A Muslim man once confidently told me that everyone born in the United States is a Christian, unless his family is Muslim or Jewish. I did not ask him what that means for people from Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh, or Baha’i families, nor did I ask what it meant for people who intentionally convert to one of these religions later in life.
A convert is, simply, a person who has been converted – that is, a person who has chosen to be altered or transformed. In religious conversion, a person who believed certain things about God and existence comes to believe other things and adjusts his or her life accordingly.
I know little about the way other religions view conversion or the expectations they consider appropriate for converts. If they are anything like those placed on Christian converts, they vary widely from group to group. Among the many groups that claim allegiance to Jesus, some require only a verbal profession of faith. Others expect regular church attendance, participation in instructional classes, and personal accountability in an ongoing relationship with a spiritual mentor.
Whether a simple confession or many months of intensive training, most Christian groups see the process of conversion culminating in the admission of the prospective convert into the church family, usually at baptism. This, I think, is a mistake, which does not serve the convert or the church, and does not align well with the biblical data on the nature of transformation.
To communicate to prospective converts, even unintentionally, that membership in a church body is an end in itself is like communicating to an 18-year-old recruit that getting through basic training is all there is to being a Marine. He didn’t sign up just to wear the uniform but to serve his country. Likewise, the person entering the church didn’t convert just to get her name on the church membership roll.
To think that conversion abruptly ends when one is received into fellowship in a church is to misunderstand conversion. People sometimes talk about “the moment of conversion,” as if conversion is accomplished at a single point in time. Perhaps, from God’s point of view, it is. From our point of view, it isn’t even close.
It is helpful to think of conversion as a process, much as moving to a new home is a process. One investigates the house, the neighborhood, and considers the price. Next, a decision is made: we will move to the new home. Then the papers are signed. It’s official: this is now our new home. But the process is hardly complete.
Next comes the move. It is determined what stuff will go and what stuff will stay, since not everything will have a place in the new home. What will go is packed. What will stay is disposed of or left behind.
The date finally arrives for spending our first night in the new home and with it comes all kinds of adjustments. We learn which noises mean something and which do not. We learn how long it takes to get places, like work or the store. We do maintenance. We develop routines. We discover the best places in our new home for solitude and for entertaining, for getting work done and for relaxing. We orient our lives and our schedules around our new home.
Something akin to this orientation takes place in religious conversion. A person moves to a new spiritual home and begins orienting his or her life to it. In the case of Christian conversion, a person orients his life around Christ himself: his teaching, his ways, and his stated desire for people. Christ becomes their new home.
This is the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples to: “abide in me.” He expected them to move their lives into his: to take up permanent residence in an ongoing relationship with him and orient their lives around him.
This is more than taking catechism classes, though they may be helpful in making the move. It is even more than being baptized. It is starting a new life; so new, in fact, that Jesus once spoke of it as being born again.
First published by Gatehouse Media