Speaking of Conversion…

Last Sunday I was discussing this idea as it is the ‘pointy end’ of mission and we need to have a handle on what we mean by this.

I’d written some stuff on my personal blog so I’ve copied it here for those who would like a summary of what we discussed on Sunday.

sharknet

The years 1959-1964 were a unique time in Perth history as they marked the Eric Edgar Cooke years – the period during which the city’s first serial killer was making his mark. If you want to read an intriguing account of this time then Robert Drewe’s Shark Net is well worth the time.

Drewe recounts living in close proximity to Cooke and observing him as he worked at his father’s Dunlop factory. He devotes a whole chapter to the 1959 Billy Graham crusade in Perth and his insights are valuable. An aspect of this story that has always left me both curious and chilled was his account of Graham’s evangelistic altar call:

He kept quietly urging and beckoning us to join him. It was hypnotic. It was contagious. The people getting up from their seats didn’t look like religious maniacs. The looked like your average movie audience on a Saturday night. I recognised neighbours and a contingent of boys from Wesley College whom I’d played sports against. I saw my friend John Sturkey. I saw the chemist’s wife and my old maths teacher. Two rows along I saw Eric, the Dunlop delivery driver, sitting by a sign saying ‘South Perth Methodists’. People stood up all along the rows or chairs and people began sliding down from the roofs of the cattle, horse and pig pavilions. The chemist’s wife stood up. Eric stood up and joined Billy Graham. People were having conversions all around me. p.174

Aside from it being a beautifully crafted piece of writing, it is an account that raises some enormous questions.

So Eric Cooke became a Christian at the 1959 Billy Graham crusade… shortly before he went on his 5 year rampage of 22 violent crimes and 8 murders?… What exactly happened there?

Eric Cooke hanged in Fremantle prison on October 26th 1964, the last man to die by capital punishment in Western Australia. Will we see Cooke in the next life?

I’ve been pondering questions of conversion and this is one that has stuck in my craw since reading Shark Net back in the mid 2000’s. Perhaps the broken, messed up person that was Eric Cooke did have an encounter with the grace of God that could never be undone, no matter his crimes. Or maybe Cooke was just another casualty of an evangelistic methodology that sought to herd ‘souls’ like cattle rather than disciple real people into the kingdom of God.

——

Yesterday I was reflecting on the life and death of Eric Cooke and whether he genuinely found faith in Christ or not. I’m glad I’m not the one having to make that call.

But it does raise the question of what constitutes a genuine and substantial conversion. Is it even still ok to speak of ‘conversion’ or is that too un-PC these days?… Its a topic that interests me because it really is the pointy end of mission. Ultimately the end game of mission is to see people follow Jesus and live in the kingdom of God, but how do you get there and how would you know if you are ‘there’ anyway?

I had thought this would make an interesting post-grad research area, but instead it was an 8hr sermon prep and some wide and varied speed reading that led me to the conclusions I offered this morning in our teaching at QBC. So its hardly an in-depth analysis, but even a scan of the scriptures offers some intriguing insights.

Scot McKnight has a helpful book entitled Turning to Jesus – The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels where he looks at how people come to faith when Jesus is around. It is often as simple as ‘follow me’, and it ends up with life changing encounters eg Zacchaeus where the person’s world is upended. He also looks at the ‘healing conversions’ (if they are that) and the response evoked from the person being healed who is unable to stop speaking of Jesus.

In Acts it is the diversity of conversion experiences that is interesting, from the Pentecost ‘mass evangelism’, to group conversions (Cornelius/jailer), the Areopagus where a philosophical debate leads to conversion or even Simon the magician trying to convert for reasons of personal gain – a reminder that not all conversions are genuine (as if American politics hasn’t already taught us that…)

I didn’t have time to smash thru the letters, but what I was trying to do was form a sense of the common elements in a conversion experience – recognising that conversion is both event and process.

So I finished with 1 broad idea that captured the essence of conversion as well as  5 elements that seemed to be essential in all conversions to Christ.

The broad idea is that of ‘turning’, as per 1 Thess 1:9 where the people turn from idols andto God. ‘Epistrophe’ seems to be a word used to describe this action and it is common to all experiences. If there is no ‘turning’ there is no conversion.

