03 September 2007

Methodists and Conversion

We've been having a fascinating conversation over on: What is a Methodist Evangelical?. Please feel free to continue there if you have any further thoughts!
I wanted to pick up on Peter Kirk's comment on 'conversionism'. Peter wrote:
To me, the central issue which distinguishes evangelicals from other Christians, at least in the Church of England, is conversionism, the belief that what the mass of people need is not moral exhortation or participation in worship but to be born again. How far are Methodist evangelicals, and Methodists as a whole, in agreement with this?
Perhaps those who have been Methodists longer than I have been can answer that question for 'Methodism in general'. I think it's right to say that 'conversion' is central to Methodist thinking: 'All need to be saved,' according to the 'Four Alls'.

I'd like to do some personal thinking around the idea that 'people do not need moral exhortation or participation in worship, but to be born again.'

My own sense is that we need all of these things and that conversion alone is not sufficient. I think I'd also add that we need prayer as well; this might come under the cover of worship, but I want to make clear that public worship on a Sunday probably isn't 'enough', at least not if we are ever going to need to call on our faith in times of crisis.

First of all, on 'conversion'. I think that we all need to be 'converted' because we all need to repent. As most Christians know, 'repent' means to turn around. We all have a tendency to want to go our own way apart from God, be it actively sinning or simply just ignoring God, so we all need to 'turn around'. But this 'turning around' isn't just a one-time thing.

If 'conversionism' is a one-time big event, then I don't think it's sufficient. Necessary, but not sufficient. I worry if people think that all they have to be able to do is to name the time and the date of their conversion and then, as far as God is concerned, they are set up for heaven. I also would not want to exclude people who have managed to turn around, repent and convert without ever being able to name the time and the date. I do think that this can happen for people who have been brought up in a Christian family or another Christian environment.

I believe - and I think that this is very Methodist - that 'conversion' is an on-going thing. As someone said to me recently, it's not that we have been saved, it is that we are being saved. This 'on-going salvation' is, I think, another way of expressing the Methodist idea of Christian Perfection or Holiness. Once having 'given one's life to Christ', we are still in need of on-going growth, discipleship and perfection.

I think that the Christian community is extremely important in our on-going discipleship and I think that worship and prayer are important in this continued growth. I'd argue that this is also 'Methodist' - at least, it's Wesleyan. Wesley exhorted his followers to receive communion as often as possible and also recommended 'constant communion'. Certainly, the early classes and bands were nothing if they were not opportunities for moral exhortation and prayer.

That brings me to 'prayer' and I can't really point to anything particularly Methodist as I talk about prayer, although Methodists certainly have nothing against praying! I believe, mainly from personal experience, that putting effort into practicing a prayer life is vitally important. A retired Methodist minister remarked recently that, in his experience, the attitude of many elderly people toward God depended on whether or not they had a prayer life. I'm not talking about 'faith' as 'doctrines' but 'faith' as in whether or not people feel that they can turn to God in times of crisis. This rings true to me and would probably be another long post. Suffice it to say that I think that there is value in 'practicing' prayer even if we can't feel God at all or don't feel like praying.

To sum up, I personally believe that conversion is necessary but not sufficient. For me, to neglect or de-emphasise worship and growth in holiness is to be constantly 'drinking milk' rather than 'eating meat'.

11 comments:

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks, Pam. I can agree with almost all of this. Conversion is certainly not the end of the matter. And I didn't really intend to suggest that anyone thought moral exhortation or participation in worship unnecessary, only that for evangelicals, at least in principle, these are secondary matters to the more than life and death one of ongoing conversion. In the same category evangelicals would put social action.

Perhaps the point would be clearer if I say that evangelicals tend to divide humanity into two parts, believers and unbelievers. And they reject the assumption that everyone in a supposedly Christian country, or even everyone baptised, is in the believer category. Thus the primary task of Christians is to get as many unbelievers to become believers. Moral exhortation, attendance at worship and social action are secondary matters, focused on making new believers and equipping existing believers to do this - and in some traditions to stop them turning back into unbelievers, although others hold that to be impossible. This is deliberately a bit of a caricature, but it is the sort of picture I was brought up to hold, originally at a university Christian Union, and have not rejected even if I would now express things in a more nuanced way.

crystal said...

