The point of the Christian faith is friendship or relationship with God and with each other – through Christ and the work of his church.
However, in the current climate of the mainline church and the evangelical church we are taught to emphasize conversion as if that is a sum total of all that there is to test and evaluate a Christian community. In other words, we ask questions about numbers and baptisms and new believers to see if we are being true to the call to make disciples. Getting intellectual agreement from strangers is parsed as more important than relationships made and time spent well together in service of one another. No one would come out and say this directly, but it’s there – the idea if we can get someone to agree with us they’ll jump on board.
Now there really isn’t a way to avoid insider/outsider dynamics. It’s the reality of human relationships. We are limited beings and can only maintain relationships with a few people at a time. We form groups, and that is part of who we are. How we welcome or exclude people from those groups should be a subject of greater study.
Conversion can be both high brow and low brow so I should caveat all that I have to say by admitting that conversion in the proper sense would be generation of the relationships with God and neighbor that are truly helpful and producing genuine abundantly lived lives. It’s my experience that this isn’t only superficially the case for those casting their lot in the camp that emphasizes conversion instead of friendship. Yet, the way it comes across to those they are trying to develop relationships with is agenda oriented – in other words, it comes across like these proselytizers want another notch in their belt.
They don’t mean to, but I they do.
Unfortunately, they can break down the relationships they are making by this behavior because they’ve missed the point. When we truly engage in relationship with someone we are converting them, and in a much more terrifying move, we are being converted. This happens only if we truly respect the uniqueness God has given them and acknowledge the person they are as beloved by God and us. The question then is: are we willing to see in the other something of the divine and the uniqueness placed their by the divine?
Of course, the problem is that when we do this we have the reality of a community that has been shaped by centuries together and centuries of arguments (and even drag out fights) – sometimes played out in the same people. And part of becoming that community is committing to a shared life together. But is that community willing to be changed? To respect a new conversation partner with new practices? Are they willing to respect the movement of the Holy Spirit through someone who hasn’t had all the same experiences they’ve had?
Speaking from my experience, they are willing, but no one has taught them how nor been willing to engage the new comers in the conversation required. Yet I think it’s essential for our happiness and self identity as Christian communities to recognize the uniqueness of all those who God loves, and seek to live together as a community that is constantly being converted to live the abundant life promised in Christ – friendship with God and neighbor.
I don’t want to down play the significance of conversion properly understood, but those taking it lightly by trying to add to the number without transforming themselves in the process will miss that abundant life and the conversion they may need themselves.