Art by David Hayward (Naked Pastor)
I was raised in a religious tradition that emphasized trying to make converts to our belief system. Conversion was a central pillar of my upbringing. There was opportunity at almost every gathering to convert to our belief. There was thousands of materials and resources available to you to try and make your efforts easier. Everyone was encouraged to convert their friends and family. There was a lot of fear that you would not be a true convert so there was plenty of opportunities to re-convert your life back to the faith.
As I moved from my childhood traditions and into university, I still found myself within Evangelical traditions. Instead of conversion through bringing your friends to church to be asked to convert, we would be taught why we were right, how to defend our rightness and why everyone else was wrong. My smug philosophy professor used to love shake his head at those stupid atheists that were making fallacies in their attacks on our faith.
As I moved from university into a denomination, the desire to reach the world for Jesus never really left but it had an approach more of reaching people with the good news of their faith and making sure that as many people as possible were aware that they could convert if they wanted to. Much less forceful or prideful, but still with a motive to make converts.
We mask the idea that we want converts with a lot of different rhetoric, but there is no question that it is exactly what we want. We call it reaching people for Christ, or making disciples, or reaching the lost, or spreading the good news, or advancing the kingdom of God, or just wanting to share what God has done, wanting people to live their best lives. It’s all just code for making converts to our belief system. The more in tune that an evangelical is to the world around them the more the language sounds less like conversion and more like they are doing someone a favour and it’s only out of love that they want this for you.
I’m speaking out of experience here and my only journey away from believing in conversion.
One of the greatest hurdles for me in getting there, was admitting that I could be wrong. That possibly I have nothing to offer someone else.
When you are raised to believe that you have something that no one else does, and your main calling in life is to convince everyone else that they need to have it to, it is a really difficult to ever get to a point that you think you could be wrong. There is no room for doubt in this approach. Not only does admitting that you could be wrong mean that your entire calling could maybe have been for nothing, but it also means that you are unraveling years of a worldview that has formed and shaped your convictions about how you interact with others. One of the primary stances you have to almost everyone else is that you have something that they don’t – that you need to convince them or influence them to be more like you.
This has profound implications for successfully avoiding cognitive dissonance (the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.) If you hold a view that rests in the idea that you have something that someone else doesn’t, you are going to have a hell of a hard time accepting your own mishaps and falsities. You are going to have an even harder time seeing the message of Jesus to his followers is precisely the opposite. Followers of Jesus do not have something that everyone that doesn’t, followers of Jesus are those that realize that the poor, oppressed and marginalized have something that we don’t.
Christian faiths that have conversion as part of their ethos inevitably become dishonest because they have taken a posture that will not allow them to be transformed. When challenged they will defend themselves and write books about why they are right. When mocked, they will reassure themselves and try to look at the bigger picture. When proven wrong with science they will make up their own rules. When ignored, they will make up outreach programs and seeker-sensitive gatherings to try and softly change minds. When their agenda is challenged they will say something about real love.
What they seem to be unable to do, is be converted themselves to anything but their initial position. What they require from everyone else, they are unable to do themselves.
Until those that wish to convert others can admit that they themselves need to be converted, they will constantly be at risk of not being able to truly question themselves and will go through life demanding from the world that which they cannot give themselves.