Pam, I think catholicism believes that conversion is a life-long process (but I'm no expert). A question - how do you turn someone into a believer? BTW, reading more about what we were discussing below, I came across "open theism" ... maybe it relates to what we were talking about.

Dave Faulkner said...

Pam,

Another excellent post! I'm glad you emphasise conversion as the beginning of things, moving onto holiness. I think this is sound Wesleyanism - regeneration and new birth, etc.! I said in my sermon Sunday night that confession of faith is to be followed by transformation.

One weakness in my evangelical tradition is the preaching for conversion that forgets sanctification, and I think your 'milk and meat' comment is apposite here. I suspect there are some historical reasons for this. One is the Reformation disputes with Catholicism, and the traditional Catholic view of justification which encapsulated what Protestants called justification and sanctification. The other is the reaction a hundred years ago to the 'social gospel'. Evangelism was then so stressed, because people had to be rescued from hell, and other things (social action included) were marginalised. Similarly, I have known in the past many Methodist 'liberals' preaching against conversion, and so evangelicals emphasised it all the more. For example, I think of someone who trained with me at theological college. His definition of evangelism among people of other faiths was to show them what was good in their faiths (a view that struck me as both wrong and patronising).

PamBG said...

Dave - Thanks for that. Since you grew up Methodist and identify as a Methodist Evangelical, I find your comments helpful.

Having been in a non-Methodist evangelical tradition, I agree that constant preaching for conversion is a weakness; this is really where my comments came from.

Your perspective on liberal Methodists preaching against conversion is a helpful illustration.

This is a genuine question and not meant to get anyone's back up. I've met liberal Methodists as you describe (e.g. someone who also belonged to Sea of Faith) but in my limited experience they've been few and far between. OK, most people aren't campaigning evangelicals either, but most of the Methodists I've met seem pretty steady and sincere in wanting to grow in their faith.

As someone relatively new to Methodism, I'm wondering if this self-perception of 'beleagured evangelicals' is actually true any more? I'd suggest that 'institutional self-perceptions' often lag reality by a number of years - perhaps 5 or 10. I say this as someone who studied organisational structures prior to becoming a minister.

My perception is that, even if 'evangelicalism' isn't in the asendency (and I think it is), that genuine old-fashioned liberalism in the Methodist Church is rapidly dying out as the immediate post-war generations become more elderly and less involved in church life.

Possibly what is true, still, is that the 'hieararchy' - Church House people and people who attend Conference - are rather more liberal than conservative, but I think this is changing too.

Just a suggestion.

Peter Kirk said...

Crystal, for my sort-of answer to "how do you turn someone into a believer?", see this post of mine, which wasn't originally intended to relate to this thread.

Pam, you "agree that constant preaching for conversion is a weakness". But surely that depends on your congregation. If it is a typical Methodist (or Anglican) congregation of people who at least think they are already converted, I fully agree. Anyway, they won't listen because they will think you are preaching to others. But for Billy Graham, surely it is not a weakness, because most of his congregation need conversion and have come to hear it preached for. However, in most churches what most people need is indeed growth in holiness, sanctification (on the traditional Reformation understanding), and so that should be the main focus of preaching. I don't want my endorsement of conversionism to detract from that.

crystal said...

Peter,

I followed your link and read the post.

Fundamentally, it seems to me, people come to believe in a deep and life-changing way only when they encounter God personally.

I agree with you. For me, it happened because I met someone who was a good example - they obviously had a personal relationship with an actually existing God - and that made me curious enough to take a retreat, which led to experience.

PamBG said...

But surely that depends on your congregation....

I agree with everything you've said here. My point is simply that if you go to church week after week and all you hear is 'a conversion pitch', how do you move on?

For me, it happened because I met someone who was a good example - they obviously had a personal relationship with an actually existing God - and that made me curious enough to take a retreat, which led to experience.

