Written by Jane Gober
Conversion always startles the sensibilities, as if we can feel the energetic mathematics of it as it crosses our lips. Conversion pokes our minds with its sense of forcefulness, of upheaval, radical remaking in a life and our desire to apply the brakes at the mere suggestion of change. It is a word of profound consequence and we know it, and therefore it is silenced in polite and public settings unless referring to traveling money or Pinterest adaptations. Conversion is a word to which we swerve around: we swerve to avoid its anxiety and uncertainty. We swerve so sharply as to actually convert the word conversion into a dozen synonyms: spiritual growth or journey, stepping stones, breakdown, realignment, church switching. Yet our refusal to use the very word conversion, to name the actual thing that is happening in our lives diminishes the truth of the path, of the witness, of the activity of the journey in the space between evangelism and eschaton.
When we rightly choose to emphasize evangelism, we may miss the demands of the brave and difficult consequences that emerge from the continual encounter with Jesus, from the continual sequence of twists and turns of our hearts and bodies and minds as we seek union with God and with all people in him. The way we hold the conversation with our self and our communities and our neighborhood shapes what we do and what we do not do. One of the most ancient ways of naming the meandering and challenging journey with each other and our Shepherd is conversion, and our nervous avoidance of the term may create more stumbling blocks and unattractiveness than the cost of the shock value.
Strangely for all our contortions, conversion is inescapable in the life of Christian discipleship, yet it is also not as simple as a one time event. In his book Understanding Religious Conversion, Dr. Lewis Rambo sets an important definition of conversion: it is when a person has connected to a community, participates in its rituals, is active in its mission, and interprets their life through the lens of that community’s governing stories and structures. Perhaps in that light you can find in your discipleship journey confirmation of that definition of conversion, and also the realization that this occurs over time and repeatedly (if differently in the repetitions). Dr. Rambo’s pluralistic examination of the subject identifies a network of stages and types that shouldn’t be understood sequentially but complicatedly: movements such as crisis’, quests, encounters, pledges, partnerships, intensifications, defections and consequences. There is also a kind of conversion that does not seem to have a word: the choice to remain with a community and a path when the pull of the broken hyperactive society begs you to change course.
Conversions are what we are really talking about in our formation programs and mission trips and congregational development and revivals, and by all the resources we put into liturgy and personal prayer practices. Even when we are anxious about the conversion subject, we also strongly seem to trust that healthy liturgy actively fosters conversions of heart and soul and mind. Yet if we don’t mention the core motion – conversion – that moves us from standing still in our lost and broken world toward the unity of the final things – then we are of course, not surprisingly, going to find ourselves more often than not spinning our wheels. The power of the Spirit can work through our ignorance and distractions, however can we rumble with the discomfort and begin to acknowledge that we are on a journey of constant conversions? How have your conversions taken shape? Who was there, how do you name the mystery? And where was the concrete planning decision by someone that cleared the trail for you to experience your conversions?
Ultimately the hope of all our efforts is the final things. Understanding more honestly that the work between the start and the finish is one of continual and constant conversions seems to be worthy of louder clarity. Sometimes it occurs to me that some of our enthusiasms around evangelism are simply doing things we already do comfortably, but doing them in a more extroverted fashion; this is grand and good, however it is not the end of the road. Beyond the proclamation is the nurture and support for the lifelong journey with Jesus. Clarity regarding the stages and ways in which religious conversion happens in our own discipleship can only help us better shape the way in which we shape the activities of a community that is walking together in faith. We shall not find each other at the other side if we remain still and pretend that living out loud is enough. Conversion, the very word itself, and the implied complicated life together it demands, is the story of the disciples and the generations of the saints. Resistance to a set of syllables does not speak God’s truth or live into it. Can we convert our lips to the language of conversion?
The Rev. Jane Gober is a priest, pastor, teacher and lifelong formation advocate. Currently serving as the Interim Rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Pemberton, New Jersey, she previously forged a 20+ year career in lifelong formation ministries across the Episcopal Church in the continental USA. She writes a blog, contributes to Planning for Rites and Rituals (Church Publishing), and consumes hours of baseball watching each year.
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