Discipleship and the Danger of Conversion(ism)

I grew up in a style of evangelical Christianity which was deeply obsessed with the "conversion experience." It took stories of people making dramatic commitments to Christ from lives of abject misery as the ideal to be aspired to. Trying to replicate these experiences in the lives of congregants led to a variety of phenomena which to outside observers seem bizarre. There is the "every head bowed, every eye closed" period after the sermon where pastors ask parishioners to make a decision and raise their hand (and then respond "I see that hand" even if no hand is raised.) There is the altar call, with endless music playing in the background and tearful commitments to lay it all down before Jesus. There is the revival service, the youth camp, a yearly calendar full of events at which people might (for real this time) give it all to the Lord.

What has struck me as an adult is just how widespread this instinct, which in what follows I will dub "conversionism," continues to be among many evangelicals. I still get asked from time to time why I never do altar calls. I talk to parishioners who worry about not having a dramatic testimony or being unable to name the point at which they became a Christian.

In what follows, I want to try to explain why I think "conversionism" as an approach to Christianity is both misguided and potentially dangerous. Then I'm going to propose a healthier approach. Before I do, however, two notes.

First, while "conversionism" is problematic, it is built on the reality that there is a conversion that is a necessary part of Christianity. Our salvation brings us out of the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of the Son. (Colossians 1:13) The Holy Spirit works in us in a way that causes us to become new creations. (2 Corinthians 5:17) Faith and repentance lead to a crossing over from death into life. (Ephesians 2:1-10) These are all true statements. However, where conversionism goes wrong is in the way it assumes 1) that we can easily pinpoint these moments, 2) that they will be dramatic and emotional, and 3) that they happen largely divorced from a larger process on both sides.

Second, part of the tension that many people who grew up in churches feel, especially in a church setting like ours where we don't take this approach, is that it somehow invalidates their story. They have a date written in the front of their bibles or a memory of a tearful prayer after a powerful sermon which has been central to how they have thought about their faiths, and to criticize this approach feels like attacking them and their experience with Jesus.

If that is you, two things. First, it is good that you have a fondness for this part of your spiritual heritage. Arguing there is a better way should in no way invalidate the good things you learned in the churches where you had these experiences. I am grateful for the churches I grew up in, even though as an adult I have become concerned about parts of their approach.

However, as will become apparent when I talk about the "better way" below, I think that is because in spite of their love of conversion they faithfully did some of the things that truly lead to spiritual life. We should all hope to be better than our (imperfect) theologies. While I am grateful for my spiritual heritage, the things I am thankful for have changed.

With those caveats out of the way, let me first name a few of the issues with conversionism as I experienced it.

Problem 1: It Doesn't Work
Let's name the big one first: I have never found any evidence that conversionism leads to positive, lasting spiritual change. Quite the opposite - I was struck growing up by the need for those who bought into it to constantly be re-converted. It was the same people who always raised their hands (I admit it; sometimes I peeked). The same faces bowing tearfully at the altar. Coming forward to really dedicate your life to Jesus made sense once; by the twelfth time, I started to have questions.

Our country is full of non-Christians who, at some point, prayed a prayer and gave their life to Jesus. There are millions of them. Given how genuinely they must have felt it was at the time, this is a problem for all of us in terms of our certainty. More deeply, it is a problem for them because they tend to assume Christianity is, therefore, something they have tried and found wanting. "I got saved once; guess it wasn't for me."

Conversionism especially doesn't work when we approach Christianity multi-generationally. While God's promises are "for us and for our children" (Acts 2:39, alluding to Genesis 17:7-8), an approach to Christianity that emphasizes dramatic conversions leaves many parents feeling unsure about how to actually approach parenting as a believer. A narrative develops that the norm for spiritually-committed parents is to have less-committed children. To fight against this trend, attempts are made to replicate dramatic conversions for our children at church camps and youth events, yet somehow it doesn't stick. Our children recognize that it is nonsense in the context of their lives. If they are fed a diet of cross-and-switchblade-style stories of faith, they will rightly conclude that such a Christianity has little to offer them.

Problem 2: It Neglects the Process of Evangelism
Digging a little deeper, conversionism tends to reduce the process of evangelism down to a single binary choice. This leads to neglect for the fact that people who aren't Christians are in process. Even in the dramatic stories we would tell, while the focus was on that one emotional night, contained years of Christians showing love and answering questions that lead to the conversion event. More strikingly, most Christians can't point to such an event at all. Coming to faith was a process and the point at which they crossed over from death to life eludes them.

We tend to base all our stories of conversion on the apostle Paul and that light shining on the Damascus road. However, have you ever considered the other twelve apostles? When did they get saved? Peter is a good test case. Does he become a Christian when Jesus first says, "Follow me," and he leaves his nets behind? (Matthew 4:18) Is it when he confesses that Christ is Lord and Jesus tells him that on this rock he will build the church? (Matthew 16:17) Or maybe it is when Jesus restores him after the resurrection and Peter's denial, calling him to "feed my sheep." (John 21:15-25) There is no simple moment when we can see Simon Peter come to faith, and the same is true for most of the figures in Scripture.

I have no idea when I was saved. I was raised in a Christian family and taught the truths of Scripture as long as I can remember. There was a point at the age of 6 when mom asked me to repeat the sinner's prayer after her, but I did it because of course that was what I already believed. There were multiple altar calls I answered in Junior High and High School. I got baptized twice. In college, I remember a period of several months where I really began to believe the gospel in a new way. Yet I struggle to consider any of those times a moment when I clearly "got saved." After all, I remember as a five-year-old repenting of my sins and trusting in Jesus, and as a 12-year-old, and at 20.

