Christianity at its core is a religion of Conversion. The word conversion, as most of my readers already know, comes from the Latin conversio which means to turn, or a turning, especially a religious or moral turn of direction. While this can begin with a significant event in a person’s life, such as Saul who became Paul on the road to Damascus, it most fully refers to an on-going process. I would argue that conversion is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity and of the life of a disciple of Jesus.
Of course, we Episcopalians are not often the Damascus Road kind of Christians. Most of us prefer to think about ourselves more like Barnabas; quietly faithful folks who are kind and want to help and encourage others. However, we do know that Christianity does begin with conversion. Even when we baptize an infant, we believe that this child will have to come to a moment when she or he turns to their faith, claims it for themselves, and must take on what was promised for them in Baptism.
Over the years, I have come to understand that Episcopalians do not have a very clear understanding of conversion and what the process involves. I believe it is one of the primary tasks of clergy to help our people understand conversion and what is being formed in us through this process.
The place to start is with is the realization that Christianity involves more than accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord and certainly more than becoming a member of the Church. What we fail to understand is that Christianity actually includes three conversions. What do I mean by this? Let me lay out what I understand these three conversions to be.
Turning to Christ
There is, of course, a conversion to Christ – to embrace him as our Savior and to consciously choose to follow him as his disciple. The Episcopal Church’s official definition of evangelism communicates this. “Evangelism is to present Jesus Christ in the Power of the Holy Spirit so that men and women are led to accept him as savior and follow him in the fellowship of his Church.”
All of the Church’s official and historical formularies, whether we refer to the Creeds or the 39 Articles or the Baptismal Covenant, affirm this definition. In the Risen Christ we find both a Savior who by his death and resurrection has given us a new life and a Lord who calls us to a new way of living. Dean Urban Holmes rightfully caught the fullness of this in his extremely important book Turning to Christ.
In North America, Evangelicals often put most emphasis on the first part of this, “being saved.” Some even say that this being saved is the main thing because it guarantees us eternal life. They even equate salvation with eternal life. Jesus and his early followers, however, called people to discipleship; following after Jesus in a disciplined and intentional way. “Come and follow me” was both Jesus’ invitation and that of the early Church. Making accepting Christ to be only about going to heaven is a serious theological fault and one that lessens the fullness of Salvation which begins when we do turn to Jesus.
Turning to the Church
For Christians, there is also a necessary conversion to the Church. In the New Testament, the writers make no distinction between being in Christ and being a member of his body the Church. Of course, following the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the idea of Christendom, we see the sad development that people can be members of the Church, but not really followers of the Christ. In our time, it is safe to say that such “nominal Christianity” is a major obstacle to non-Christians experiencing the full reality of real disciples who have a converted life.
This artificial creation of “membership” should not deflect us from the call to conversion to the Church. Christianity is a communal religion. It is meant to be lived in a meaningful and on-going accountable set of relationships with other disciples. “You are the body of Christ” Paul affirmed, “and individual members of it.” The organic image of the body of Christ that Paul uses for the Church is a powerful expression of life lived in mutual love with others. When one suffers, then we all suffer. If one rejoices, we all rejoice. It is certainly true that much of Church and congregational life that we see today falls far from this ideal, but that does not negate the reality of what the Church is called to be. One cannot grow beyond a certain point in the Christian faith without this conversion.
And this conversion is not to an “Idealized Church,” but to a local congregation of real human beings. Yes, this means sinners with all our imperfections. Yet, it is also true that it is in living into this calling to community that our path of holiness of life and our vocation to the world is grounded. Bonhoeffer’s book Life in Community about the underground seminary that he led before his arrest by the Nazi’s is a testimony to the power of such a life. There are many other examples of rediscovered community as a means of revival throughout the history of Christianity. One need only think of Benedict or Francis to find how community brought a revival of the Christian experience.
One of the encouraging signs of our age can be found among a movement of new church plants that take on this more organic calling of community. Sometimes they take on names like “the Abby” or use “fellowship” or “Community” to express something deeper than the word “Church.” For these planters, Church has come to mean much that falls short of this conversion. Truthfully, many of our members see Church as more like a club of like-minded individuals. The Church is not such an organization. It is a called community.
Turning to Mission
Third, there is also a conversion to Christ’s Mission to our world. Jesus told his disciples that “as the Father has sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” But how did the Father send the son?
God sent him to Love the world, to give his life for the world, to bring hope to the broken, lost, hurting and alienated of this world and to work as our Baptismal Covenant says, “For the dignity of every human being.”
I have known many in the Church over the years who genuinely seem to know Jesus and who are faithful Church members, but who are stunted in their spiritual growth because they fail to understand this third conversion. Many Church members see acts of charity or participation in a ministry that touches hurting people as some sort of optional activity that some members might choose to take on. Is this not what the word “outreach” often means? Yet, any reading of the New Testament makes it clear that to turn to Christ means to take up his work.
And this work also includes working to have our world more in alignment with God’s Kingdom. This is a Kingdom and Reign of justice and peace. The early Christians stepped over every racial, ethnic, and cultural barrier to make Christ known. Converts, who were slaves, women, outcast, and even some who were from the upper classes, lived, loved, and even died with one another. It is true that the “blood of the martyrs were the seeds of the Church”, but it is also true that many saw how these Christians “loved one another” as a testimony to the transformative power of God to change lives – to convert the hearts of men and women.
Let me end this piece with a few observations that flow from what I have said about the converted life.
First, we often see people who have experienced one of these conversions, but not all three. For example, some Evangelicals are good at proclaiming the conversion to Christ, but often take a very casual view of the Church, and almost no interest in the work of Christ’s mission among the poor and needy.
There are also those who deeply love the Church, its liturgy and worship, the beauty of classical music, and even it organization and structures, but whom at the same time “know not Christ.”
In our current setting, we must also acknowledge that there are many in the Episcopal Church among our Progressive leadership who are sacrificially dedicated to Christ’s Mission in the world, but who hold a kind of disdain for the local Church, and who forget whose mission this is, whose reign we proclaim, and for whom we do this work.
The answer then is not to criticize those who hold such positions for after all they are partially right, but to fully embrace that Christianity must involve a three-fold conversion for the fullness of this new life to live in us. All of us should seek a fuller turning to Christ, to his Church, and to his mission to this broken and hurting world?