The Stages of Discipleship

GDC imageThe approach taken to evangelization in the past few decades has been to try to repair peoples faith with knowledge. On the theory that the disease is ignorance, we have tried to give people the vaccine of truth. Now let’s be clear, many people would admit that they don’t know much about their faith, but the question is, what is the best way to help people who are searching?

“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15).

This verse has become a kind of rallying cry for the above approach to the world. In this view, the world is a dark and messed up place and our role as Christians is to debate and argue with unbelievers and to try to lead them the truth so that they will be saved. Hope fully we noticed that St. Peter says this dialogue should be done with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:16). One might call the this the “educate to save” approach.

Again, it is certainly true and many people are mixed up about their faith and that our goal should be to bring them to the fullness of truth. The problem is, if we are honest, the “debate and argue with unbelievers” approach is not bearing much fruit in our modern world.

Perhaps this could be linked to a recent trend created by Rod Dreher which he calls the “Benedict Option.” Considering our modern difficulties, maybe we should just give up and stage a tactical retreat from the world? Maybe we should move out of the city, buy a farm, and raise goats.

Author and social media personality, Fr. Dwight Longenecker has declare that the Benedict Option “may be the only option because debate has ended.” He notes that, “Our society is so worm-eaten with relativism the any idea that one might use reason, research and debate to discover truth is defunct.”

While it might be true that certain approaches are less fruitful in our modern world, we do need to ask, what approach does the church propose for reaching out to our culture?

Documents such as the General Directory for Catechesis, propose that catechesis occurs as part of the process of evangelization. It unfolds in stages and is a slow process.

One way to picture this process is to compare it to the stages of baseball game. In the game of baseball to score a run, the players must proceed through a series of stages. After hitting the ball the player needs run the baseline and get to first base. The next goal is to get to second base, then third, then home to score a run.

Getting to first base in evangelization, is called primary initial evangelization. The goal of this stage is for the person to make a decision to put Jesus at the center of their life.  Before the person can reach this decision point, they must be led through a series of thresholds involving the basic human needs of security, love and acceptance.  This pre-evangelization stage prepares the human heart to consider the claims of the Gospel. Then when the person is ready, the Gospels is presented and an invitation for a response is given.

Using human trust as a bridge the evangelizer must connect these basic needs to a desire for God and his word. This special ministry of the word is directed at non-believers, those who have chosen not to believe or who have fallen away from the faith, those who follow other religions, and to the children of Christians who have not yet experienced conversion (NDC 49).

After reaching first base in our analogy, running the next baseline is called initiatory catechesis. This phase is like an apprenticeship in the heart and habits of being a disciple. Having made the decision to put Jesus at the center of their life they need to be nurtured by learning to pray, to meditate on Scripture, to become part of a caring community, to engage in a rich sacramental life, to learn to rely on the Holy Spirit, and to foster a spirit of service.

All of this prepares the person for second base. The General Directory refers this stage as permanent perfective catechesis. This base is kind of a world of its own. It is here that we unpack the whole bottomless treasury of the Church.

Over the course of a life time we learn the entire depth of our faith, such as we see summarized in the Catechism. This course of learning should be an endless life long process. Yet this is not the final goal of the process. We are only on second base!

When we look at the words of Jesus in the Gospels, more than 80% of what he says is practical teaching about daily life.  Jesus wants to prepare each one of us to be missionary disciples. At third base, we are equipped with basic skills in evangelization. We learn about the special gifts that God has invested in us to help build the Church.

Finally, we head back out into the world fully to help make disciples and to help them to come to know Jesus in the Church.  Unfortunately, the “educate to save” approach often ignores the above stages and tries to “debate” and “argue” people directly to second base while ignoring all the process in between.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit as an Advocate to be with us always. The Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept” (John 14:18) but by following these stages and proclaiming the Good News this same Spirit can personally become known to each one of us and remain in us.

Is it possible that forgotten stages in this process are responsible for some of our ministry frustrations? Have you personally decided to put Christ at the center of our life? Does that decision need to be renewed? Imaging the transformation that would occur in our parishes if we aligned all our programs to the goal of missionary discipleship.


I wish to acknowledge my debt for the baseball analogy in this post to the excellent concept video on discipleship by Carole Brown, Ph.D.
Director of New Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.



One comment

  1. […] to their spiritual harm.  The question is ‘How do we move people along in their faith?’ People need to move through stages and experience conversion, before advancing to a more rigorous understanding of their […]

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