Conversion is a Journey, NOT a Moment (well, at least for some) [The Example of Lauren Winner]

Lauren Winner, in her wonderful memoir, Girl Meets God, offers a wonderful perspective on what it means to convert to Christianity.  She is a former Orthodox Jew who embraced Jesus as Messiah in her young adult years.  In our conversionist evangelical culture, we often desire to have a single moment in time when we turned from darkness to light.  For Winner, this is a difficult category to uphold.  She states: “My story doesn’t fit very well with this conversion archetype… there are too many ‘ruptures’ in the ‘narrative…’  [The] ruptures are the most interesting part of any text, that in the ruptures we learn something new” (8).

This process of conversion is clear in how her Jewish friend Dov was concerned about her collegiate interest in Christianity and her choosing to not take courses on Judaism.  She reflects: “Now I think he could see something I could not see.  He could see Jesus slowly goading me toward Him” (55).  A few pages later she adds that God “was laying traps, leaving clues, clues I could have seen had I been perceptive enough” (57).  Her friend Dov saw them well before she did.

One of the events that turned clues into cues was when Lauren attended a Q & A night at a liberal church.  The pastor talked about Jesus being a cultural expression of the one God that all major religions are seeking.  It seems that this is a watershed moment in her conversion journey, from Judaism into Jesus.  She profoundly recognized that Christians are “running from Christ” and thought that she “should stop running” (61).  Eventually, she chooses to be baptized which clearly was another watershed moment, perhaps more literally.

A question that her conversion experience raises is why do we evangelicals minimize the depths of someone’s story to a mere moment in time? Certainly, there are those for whom the ‘moment’ is what matters, but such can become reductionistic in the case of someone like Lauren Winner.

Perhaps it is also problematic that we evangelicals have separated baptism from conversion.  This not a statement for baptismal regeneration, but to notice how the separation between these events can also create conversion confusion.

Finally, in a multicultural society, we do well to understand that conversion-as-journey is going to become more regular.  Leaving behind the ways of your parents is no small task: “One of the things that happens is, you fell family-less… you lose all sorts of things… your family, all the people who made you their own and who you made yours” (178).

How have you seen the conversion-as-journey motif played out in your own story or the story of someone close to you?

What contributes to our evangelical impulse to desire a sensationalized story of a clear moment of conversion?

Other thoughts?

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  • I think the article really points out the differences to what was probably how the converts came about to the early Church, and our current belief in "instant salvation".

    • Kurt

      Would love to hear more of your thoughts on this Josh…

      • Sure Kurt.

        It often strikes me in the Scriptures, both Hebrew and Greek, that while there is an instant in which God reveals Himself to man, and man acknowledges His existence, there is never a single point where man is instantly declared "saved". It is always to me depicted as a journey, with the final decision only being made when we as humans stop making decisions – death.

        Evangelical churches often teach that if you simply ask Jesus into your heart, you will be saved. But that's not true. Jesus never says that. He was often asked how eternal life could be gained, he never told people that asking him into their hearts would merit eternal life. He told them to give sacrificially of whatever it was that they idolized – the rich man to sell everything and give it to the poor. When asked the greatest command, Jesus told them basically, love God and love others.

        Don't misunderstand me, accepting Jesus as Messiah is essential. For no man comes unto the Father except through him. But its only the first step. It is what allows us to petition the Father for grace when we screw up. But the early Church understood that salvation is not a one-time thing, it is a process. Just as living is a process, and we are continually sinning, we must be continually seeking salvation. We are saved by loving God and loving others, not by a single prayer that we don't necessarily fully understand. It is true, we are saved by faith, because faith allows grace. But we are justified, or made righteous in the eyes of God, by our actions. And on that Day of Judgement, we will not be judged by whether God's grace covered our sins or not. We will be judged by our actions.

        I hope that was written clearly. 🙂

      • I was visiting my sister's church Sunday, and they had an amazing guest speaker. He really is a true Christian, you could see the love of God on his face. However at the end of his message, which was on the topic of worship, he gave an altar call. And the thing that stuck out in my mind is, how is it the churches give altar calls to accept Christ when the message was not even on remotely the same topic as salvation. How do we expect converts to come to Christ when we give them no backstory, no reason for why they should accept Christ. Even the 'we all have sinned' argument does nothing for someone if they don't even believe in sin. The further I go along this faith journey of mine, the more I realize that we need fewer altar calls and more living testimonies. Because the world needs to see before and after pictures, not promises of the afterlife. It is the only way I believe we can reach this culture.

  • I think there are a number of factors involved in wanting to reduce conversion to a single moment although it is clearly not. Here's a list of reasons I've come up with:

    1. The desire to know it's a done deal as opposed to a frame of mind where one doubts himself or herself constantly all over again whether he / she really is a child of God.

    2. A particular understanding of what being "saved" / "born again" means. The metaphor evokes an interpretation that is more akin to a singular experience. We think of birth, adoption, reception of new life through the reception of the Holy Spirit as a singular watershed experience. Accordingly we only baptize once.

    3. The rituals of our evangelical subculture that reinforce this theology: altar call, the "sinner's prayer", testimonies about people's conversion experience, insider mentality etc.

    4. The false understanding that salvation itself is about being saved from God's wrath instead of seeing the problem in our false understanding of God and accordingly a lifestyle that hides from His love from grace and seeks validation elsewhere. If the problem were really God's disposition towards the unsaved that disposition wouldn't change gradually obviously.

