A recent Pew Research Center survey found that in the United States, religious groups get the warmest ratings from those with personal connections. In other words, "Americans who personally know someone in a religious group different from their own – or who have at least some knowledge about that group – generally are more likely to have positive feelings about members of that group than those who don’t."
This survey bolsters the evangelization frameworks and strategies we have at our disposal. There are two in particular that I want to talk about: stages of evangelization and the Five Thresholds.
When we take a step back and look at a strategy for forming disciples, we see that a really important stage is "pre-evangelization." If you're not familiar with the term, pre-evangelization is the stuff we do to help "till the soil" before we can plant the seeds of the Gospel. I like how Tim Glemkowski of L'Alto Catholic Institute breaks the overall process of evangelization into four parts:
There's a really helpful data-driven framework for interpersonal evangelization that was developed by a couple of Protestant brothers in the faith, and it's called the Five Thresholds. The creators realized that as people come to faith, they typically go through similar stages:
Basically, as someone is being drawn into a relationship with the Lord, they usually have to make it over each of these "thresholds" to make progress. For those of us who are trying to evangelize people in our lives, it helps to get an idea of where they're at so we can figure out how to best accompany them along their journey to Jesus. Here's a brief video explaining each of the thresholds...
The Trust threshold is the beginning of it all. Evangelization is rooted in genuine relationships, and if trust isn't built, it's very difficult to help someone move towards Christ. Without trust, why would they even listen to what we have to say about Jesus and the faith?
This is why the beginning of evangelization often doesn't even feel like evangelization! The very first step is sort of a primer, and it fits into the pre-evangelization stage. Our strategy is to simply build an authentic relationship with the person we want to share Jesus with. On one hand, we need to be careful this relationship isn't contrived or utilitarian. On the other hand, it's important that we intentionally seek to build trust before we begin to plant seeds.
The Pew Research Center survey has direct implications for our evangelistic efforts, particularly as they relate to the stages of evangelization and the Trust threshold. The survey shows a statistically significant difference between someone's sentiments towards religious groups based on whether or not they have relationships with people in those groups.
Recall how the first stage of evangelization is "pre-evangelization." Our efforts to bring someone to Christ must begin with adequate preparation. This survey confirms the importance of pre-evangelization. As you look at the table above, you can see how a personal relationship with someone who is Catholic has a significant impact on their openness to our Faith. Just knowing other committed Catholics can help them be more open.
The study also supports the Five Thresholds framework, specifically when looking at the Trust threshold. As we build a relationship of trust with someone, their feelings towards the Church will soften and "warm up." This is really important today because the Church doesn't have a great reputation in the public's eye, in general. It would be a shame for someone to not even attempt to open up to Christ due to distrust of the Church based on what they've heard in the negative media reports. Don't get me wrong, we've got some problems we need to sort out on multiple levels, but we've been here before and made it through, and Jesus promised that we will ultimately prevail (cf. Matthew 16:18). Still, people are going to need a little extra help trusting the Church and Christ Himself.
The four stages of evangelization are a way to step back and see the bigger picture regarding how people come to a genuine experience of conversion. It's the "macro" view. Then we can get a more in-depth "micro" view of what the process of conversion looks like as we contemplate the Five Thresholds. So here's how we can put it all together as we strive to evangelization our friends and family...
The great news about the pre-evangelization stage and the Trust threshold is that the very first step in evangelization is usually one of the easiest. Just be a good friend. A good family member. This is why evangelizing and proselytizing are different. Proselytizing is about coercion, but evangelization is about attracting people to the faith and inviting them to seek a personal relationship with the Lord. It all starts by building a relationship of trust with the person.
"The Lord's mandate to go out and evangelize comes from within, by falling in love, by loving attraction. One does not follow Christ, and even less become an evangelizer, because of a decision made sitting around a table, or by one’s own activism. Even missionary thrust can be fruitful only if it takes place within this attraction, and transmits it to others."
Your greatest tools for pre-evangelization and the Trust threshold are the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity (CCC 1832). If you want to become a better evangelizer, begin by praying for the Holy Spirit to bear this fruit in your life. Be intentional about starting up conversations, being open about your faith, and listening as others tell you about their own opinions and beliefs. Get good at subtly working your relationship with Christ into conversations in non-threatening ways. Look for opportunities to invite friends and family to pre-evangelization events at your parish (if your parish has any).
While evangelization begins with relationship-building and trust, it can't stop there. If you're just a really nice person, that won't bring anyone to Jesus. There are four stages of evangelization and five thresholds for a reason.
After building trust, we need to be intentional about helping people move through the Five Thresholds. The next stage is Curiosity, where the person is interested in learning more about the Faith, but they're not yet open to the idea that they may take on those beliefs for themselves. This is where you can have more explicit discussions about Jesus and what it's like to live as His disciple. But don't try to convince them of anything at this stage, they're just sort of gathering information.
The point is, conversion involves movement and change. If our evangelization strategies are static, they will inevitably fall short. We need to be good at accompanying someone in their journey to Christ, and that means being ready for each stage of the process. As Pope Francis has indicated, we should become their "traveling companions."
This is why the two fundamental components of evangelization are so important: witness and proclamation. Witness is the example of our lives as disciples of Christ. Proclamation is actually speaking about Jesus. For evangelization to be effective, you can't have one without the other. Pre-evangelization and the Trust threshold call for your witness to be primary. But as you move further along through the process, your proclamation becomes more and more important. And as we see in the stages of evangelization, an explicit proclamation of the Gospel is necessary to move the person into discipleship and apostolate.
After your pre-evangelization efforts and the Trust threshold, you'll want to ask the Holy Spirit to help you with actually talking to the person about Jesus. Know your own testimony. Be ready to articulate what Christ has done in your life and how He has drastically changed you.
"Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope."
1 Peter 3:15
We Catholics have been notorious for not talking about our faith and relationship with the Lord. That needs to stop... or rather, we need to start getting better at giving verbal testimony. Otherwise, all our work in pre-evangelization and the Trust threshold will go nowhere. It's true that perhaps your pre-evangelization and trust-building efforts will help prepare them for someone else to proclaim the Gospel, but let's not just assume someone else will always take it from there.
Taking a look at the bigger picture, and breaking evangelization down into stages and thresholds is really helpful to me. Whether or not it's helpful for you to look at it this way, it's important to remember that most people need to be "warmed up" before they're ready to receive the Gospel. The survey from the Pew Research Center is encouraging data that shows us how a simple, authentic relationship with someone can make a significant impact in their openness to the Faith and to receiving the Good News.