I like this 'answer'. I don't think I can 'make' anyone believe, but I do think that Christians can be a good example. This is something that Evangelicals sometimes poo-poo, but I've seen ordinary, imperfect Christians radiating Christ and being good examples. The Holy Spirit does the convicting, but we should be good examples.

We should also be prepared to give testimony to the working of God in our life. This is something that we seem to have utterly lost the knack of doing - myself included. I'm just learning to do this again, and I was immensely helped by an African congregation. No one there taught me how to do it; the just did it, and modelled it for me and I learned. That's the importance of community.

Will said...

Interesting post, Pam, and thank you. Growing up in an American Methodist Evangelical tradition (which upon further reflection was probably influenced by Baptist theology, as most things are in the South), we put a strong emphasis on the "moment" of conversion. My problem was I never had one. I was often left cold in the evangelical circles I ran in with conversion story heavy testimonies that could make me feel guilty. It wasn't until later that I was able to understand the different moments of conversion you speak about.

Still, it's seems like a fine line to walk. In part, we are dropped into a web of stories that form who we are - and that's the reason I chose to baptise my daughter (not because of what I see as a superficial understanding of prevenient grace that really would lead to us standing outside with a hose pipe dowsing all of England). We will raise and teach her in such a way as we would teach her that 2+2=4 where she will one day see it for herself, not just because we tell her its so. My Ethics prof, Stanley Hauerwas, used to say that the best reason to give for believing is "because my momma told me so!" True, but I hope she will see how it is true! Therefore, that would lead to a moment of conversion in which each person says, "I get it". Much like a child at school seeing how the numbers add up. But, that doesn't discount little conversions on the way. 2+2 will one day lead to calculus.

I don't think the issue now revolves around so much between a "liberal" and "evangelical" understanding like it used to (e.g., like the way Dave described above). Dave's description was the way it was when I was growing up. The debate now seems to be between "conversion" and "belonging". Many "liberals" and now those who call themselves "emerging" don't seem to want to talk about "conversion", but want to leave it at "belonging to a community". I am all about belonging, but there still seems to be a point where you need to know what community you belong to. I would be interested to hear Dave's thoughts, as from what he has said on his blog, he has more sympathies to the Emerging movement than I do (I am not saying I discount the movement - I actually agree with a good bit of what Dave has said about the Emerging movement, but I don't think I go the whole way - and this issue is one of them - unless I have misunderstood them...or Dave!). By the way, one of the books on my "I hope to read one day, but doubt I ever will find time" list is Conversion in the Wesleyan Tradition by Kenneth Collins. Might be of interest to you!

Dave Faulkner said...

A quick comment on Will's post before I disappear for 36 hours: I agree with you entirely about belonging. I'm not an uncritical supporter of all things Emerging, but I suppose I have mostly only posted those things I'm positive about in the movement. I don't want to be closely identified with the Reformed fundamentalists who have cruelly flamed the Emerging movement. Perhaps, however, a constructive critique from a different theological perspective is called for, though. It is a diverse movement, after all. However, that will have to wait for another time! Anyway, this is Pam's blog, not mine :) so I'll try to remember to post something on mine at some point.

Lorna said...

My point is simply that if you go to church week after week and all you hear is 'a conversion pitch', how do you move on?

You have to. Because being a Christian is about making disciples - it's about being equipped - if a congregation is only interested in making new conversions it's not living - or teaching -the whole Gospel.

Now I do think it's ok for a Sunday service to be only a conversion pitch -IF the service is attracting a lot of new people each week - but if it's not - then the message has to change, at least to one of how to win others to Christ.

PamBG said...

Now I do think it's ok for a Sunday service to be only a conversion pitch -IF the service is attracting a lot of new people each week - but if it's not - then the message has to change, at least to one of how to win others to Christ.

I agree with this although I've never been in a church myself which had lots of new people coming through the doors every week.

I would say that, if this were the case, there should still be open public worship at another time where people were supported in learning more about the Christian faith.