What is it exactly that makes one truly "Christian?" The witness of the ancient scriptures -- and especially the gospels and Acts -- seems to describe a process and reality quite different than what we evangelicals have promulgated and defended for the past 2-3 centuries.
When the people described in Acts 2, convicted by the Holy Spirit, asked, "what must we do to be saved?" Peter told them to "repent and be baptized." If we're honest about the meaning of metanoia (repent) and the process by which new believers were prepared for baptism (cf. the Didache), we will be hard pressed to define Christian conversion as punticular in nature, and primarily a private and personal matter.
Many evangelicals consider conversion to be an individual transaction with God -- a purely personal, inward, and individual decision. The church stands outside of these transactions, and is not even needed for such. As Gordon Smith has so clearly described it:
If the genesis of the spiritual life is largely an individual transaction, then it follows that the rest of the spiritual life is transacted on one's own, in one's own space, on one's own terms. If one can be "saved" without reference to the community, then one can presumably live the rest of one's Christian life without reference to community. And wile one might still attend church and be active in a Christian community, the individualism of one's conversion fosters a sense that the church is nothing more than a sum of its parts, a collection of members, of individuals. Such a Christian lacks a covenant relationship with the community of faith, lacks a sense of vital dependence or, better, mutual dependence upon the community, lacks a sense of oneself maturing in teh faith "as each part" does its work (Eph. 4:16). And the church is seen as a dispenser of religious experiences and opportunities that I can take or leave; hence, I can leave and affliliate with another congregation if I conclude that the other church will better "meet my needs." (Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation, 9-10).
This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. A conversion that is distortingly individualistic will foster a spirituality that is distortingly individualistic, and in turn only tragically reinforces the commodification of the Christian faith. Standing against such a view of Christianity is the witness of the scriptures and the early church. Ancient biblical Christianity clearly developed and emmanated around the importance of "we" rather than "me." A Christianity lived outside of the community of the local church wasn't even a possibility. Such a faith would have been a heretical faith.
What is needed today is a restored understanding of conversion. Conversion describes a process of change, rather than an event -- something we'll look at a bit closer next time.
image © iStockPhoto, Steve Greer