Should the Heathen Be Converted?

I’m the student pastor at a small church north of Pittsburgh at the moment. Last Sunday, my supervisor pastor gave something of an invitation at the end of his sermon, with a prayer to pray along with. Afterward, he invited anyone who wanted to deepen their relationship with Christ to talk to him or one of the elders… or me.

I was terrified – and relieved that I had to leave immediately after worship for another commitment.

I asked him about it at our weekly meeting a few days later. He said he figured I would know what to do: “Be pastoral, listen…” I was a chaplain for a summer; I can definitely do that… “And if someone wants to deepen their relationship with God, I’m sure you’d be able to tell them how.”

I acknowledged that last sentence. I understood the words he was saying, but they were wrong. I definitely would not have been able to tell them how. And that bothered me.

I know the right answer – or at least the answers I grew up with: ♫ “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” ♫ But the very idea of telling lay people that “right” answer scares me.

The notion of isolated believers reading the Bible and praying without instruction from righteous, wise, and educated people within the church is horrifying – especially when these days anyone can have an internet or radio ministry and nobody bothers to check, or even require any ecclesiastical credentials, and new (and older) Christians are often tempted to treat all religious teachers (at least who agree with them) as equally trustworthy. All that gets checked by Christian radio stations, it seems, is whether the check is good.

See, I’m just reaching the point where I think a relationship with Christ can be safe and good for me. I still have the notion that Christianity – especially a “deepened relationship” with Christ is dangerous for lay people. That’s fairly deeply embedded in my psyche. I think it makes people self-righteous bibliolaters who will do any sort of evil and/or stupid thing if they come to believe God wants them to do it, and they’ll encourage others to do likewise. I certainly did my share of both.

Diana Butler Bass laments that the options for Christians seem to be between knowledge on ice and ignorance on fire, and as a member of the frozen chosen, to be perfectly honest, I will take knowledge on ice every single time.

I worry, though, that I have so closely connected knowledge with ice that I assume fire burns hottest on ignorance. I also assume fire burns away knowledge, because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen otherwise very intelligent people with solid liberal arts educations get on fire for God and (seemingly) throw everything they learned out the window because it goes against what they’ve come to believe is God’s truth through their uncritical reading of scripture.

And it’s not just knowledge, it’s also basic human decency. As many of you know, I don’t think my dad is the best person in the world. I’ve written elsewhere about some of his abuses, which he often blamed on God. His abuses seemed to be coming out of his sincere and firm Christian faith based squarely on what he read in the Bible. I say that because he quoted Bible verses at every turn. I’ve often thought that if someone could convert him to atheism he might be a better human.

Same for all kinds of terrible Christians: I assume that if they were just atheists, maybe they’d stop bothering people. Maybe they’d just let LGBTQ people live their lives instead of protesting funerals with their evil signs.

When I was debating starting seminary, I wrote a reflection (which I did not post) called “Is Religion Worth Saving?” I pondered whether Christianity was a net good in the world, or if it was neutral, how it might be a force for good. I concluded that education was a net good within religion.

And that has been my goal: to give knowledge to those on fire.

I think that is the goal of seminary as well – which is probably why I haven’t had any classes on what to say to people who want to deepen their relationship with God. (Maybe I just didn’t take those classes, but I don’t remember them being explicitly offered). There was a class on education, and a class on personal spiritual formation. There’s plenty in seminary on educating flames, but I haven’t knowingly encountered much on how to put a torch to knowledge.

I heard an analogy a while ago about the passion of marriage, where somebody said that fire is good when it’s in a fireplace because it keeps us warm, but if we don’t contain it within those bounds (the metaphor for marriage), it will burn your house down. I think maybe that’s a good metaphor for religion: If it’s kept within the bounds of knowledge and wisdom, it can warm the soul, but if it becomes a forest fire or a house fire, it can be wildly destructive.

On second thought, I liked that analogy while I was writing it, but it doesn’t square with what I’ve been taught about fire. I was taught that faith is supposed to be this all-consuming thing that gobbles up anything in its path; that we are to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Which doesn’t sound particularly safe – in fact, it sounds like a forest fire. It sounds very dangerous.

Honestly, knowledge on fire feels a little like a unicorn, except I’ve seen it on rare occasions, and I can’t quite figure out where it comes from or how to make sure you end up with the right fuel lit up. Maybe it’s knowledge first?

Proverbs 19:2 (NET Bible) says “It is dangerous to have zeal without knowledge, and the one who acts hastily makes poor choices.”

But zeal without knowledge, or with very limited knowledge, or with wrong knowledge, is exactly what is celebrated in my background! Take the leap of faith before you look. Hear an impassioned sermon about hellfire and damnation and flee to the altar; pray this prayer and turn your life around 180 degrees – no matter what its orientation was before that prayer. Buy the God product now; read the terms of service later – or better (worse), read the Bible on your own and invent the terms of service later. Learn from these other passionate people who couldn’t tell solid theology and biblical scholarship from a hole in the ground.

I guess what I’m looking for is how to embed discipleship in the conversion process.

Which reminds me of a thing the church did for a long time a long time ago, but I haven’t seen practiced much in Christianity today. (Maybe because I’m not a lifelong Presbyterian).

When someone wanted to become a Christian, they were not baptized right away – no. They were immersed in the faith first, as described in this article by one of my seminary professors. In some places it took up to three years to complete the program – three years of understanding and practicing the Christian life. That is perhaps not coincidentally the same as the minimum length of time my seminary requires for graduation. At the end of the program, the catechumen (student) enters into lent and prays and fasts and on Easter morning, they went down into the waters of baptism and arose to newness of life.

In this initiation rite, I suspect, knowledge caught fire.

Herein is my challenge:

I am now in the Reformed tradition. I am Presbyterian. Presbyterians baptize infants, for reasons I fully understand and find beautiful and good. How can we then extend some kind of initiation rite to a youth or adult who was baptized as an infant? I understand that we have confirmation, but I am not entirely confident that confirmation has the same “oomph” as baptism, particularly baptism by immersion (the way I was baptized, though with far less preparation).

Furthermore, how do we handle invitations in worship? Is it an invitation to come forward and enter a catechumenate, a school of life on how to be Christian that lasts three years and culminates in baptism?

Which brings me back to my initial question: If someone responds and wants to grow their faith, someone who has not yet been baptized… what do we say now? What is the starting point? How shall we gather the kindling and strike it into flame, but keep it and the new believer and the world safe until the fire has been brought into its proper place in obedience to Christ?

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.