I guess you can say that we Baptists have a love affair with conversions. Audacious, Damascus-road conversions. If someone comes up to you on the street and asks if you’re saved, I’ll bet my Bible he’s a Baptist. To this day, despite the fact that I’m in the ministry, I still have Baptist pastors–“preacher men,” I call them–ask me if I’m saved.
You might think its offensive to ask a pastor that question; but, in these parts of the South, a conversion or salvation experience is what separates the Christians from everyone else. You might also think that the answer is an easy yes. Wrong again. For a guy like me, who grew up as a Christian mutt, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
The Baptist love affair with conversions isn’t new. Conversions became a litmus test for faith around the turn of the twentieth century, when tent revivals inspired believers to get right with God.
“If you were to die tonight,” the preacher man yelled, “Are you sure you’d go to heaven?” It was a question that would make Jonathon Edwards proud.
The goal of revivalist preaching was to cast a shadow of doubt upon a person’s eternal security. Only the people who reached “the age of accountability” can choose to follow Christ; church upbringing or infant baptism did not insure salvation. “Walking the aisle,” writes Baptist historian Bill Leonard, “replaced baptism as public profession of faith.”* Jesus must be one’s personal Savior. Choose, or have that shadow darken your life forever.
Not everyone agreed with this line of thinking. As revivalism spread, many theologians deemed the movement too sensational. Mainline churches and liberals in particular argued that emotional conversion experiences were not adequate to raise a person in faith. Salvation must accompany a process of baptism, discipleship, sanctification, and education.*
Furthermore, infants and children were saved and baptized because their parents raised them in the womb of the church. After all, the Bible does say that Cornelius’ entire household got baptized when he believed in the Gospel, a household that likely included children of various ages (Acts 10).
Theologians also questioned how revivalists read the Bible. Saul’s Damascus road experience (Acts 9:1-15), which became the model for revivalist conversion theology, is not about conversion at all. When he met Christ in a blinding light, Saul did not convert from one religion to another. He was Jewish before and after the event; the only difference was his new-found conviction that Jesus was God’s messiah.
The schism between revivalists and mainline theologians created confusion over the nature of conversion and, eventually, the substance of salvation. Is salvation a one-time event or a process? Jesus told his followers to enter the narrow door and walk the narrow road (Matthew 7:13-14). So what is it: a door or a road?
Thankfully, this schism has evolved over time, and many Christians have a more nuanced approach to conversion. My own journey of faith attests to the confusion that results from this evolution, as well as the way people see conversion differently these days. If anything, my life’s story sheds light on the importance of holding both views–conversion as a process and as a one-time event–together in a balanced, creative tension.
I grew up in a Christian household. My parents were reared in the Catholic church, but they insisted on “getting saved” at a conservative evangelical church in New York shortly after I was born. When I was young, I just assumed that I was a Christian too.
As I was entering middle school–a very important time of religious discovery in a person’s life–we moved to Florida and started attending a Southern Baptist Church. There, I heard the Gospel call of the preacher man for the first time:
“Little Brother,” he said, “Did you ask Jesus into your heart, because if you don’t you won’t be saved.”
“I grew up going to church, Sir,” I said, shifting uncomfortably in my seat, “My parents are Christian.”
“Makes no difference where you grew up if you haven’t asked Jesus in your heart.” The preacher man bent down and leaned on one knee, his breathing labored from carrying his weight that low to the ground. “Do you want Jesus in your heart today?”
I was not sure how to answer, and the preacher man was quite convincing. I walked the aisle and said a “sinner’s prayer” to make sure my destiny was sealed in heaven.
Despite this decision, I still had my doubts. I kept a tract in my bedroom so that when those doubts arose or I had sinned in some way, I would simply flip to the last page and say the prayer all over again. This was a confusing time. I thought I had been a Christian all of my life; now I wasn’t so sure.
This confusion created an acute guilt that haunted me throughout adolescence. I resisted baptism when asked because I still wasn’t sure whether I was a child of God.
In high school and college, I moved my membership to a Presbyterian church that provided a more positive picture of the Christian life. The youth group was affirming and encouraged participation in missions, ministry, and social justice. While there, I decided to go into ministry, and I couldn’t be a minister if I hadn’t been baptized. So, finally, my youth pastor baptized me in the lake behind the church building. It was an emotional event although we did it on some random day of the week without my parents present. Witnesses consisted of only a half-dozen close friends.
I entered seminary immediately after college and pursued ministry in Baptist life. I decided to go Baptist because they championed soul competency. That, and I never understood Reformed theology anyway, so how could I make for a good Presbyterian preacher man?
