Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion

[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]

I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.

All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:

  1. Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
  2. Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
  3. Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
  4. Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.

As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself¬†within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these¬†do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.

So reading this about conversion¬†got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and¬†welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them¬†in a radically gracious¬†and genuinely¬†invested way, this display of the Spirit through love¬†really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with¬†God’s power unto¬†salvation. Nothing can make people want to¬†follow¬†Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.

Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.

So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining¬†encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance?¬†I think the proper answer to¬†this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.

Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.

As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.

I'm 22. I'm married with a toddler and a newborn. love Jesus Christ. I grew up a Southern Baptist and now situate myself within Evangelical Calvinism (which isn't TULIP!). I also draw substantially from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and Alastair Roberts. I go to the Baptist College of Florida. I'm also a bit nerdy.