I recently spent an intense two weeks “on the road,” in teaching and evangelism. At the end of that time, coming home was a great delight, not least because of moving from minus 30 temperatures in Edmonton to plus 10 in Hamilton! My guess is that most of us have known that same sense of joy and relief at coming home.
It is unfortunate that mainline Christians do not have the same warm feelings about the word “conversion,” since it basically means the same thing. “Conversion” often has an old-fashioned ring to it. It smacks of the sawdust trail and raw emotion, of TV evangelists and the Damascus Road. At its worst, it’s seems like dangerous nonsense. At its best, it’s not quite respectable, not quite nice, not very Canadian
Yet conversion is central to the Christian tradition. And in a day when fewer and fewer come to church out of habit or because of family tradition, what will cause people with no Christian memory to become devoted followers of Christ? In a word, conversion. As a result, church leaders need to understand this neglected phenomenon, theologically, psychologically, and pastorally. We need to move beyond being intimidated by it or being scornful of it. In years to come, the churches which will thrive and grow, in whatever tradition, will be those where it is a normal and delightful part of church life for people to be joyfully “converted.”
The meaning of conversion
The word convert means simply to turn, or to return. In the Old Testament, the prophets appeal for Israel to return (shub) to the wholehearted love of Yahweh, and, as a consequence, return (the same word) home from exile. Terrence Prendergast, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Halifax, points out that Ezekiel stresses turning from evil while Jeremiah stresses turning to God. But the two are part of the same movement–and both are based on the grace of God. (1)
In the New Testament, Jesus picks up this same theme. His most famous parable, of course, is about a young man who had moved away from home, but then returns home: he was converted. Jesus (as so often) gives this old theme a new twist, however. To be converted, to (re)turn, in his teaching means to give our allegiance to him. The way to learn to love God wholeheartedly is now to become a follower of Jesus.
Conversion then, in both Old and New Testaments, means to respond to God’s loving invitation by (re)turning from our own way and joining God’s way. I like the way Urban Holmes puts it: “Conversion itself is an act of surrender . . . something akin to falling in love.” (2) When I am converted, I allow the Creator to weave my story into the Big Story he is writing about the world. When I am converted, I begin to give up doing my own thing. Instead, I throw in my lot with the community of Jesus’ followers who are learning to do God’s thing.
Holmes warns, however, that:
Historically, those Christians who have emphasized the sacraments have put very little emphasis upon conversion, and those who have sought conversion have had a weak sacramental theology. (3)
Fortunately, such a polarization is by no means inevitable. After all, baptism is the sacrament of conversion. In the BAS Baptismal Service, there are six questions put to the candidates. The fourth question is the pivotal one: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your saviour?” The “turn” to which this refers is made up of two movements, a negative one, turning away from evil (spelled out in the first three questions), and a positive one, turning towards Christ (articulated in the last two questions). There is the heart of conversion.
How does conversion happen?
In the life of the person converted, conversion may appear to be quick or it may appear to be slow. The conversion of the twelve, after all, was slow and undramatic, protracted over the three years they lived with Jesus. The Apostle Paul’s conversion, on the other hand, was sudden and dramatic, although it seems clear that God had been preparing him for this for many years. A survey in England revealed that most Christians said it had taken four years for them to come to faith. (4) Conversions seem tailored to individual circumstances and personalities, just as you would expect of our Creator.
The church’s part in nurturing conversion is simply to be faithful in its words and its works. We witness to the reality of Jesus Christ by being salt and light in the world. We witness to Christ through worship that is passionate and pure. And we witness through conversation, preaching and teaching which explains clearly who this Jesus is. A seeker-friendly church will also be welcoming to those who are exploring faith-non-judging, hospitable, inclusive-and give ample time and opportunity for newcomers to explore what faith is all about.
A parable of conversion
As Easter approaches, it is worth considering the story of the Emmaus road (Luke 24) as a parable of conversion.
- At first, the two disciples are confused and sad as they walk west towards Emmaus. Then Jesus comes and walks beside them, at first incognito. He helps them make sense of things by opening the Scriptures to them.
- The conversation climaxes as Jesus breaks the bread and their eyes are opened to recognise him for who he is.
- At once, they return down the road they have come. Now they are filled with joy and certainty. The word “return” is not used, but the symbolism seems plain. And now, they are walking east, towards the sunrise.
- In Jerusalem, they tell the story of their “conversion” to the community of disciples who have also discovered that Jesus is alive, and, as they speak, Jesus stands in the midst, saying “Peace!”
Conversion, coming home to God, it seems, is at the heart of both Scripture and sacrament. Faithfulness requires that we take it seriously. This edition of good idea! offers a number of “conversion” stories from around the country for our reflection and encouragement.
1 “Conversion,” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2000)
2 Urban T. Holmes, Turning to Christ: a Theology of Renewal and Evangelization (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 92.
3 Holmes 76.
4 John Finney, Finding Faith Today: How Does it Happen? (Swindon UK: British and Foreign Bible Society 1992) 24-25.