By failing to treat evangelism as a process, conversionism can actually drive people away from the faith. This can happen in two ways. One: people can be turned off by the hard sell. Many Christians have tried to "seal the deal" on making a convert in a way that is hurtful and insensitive. There are often years of conversation and shared life before someone is interested in trusting in Christ.

Or two, perhaps more common: people can be driven away because they make a decision and then feel like they've been sold a false bill of goods. Jesus encourages potential followers to "count the cost" before starting that journey. (Luke 14:25-34) I can only imagine the reaction if a fiery preacher called people forward and then stopping the music to have a very serious talk about why they might not want to come. Yet because we don't make space for those conversations in a process of evangelism, lots of folks end up thinking they've been sold a fake bill of goods.

Problem 3: It Neglects the Process of the Christian Life
Speaking of the Christian life, the other danger of conversionism is that it tends to distort the process of Christian living. This is not universal - some people with conversionist views of salvation don't fall into this trap. However, what can easily occur is that people start to assume that the way they got saved is also how they grow - that what people need in order to change is the same thing they needed to convert -they need to make a climactic choice. If we can just pray hard enough, just mean it deeply enough, just preach stirring enough sermons and play "Just As I Am" or "Lord, I Give You My Heart" enough times, then there is no sin or struggle that cannot be overcome. Struggling with your prayer life? Come to the altar. Afraid to tell your neighbor about Jesus? Sign a commitment card. Want to avoid premarital sex? Come to a conference and make a pledge.

One of the greatest dangers of conversionism is that it leads to a reduction of the gospel to something for a certain point in time. All the stuff about confessing sin and having faith, all the stuff about the cross and God's grace, it too easily gets compacted down into the matter of an evening service rather than being the glue that holds all of Christianity together. Perhaps this is why those same churches tended toward legalism and guilt-driven manipulation when it came to matters beyond how we got saved.

Christian obedience is not something that can be secured in a moment of decision. There is no "silver bullet" prayer or message. If you struggle to wake up in the morning before a dramatic commitment to do so, it doesn't get any easier, especially once the glow wears off in a couple of days and the emotional high is gone.

To be clear, the problem isn't with deciding to try to do better. Most growth consists of a series of failures followed by consistent decisions to try again tomorrow. However, the decisions themselves have no strength without the discipline and structure and growth in understanding that need to come alongside them. By implying that sin is something we can simply "decide" away, conversionism leads to immense discouragement and set people up to fail.

A Better Way: The Long, Consistent Journey of Discipleship
One of the strange things about conversionist churches is their love for Jesus's words in Matthew 28: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20) I say "strange" because this is the passage that directly contradicts their whole approach to things.

Jesus's call is to "make disciples." A disciple is a follower, and discipleship is an unending process of trying to seeking to follow Jesus. Discipleship implies growth, but not growth in a checklist sense that can be easily accomplished. It means living in the world in obedience to God and seeking to grow more like Him, and it means constantly realizing our sin, repenting and hoping in the gift of forgiveness and new life. To make a disciple means that we teach people how to do that consistently, daily, faithfully.

How do people learn to be disciples? It isn't through dramatic moments of decisions. To learn daily faithfulness requires things to be faithfully provided each day. The actions of discipleship are faith, hope, and love. The tools of discipleship are prayer, the Word, and the sacraments. People grow as disciples through a steady diet of truth, the forgettable rhythms of worship and personal devotion, and most especially through faithful, frequent relationships with other Christians who provide encouragement, accountability, and wisdom.

I mentioned earlier that many churches that slip into conversionism can still do lots of good in spite of themselves, and this is the reason. Almost in spite of their way of talking about Jesus, inasmuch as they obey Scripture's call to do these things they are accomplishing real good.

I think about my own family and church experience. My 6-year-old sinner's prayer, the altar calls - those weren't the things that changed me. Instead, it was parents who daily prayed with me, talked with me about God's Word and encouraged (sometimes forced) me to value weekly worship and the communion of saints. It was a pastor who took the time to meet with me weekly in High School and talk about spiritual things. All of this can happen in a conversionist church.

However, conversionism often distracts us from this process. The reason conversionism is so popular is that it seems so much easier than what Eugene Peterson calls the "long obedience in the same direction" of discipleship. When someone is struggling with sexual sin, for instance, what they need is not to come to the altar. What they need is someone to go get coffee with them, to encourage them with the grace of the gospel and the truth of God's goodness, and to help them think through practical strategies for accountability. And then they need that same person to show up consistently, and they have to consistently choose to press onward. There is no experience, no decision, that can shortcut this process.

Importantly, this process of disciple-making also helps unify our approach to Christianity both in evangelism and after someone is saved. To make a convert you've got to try to force a choice. To make a disciple you simply ask, "What is the next step?" If they aren't yet a Christain, what is the next step they need to make in exploring His claims? What is the next question I can help them answer, the next anxiety I can help them overcome? If they are a believer, what is the next step they need to make to follow Jesus's call? What is the next question I can help them answer, the next anxiety I can help them overcome?

Christian faith is a journey. Both before someone comes to Christ and after, they are in a story as messy and complicated as any story about real human life. The call of the convert will always be unsettled by this messiness, wishing we could simplify it down to a moment in time. Yet this is doomed to fail. The call of the disciple, though - that is something you can build your life on.