I’ve been a Christian my whole life so “conversion” isn’t really something I know a lot about firsthand. I meant to start a series on Transforming Conversion by Gordon Smith last month but I’m actually happy I’m diving in now. Writing up my series on going Paleo showed me a bunch of parallels because it’s a process of conversion to a new way of eating. Going Paleo has actually helped me understand better what it takes for people to even contemplate beginning a journey into faith in Christ.
In Smith’s book, he talks about how unhelpful it is to talk about conversion experiences like it they are one-time events where someone prays the sinner’s prayer. In evangelical circles we’re taught evangelism “techniques” where just getting someone to pray the prayer is the goal (not always but I’d say it’s a widely held assumption that the most successful witnessing will end in a “repeat after me” prayer). The point is we don’t focus on the process. And it is a process. Usually a LONG process. Smith notes that a British study in the 1990s concluded that the average conversion process was four years long!
I heard about Paleo more than three years before I really started contemplating it seriously. The first time it was explained to me, I thought, “No way!” because it sounded so restrictive and so foreign to the way I was eating at that time. The person who explained it to me didn’t pressure me to start eating that way right now. He just told me what he was doing. It was an introduction to an alternate way of living but there were no strings attached. I could walk away from the idea (and I did for awhile), but at least I was now aware of it when it cropped up again in other times and places.
Smith quotes J.I. Packer that conversion:
“is best understood if viewed as a complex process that for adults ordinarily involves the following: thinking and re-thinking; doubting and overcoming doubts; soul-searching and self-admonition; struggle against feelings of guilt and shame; and concern as to what realistic following of Christ might mean.”
The most interesting phrase for me is “what realistic following of Christ might mean.” Smith rejects “The revivalist propensity toward making it easy and simple, uncomplicated and not costly” to convert to Christianity and calls us, “to turn from the inclination to be minimalists when it comes to what a person needs to know in order to come to faith.” It is complicated and it does cost us something so it’s important to have a firm understanding of what you’re getting yourself into.
Using the Paleo example: changing our eating habits was neither easy, simple or cheap. It required a lot of research, extra time for meal planning and shopping, extra time prepping meals and complicated our relationship while we figured things out. And as soon as you start something like this, you get push back from those around you who are not doing what you’re doing. Seriously, I’m starting to see how hard it is to “convert” to something that most people don’t believe in.
This reminds me why friends who walk with you on your journey are so vital. I’ve found a few Paleo friends. This has been helpful in being able to swap notes/recipes and feel normal as we start walking against the cultural stream. You need friend with the same beliefs because other people will feel threatened by your change. You’ll get “conventional wisdom” thrown at you repeatedly with “the facts” which based on your new research and experience, you’re finding out aren’t really “the facts” at all.
Having a few friends who can encourage you is essential so that you don’t feel isolated or start doubting what you have learned. It’s easy to think you might be wrong when it feels like “how could so many other people not know this?” or more scarily “how could so many doctors not see this?”
However, I find in myself a great reluctance to start delving into the details of everything that’s wrong with gluten or high fructose corn syrup or vegetable oils. I recognize that no one is really asking to listen to a detailed lecture and giving one isn’t going to change their minds. Plus, I don’t want to turn into a zealot. The most I hope to do is intrigue people to explore the idea for themselves. Which makes me wonder if that kind of attitude has any crossover value into the world of “witnessing and evangelizing.”
Even though we’ve been eating 80% Paleo for a long time, I would shrink from saying “I’m Paleo” as a status yet. Maybe I will feel comfortable with that in the future but for now I feel like there are still too many non-Paleo items in our diet for us to be “legit.” This makes me wonder if there are many people who are seeking Christ, yet fear to claim the title of “Christian” because their life still doesn’t quite line up with what they have heard is expected of them. We’re often so concerned about “Are you or aren’t you a Christian?” and I’m wondering if this is really the right question to be asking. This is where the parallel breaks down, of course, because while a full commitment to Paleo is not required of me from some higher authority, eventually you have to come to terms with the fact that Christ wants you to love him with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and if you love him you will obey his commands. Jesus does ask for all of you.
However, I think the point about status is something that we in the church should consider. Smith writes:
“The language of revivalism has left us with a vacuum here because of its focus on conversion as punctiliar: a person either is or is not a Christian, in or out. We do not know how to speak meaningfully about those who are coming to faith.”
“We need to be able to speak with simplicity and frankness about how a person can come to faith in Christ, but we also need to be able to live with the complexity of it all, with the ambiguity of religious experience, with the fact that many are ‘on the way’ and that their coming to faith may take months or even years. The church needs to be a place where this transitional status is okay, a safe place for those who have no previous Christian identity or orientation as well as for those who have been raised in the church and who are, through the grace of God, coming to an adult affirmation of their faith.”
How can we welcome people to explore first without requiring, expecting or assuming an upfront commitment? If we learn best by doing, can we encourage participation by everyone regardless of their “in” or “out” status? What kind of implications does this have for us?