    • Kurt

      EXCELLENT commentary Josh. I agree with every point you make here. Number four stands out because I have been thinking about atonement some. This summer we will be featuring some thoughts from Mark D Baker, coauthor of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. The book is coming out in its 2nd edition this summer.

      • Kurt, did you read Jonathan Brink's book ("Discovering the God Imagination")? A lot of lights went on for me after reading this one.

        • Kurt

          You know what… i own the book but seminary holds me back. Maybe a summer read. Jonathan is a great guy!

  • "hides from His love AND grace"

  • Greg

    We are saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved. Just as Jesus was, is, and is to come. The Tabernacle of Moses is the perfect picture of continual conversion.

    1.The Outer Court: The initial offering of our lives and washing with the water (baptism)

    2.The Inner Court: The filling of the spirit (oil of the lamp). The intimacy with prayer and intercession (alter of incense). The fellowship in His word (the table of shewbread).

    3.The Holy Place: The fullness of His presence. Full maturity.

  • When I was an atheist I knew it was going to take something real, an undeniable experience not contrived or brought on my external circumstances or hysteria, to get me to really believe in God. And this I got. There was nothing observable but, like C.S. Lewis, I suppose, I just went from Friday-atheist to Monday-believer with no one moment of change but a very definite conversion; a conversion more of the eyes with which I viewed everything than of definite belief. Simply the idea that Jesus really reconciled surely me to God gave me a new view of things which was undeniably real and not produced by me. So I value my "conversion experience" but I do I have been converting ever since and I do worry that conversion/baptism in the early Church (as recorded by Justin Martyr, Tertullian) was a radical turning from an old life and scrutiny by the believers of your changed life. It seems believers were so pure back then…

    • I wonder if we should consider conversion as a sign and a point at which we can say we are Christians but consider salvation itself as a God initiative? The difference would be between saying "I've converted, therefore I'm saved" and "I now believe in a God who I am confident will save me."

      • Kurt

        Chris… you suggestion here is profound. Thank you!

      • Chris, I love that statement. I think it is *much* closer to the truth!

  • Robin

    I believe I read a recent study…children report having a date and time that they believed but adults often find it a journey. In my life that's true…I don't remember a specific point of conversion.

  • My own experience has led to me to the same conclusion. When I was first invited to church I wanted God to save me that evening and though I felt emotional, nothing seemed to happen. For 6 more months I went to church and even led worship though I had no conviction. I then had an experience where I imagined I'd pushed through into salvation. Within days I was at the front of the church telling how different it was to be a Christian but I believe now that this was more froth than substance.

    About 18 months ago (decades after my conversion) I experienced repentance unlike anything I have known before, and since then the Bible seems like its been rewritten – like I've been born again, again. I now cringe at alter calls and the sinners prayer. I truly believe that God accepts the contrite heart but many Christians seem to be under the impression that God can held to account for the promises they claim he's made, as if God's hands are ever tied.

    Ultimately the evangelicals have tied themselves in knots because any biblical statement that appears to suggest you can lose your salvation causes huge problems when conversion is considered to happen at a particular time. When you understand the illusion of confidence in your salvation (the evangelical ticket to heaven) and place your confidence firmly in the hands of God, who says he can save us completely, Hebrews 6 becomes much less of a problem.

    Josh points out the difference between our understanding of salvation and that of the early church. I would go one step further and suggest that evangelicalism has placed too much significance on the experience of the church in Acts as if it was the only model for the church. However, its clear from Paul's writings that we have been freed from the constraints of form and ritual. It seems to me that we have formed a theology of the church and salvation from selected books instead of allowing the Scriptures, in their entirety, to inform our ideas.

  • Darrin

    Only commenting on Question #1, it's another one of the Bible's paradoxes (to me anyways). I agree with Greg that it is an ongoing process and in retrospect its obvious that God was "goading me towards Him." Still there was a single point in time where I had to draw the line in the sand as a skeptic and confess with my mouth…

    I also think of Israel's exodus where, in God's final act of redemption out of Egypt, the people of God stood on this side of the Red Sea shore and knew they were free. I think they still had a slave mentality that God had to continually work out of them but He had acted in a single point in time and there was no doubt they were now the people of God's kingdom, "born of water and the spirit," to use John's words.

  • Andy

    There have been a lot of good comments. Since the matter in question pertains to our relationship with God and how it moves and changes and transforms, I find it difficult to require any one understanding of a pattern of conversion. I myself have always been Christian and I believe I was always Christian. However, unlooked for, God did slap me in the face to wake me up to his reality to a greater degree. I have little doubt it was my born again/ spirit baptism momentous experience. However, I know this is not how God deals with all people. I don't want to restrict it, but I don't want to require conformity to it. God deals as God will. Peter and Paul; one gradual, one instantaneous. Both experienced significant moments of growth, both had to accept the journey of faith.

  • Part of the error that leads to this confusion, I think, is that the church somewhere lost the meat of Jesus' command, which was to "make disciples," not to "save souls" or "make converts." This difference is not insignificant…and the question of timing of one's conversion is only one part of a much larger picture.

    At the risk of flogging my own blog too much (I trust Kurt will forgive me), I did a series on personal salvation that I think speaks to these issues…