Regular readers of this blog will have to think back long and hard to the last time I heaped big praise on an article in Christianity Today. This is not because I don’t like Christianity Today–I actually like it quite a bit–but because as I await Christian perfection it is easier for me to riff on articles I don’t like than to call your attention to articles that I think you and I should print out and tape to each other’s foreheads because they are so good.
Gordon T. Smith’s The New Conversion: Why We ‘Become Christians’ Differently Today is a first class forehead taper. I have nothing to add to what Smith writes in the piece. I think it’s phenomenal and desire only that you go on to read it after I spoil the surprise by quoting from it at length.
Smith masterfully summarizes the revivalistic mindset which, thankfully, is on the wane among evangelicals today. I say “thankfully” because the darn thing just isn’t nearly as Scriptural as we’ve purported it to be over the last century and a half:
Evangelicals took for granted that the language and categories of revivalism were the language and categories of the New Testament. Conversion was viewed to be a punctiliar experience: persons could specify with confidence and assurance the time and place of their conversion, by reference, as often as not, to the moment when they prayed what was typically called “the sinner’s prayer.”
The focus of conversion was the afterlife: one sought salvation so that one could “go to heaven” after death, and the assumption was that “salvation” would lead to disengagement from the world. Once converted, the central focus of one’s life would be church or religious activities, particularly those that helped others come to this understanding of salvation that assured them of “eternal life” after death. Life in the world was thought to hold minimal significance. What counted was the afterlife. And if one had “received Christ,” one could be confident of one’s eternity with God. Conversion was isolated from the experience of the church. Indeed, it was generally assumed that a person would come to faith outside of the church and then be encouraged, after conversion, to join a church community.
Typically evangelicals approached evangelism through the use of techniques or formulas by which a person would be introduced to spiritual principles or “laws” on the assumption that if these principles were accepted as “true,” a person would offer an appropriate prayer and thus “become” a Christian.
Baptism, it was insisted, was subsequent to conversion and essentially optional. For although baptism was thought to be perhaps important, true spiritual experience was considered a personal, interior, subjective experience and thus not sacramental.
So where are we headed? Someplace very, very good: Backward, to the treasures we received from our Christian forebears as of primary importance–treasures that we kind of forgot to steward but are now by the grace of God recovering from the attic:
Increasingly, there is appreciation that conversion is a complex experience by which a person is initiated into a common life with the people of God who together seek the in-breaking of the kingdom, both in this life and in the world to come. This experience is mediated by the church and thus necessarily includes baptism as a rite of initiation. The power or energy of this experience is one of immediate encounter with the risen Christ—rather than principles or laws—and this experience is choreographed by the Spirit rather than evangelistic techniques. Evangelicals are reappropriating the heritage of the Reformation with its emphasis on the means of grace, and thereby affirming the priority of the Spirit’s work in religious experience.
Smith sends an appreciative shout out to Leslie Newbigin, who is a seminal figure on my list of people I probably should have read but for some reason never got into. Nevertheless, if what Smith writes about him is fair summary, then I will at least feel worse as I continue not to read Newbigin for some reason in the future:
Newbigin argued that conversion is a matter of understanding, ethics, and community—that there is no conversion without conversion of the mind, identification with the reign of Christ, and incorporation into a faith community that is marked by and sustained by its sacramental actions—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Newbigin’s fundamental observation and conviction is that the church is not a provider of religious products and services but rather that the church is a people in mission. The church, collectively, is through an active discipleship a living embodiment of the kingdom to which the church witnesses. Thus the church is not obsessed with its own growth but with the kingdom, as it seeks to live the gospel within particular social and cultural contexts. This perspective is reinforced by Newbigin’s recognition and reminder to his readers that all reasoning arises from a particular rational tradition which is embodied within a living community.
Anyway, that’s enough excerpting. There’s a lot more to the essay, which also tips the cap to Charles Taylor, whom I think doesn’t get enough cap tipping from our, uh, cloakroom. Taylor is well worth adding to your list of people you probably should have read but for some reason never got into.
As for Smith, total man crush here. Great essay. Fire up the printer. As a means of underscoring the difference between proclaiming the revival message and proclaiming the gospel, this essay is worth a post, a reprint, a like, and whatever pin thing you do over there on Pinterest.