or it might have even been blogs where they lurked online, attempting to learn what Christians were really like. It might have been a nun who spoke kind words during a lonely time.
So let’s take a look at the discussion questions.
In your own faith:
- How was the bridge of trust built for you?
- Who are the people who helped you to come as far as you have in your personal journey?
- Have you ever been that link of trust for another person?
In your parish:
- What are actions you can take at your parish to make your congregation a place of trust?
- Are there barriers in the public imagination – such as a concern about scandals or financial misdeeds – that require increased transparency in order to foster genuine trust?
Again, I’ll focus on the personal questions. This is such a new concept to me that I’m having trouble moving past applying this to myself!
I have always had a trust in God, even though there was a time when I wondered if He was angry at me (and perhaps punishing me). I think my father was probably the one person who really helped me to trust God and His Church. My dad has a real quiet kind of faith – a trait I believe he got from his own father. He trusts the Church, and encouraged the same behavior in me. I’ve always loved the Catholic Church; I can’t remember a time when I considered leaving (though I can point to a long stretch of time when I wasn’t practicing much). It never occurred to me that I would marry anywhere but in the Church, standing in front of the altar. It was never a question that I would raise my children to be Catholic, either. Even though my husband was not Catholic when we married (indeed, he did not even believe in God when we first were engaged), we agreed while we were dating that our children would attend Mass every Sunday without fail, and that he would accompany us to Mass.
I haven’t asked him outright, but I think I might have been that link of trust for my husband. He was raised Methodist but lost his faith as a teen. Our conversations about his take on God were headache-inducing for me, and I eventually handed it over to God, praying that our upcoming nuptuals would be meaningful to him in the same way they were meaningful to me. It wasn’t long after that desperate prayer that he told me he was “thinking of being a Christian.” After we married, he offered to convert, but when I asked if it was for me or because he believed, he said it was purely for me. I don’t know what possessed me to say this, but I told him that wasn’t the right way to do it. I said he ought to convert if he truly believed what the Church taught.
I kicked myself for more than a decade for that comment. But when he came into the Church at the Easter Vigil of 2006, it was because he fully embraced the Church’s teachings. As a result of his long journey, my own faith grew and matured. It turns out it was a good thing for both of us that he didn’t convert for me.
One day, I’ll finally convince him to write his conversion story.
How about you? If you’re a convert (or a re-vert like me), who or what was your bridge of trust into the Church? Join the conversation below or over at CatholicMom.com, and be sure to check out the other comments and blog links at the Lawn Chair Catechism page!