Going back to Baptist life was not easy. My inner spiritual war, with all of its guilt and doubt, reared its ugly head once again. I became anxious; my wife became annoyed. Things were uncertain. I asked a lot of questions: Was I really “saved” since I never had a Damascus road experience? Did I love Jesus as much as those preacher men did if I didn’t insist on telling everyone I met about Him?
Fortunately, the seminary was progressive enough to welcome a more nuanced definition of conversion. Salvation, it seemed, can indeed happen via a one-time event or as a process over a long period of time. In fact, there was such a nonchalant attitude about conversion at the seminary, I started to wonder whether salvation was even necessary to get into heaven in the first place. When I posed this to my wife, she said I was going too far. She was right.
The Baptist church I attended, the very one that eventually called me to be its pastor, also honored both views of conversion. In theology and theory, one may be saved over a long period of time, even from very young. In practice, the church insists on keeping an “invitation” in worship every Sunday to give people the chance to respond immediately to God’s call to repent and walk the aisle if necessary.
Studying the history of conversion is one thing, but to preach in a Baptist church that does an invitation week after week is another. I honed my theology of conversion in this precarious context. After all, I needed some way to answer those preacher men in our community who insisted on questioning my salvation.
How do you explain to an enthusiastic preacher man that your conversion didn’t happen in one, tidy experience? Do you make an appointment to take the time and explain the whole thing?
If anything, a true conversion is living (and, at times, surviving) through a series of cycles that include orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Those terms aren’t original to me, but they certainly sum up the narrative flow of my entire life. Orientation occurs when you think you have it all together. Then, all of a sudden, disorientation: Mystery interrupts your life. A dark night of the soul may prevail for one evening, one season, or, in some cases, an entire year.
Reorientation happens when you start to put the pieces of your life back together again, and you realize that the thing you put together looks nothing like what it was before. There is no going back.
In other words, conversion is more like being married than deciding to marry. Asking my wife to marry me was the easy part; it’s the staying married part that requires daily commitment and sacrifice.
I could explain all of this, but it’s not as dramatic as some evangelists prefer. Half-way through the conversation, they might start fidgeting and wondering where Jesus is in all of this. Preachers love their Jesus, and they love it when people meet Jesus in one explosive encounter. I am sorry to disappoint.
At best, my life is filled with not one but many conversion experiences. There was my conversion from childhood to adulthood, when my faith became my own. There was conversion from being somewhat of a culture-warrior bigot to inclusive advocate who befriends “misfits” who are socially marginalized. There was my conversion from one political party to another when I found out that Jesus did care about how I voted.
I had a powerful conversion experience about seven years ago when my daughter was born and I realized my life was no longer my own. Her birth and my son’s birth shortly thereafter gave a new meaning to some words we Baptists sing every now and then: “There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood…”* Holding a newborn baby gives new meaning to being “baptized” by water and blood.
Recently, I was cleaning out a bookshelf when I found a small envelope my mother had given me about a year ago. She said it was my dedication certificate, so I thought it was from that evangelical church of my childhood. I put it aside to look at later, but it must have gotten misplaced over the months.
When I opened the envelope, I quickly realized that it wasn’t a dedication record. It was a baptism certificate. I got baptized in the Catholic church one month after I was born.
I called my mother and asked her about it. Apparently, my parents were visiting the evangelical church while I was a baby, but still maintained ties to the Catholic church. They baptized me Catholic just in case that whole “getting saved” stuff at the evangelical church was a fluke.
Here, in my hand, was the proof that God did indeed seal me as His child even before I could remember, or doubt for that matter. My whole life’s faith journey flashed before my eyes. Mine was a difficult road, but I had already decided long ago that I would turn this whole, harrowing wrestling match with conversion into something positive for other Christians.
As for me, I’m just glad I can answer those preachers once and for all:
“Are you saved, Brother?” the preacher man will ask.
“Yes,” I will say with boldness, “I was saved on April 16, 1978, when my Catholic brothers and sisters baptized me at The Church of the Holy Family, Staten Island, New York.”
It won’t take all day to explain that, and it will do just fine. Just fine indeed.
*(1) Bill Leonard, “Southern Baptists and Conversion: An Evangelical Sacramentalism,” in Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, ed. Gary Furr and Curtis Freeman (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1994), 17.
*(2) James Reed, “Horace Bushnell, Spiritual Formation, and Conversion,” in Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, ed. Gary Furr and Curtis Freeman (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1994), see pp. 49-55.
*(3) “There Is Power in the Blood.” Words and music by Lewis E. Jones.