Then the five elements I picked up on were:

  1. An encounter with truth – the ‘gospel’ is proclaimed – spoken and communicated to the listener in such a way that they can understand. For Jesus it was as easy as ‘follow me’ (no doubt accompanied by some experience of him), but in Acts we read many sermons or verbal messages that contained the good news of the kingdom of God. For people to make a choice to ‘turn’ they need clarity around the message – the nature of the new life they are signing up for. So while we may advocate ‘speaking the gospel at all times, if necessary using words’ we have to acknowledge that we do need to use words.
  2. Repentance – this is the specific act of ‘turning’. Unless there is recognition that the current experience is a failed venture then it is again unlikely that there will be a conversion, Why would anyone turn from a life that is ‘working’ and feels just fine? More specifically, recognising brokenness as having its roots in sin is one of the great challenges for our mission in this time. While we may acknowledge that we are flawed, maybe even messed up, we live in a time when it is more likely for us to believe that we have the power within us to fix ourselves.
  3. Change of Allegiance – if repentance is problematic then offering someone else the title deeds to our life is even more challenging, yet this issue of ‘lordship’ is at the core of what it means to follow Christ. If a conversion is to have integrity and longevity then it will be because we have come to grips with the idea that ‘we are not our own’. Yeah… another popular idea…
  4. Action – the common ‘action’ in the Acts accounts seems to be baptism, but action simply refers to living differently as a result of the change of allegiance. We no longer get to opt out of offering forgiveness, or expressing generosity. We no longer fiddle taxes or watch dodgy stuff on TV because we are living with a whole new paradigm of life. James didn’t say ‘faith without works is ill’, he said ‘faith without works is dead’, so if a conversion does not show itself in a new way of life then perhaps it is questionable.
  5. Community – if we just convert to ‘go to heaven when we die’ (a truncated and flawed gospel at best) then there may be no need for community, but if the gospel is really the good news of the kingdom of God then it is unavoidably communal. To convert is to join the community of faith – to be part of the church and to live in a community of like minded people seeking first the kingdom of God. There is no faith outside of community. Yeah that’s a big statement, but its one I hold to. I get sick of hearing people tell me they don’t need church – as if ‘church’ was a pep talk each week to give a boost to their life. It negates the fact that when you choose not to be in community the rest of the church misses out, but it also reflects a deficient understanding of discipleship which is by its very nature communal. If you want to follow Jesus, but don’t want anything to do with the Christian community then I think there is something suspect in that decision.

What’s interesting is that these are not one off events, but rather ongoing commitments that both begin our journey in faith and also sustain it over the long haul. My observation of those who ‘de-convert’ or simply drift off into secularism is that one or more of these elements is allowed to become unimportant.

  • A rejection of the message – or supplanting with an easier message…
  • No longer a need to repent – feeling like we have evolved to a new consciousness where we are growing in our own ‘perfection’…
  • Deciding that you are running your own life in ‘this area’ and that area… taking back authority? Jesus becomes an advisor rather than the lord.
  • Choose not to do some things that a disciple would do – not into forgiveness or generosity – revert to practices more akin with a non-disciple? You slowly become a religious, church going person who lacks the traits of a disciple.
  • And move away from the community – take yourself out of a place of shared values and practices and you will slowly cease to own those values because that’s what community does – it earths us.

My Calvinist friends may well be shaking uncontrollably that I haven’t mentioned the work of God in conversion, his choosing, calling etc, but that isn’t the focus of what I am writing here. Conversion is unquestionably the Spirit’s work, as well as being our own decision, but my concern is more with what happens at our end to authenticate our experience.

What’s the point of this?

I asked the question this morning how many people would feel confident leading another person thru a conversion experience and not many hands went up. I sensed as much. I think its because we live in a world where we are (by and large) less certain about things and less willing to call people to the life of faith Jesus speaks of.

At every level we get met with objections – the sheer idea of ‘truth’, of the need to admit failure and repent, of giving away personal autonomy, of choosing to act in ways that are not convenient or self serving and then to submit myself to another bunch of people are all counter-cultural and difficult ideas, but then the kingdom of God is always intended to look radically different to western suburban life, so maybe that’s where it all gets tricky…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *