Wesleyan Wisdom: What don’t we understand about conversion?

I love words and my curiosity is piqued when I see one whose meaning I do not know.  One that jumped at me recently was “entropy.”  Why?  Because it  regards the untapped  potential for revitalizing a movement!   It means the potential energy not being utilized in a closed system needing change!    In information theory, “entropy” can also mean the uncertainty of a message.  Entropy is at the heart of our United Methodist life situation!

Anthony F. C. Wallace recently considered that notion in his essay, “Revitalization Movements.”  He sees religious conversion as one source of potential energy not being utilized in a system needing change.  The fewer conversions, the more potential energy is untapped.  The more uncertain our message, the more diminished our churches.

Wallace sees another major issue in revitalization—crisis.  Since the 2012 General Conference, we have seen from various sectors of United Methodism a sense of crisis. Alarm bells are ringing!   Some are using their eyes to see and their ears to hear, as Jesus commanded.  We must repent of our institutional hypocrisy!  We cannot command local churches to practice “radical outreach” or “radical hospitality” while we keep old paradigms of ecclesiastical machinery, appointive process, and denominational overhead.

Wallace concludes that any culture contains internal mechanisms that enable it to renew itself when there is entropy or crisis. Therefore, we have hope because we have both!  He advises that institutional revitalization means “when a culture begins to collapse, a process occurs in which the core myths, rituals, and symbols are broken down and reconstituted in such a manner as to give people a revitalized vision of themselves and new strategies by which to enhance and advance the life of the movement.”  Is that just a bunch of words?  No! The supreme challenge before us is the recovery of an old word that is our mantra to revitalization. That word is conversion.  This word for “experiential grace” has almost been dropped from our United Methodist vocabulary! The Muslims, the Mormons and Fundamentalists understand it and they are growing.

What don’t we understand about it?  Bishop Will Willimon points us to  the Bible: “Scripture enlists a rich array of metaphors to speak of the discontinuous, discordant outbreak of new life: “born anew”(John 3:7; I Pet. 1:3,23); “regeneration,”(John 3:5;Titus 3:5); “putting on new nature,”(Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10);  “new creature in Christ(2 Cor. 5:17); and “life according to the Spirit”(Rom. 8:1-39).   Willimon asserts that our departure from language about conversion is due to “the comfort we have with the ‘things of this age’—economically, socially, politically.   Whatever the reason for losing touch with our roots, the result is entropy and the remedy is recovery of conversion. 

Randy Maddox in a book that should be read and re-read with dog-eared pages(Responsible Grace) helps us recover the experience of conversion without lapsing into a “cookie-cutter” stereotype of the “how and when” of God’s way of salvation in our respective lives.  For a long, long time, we have replaced the language of experiential grace with the language of institutional church.

Kenneth Collins wrote in 2000, “Within the larger church, the Wesleyan communion of faith has had a rich and noble heritage of calling men and women to conversion and of urging those who have fallen from grace to beware of the deceitfulness of sin. Today, however,…has come the…loss of an emphasis on conversion and even on the use of ‘soteriological language.”(language about the “study of salvation.”)  John Cobb, a process theologian, has written about “the way of salvation”:  “The language in which the discussion was carried on then is rarely used now.  Psychological categories that have superseded theological ones in popular Protestantism are far less exact and carefully related to one another.”

Historically, especially in the Roman Catholic middle ages and the revival movement of Protestantism, the motive of conversion was not to enhance life here so much as to escape hell hereafter.  That has changed in our culture.  Our concern is, “How do I live before I die?”  The motivation for conversion today is to inject meaning into our chaos and pathos.  Without doubt, the reason for the phenomenal sales of Rick Warren’s book, Purpose Driven Life, was that he outlined a pathway to purpose in the mazeway of life in our times.

I take great issue with Warren’s strident predestination and rigid Calvinism, especially in chapter two of his book.  Who am I to critique Warren’s book, but I must say that while he tapped into the richest vein of human existence, he deleted the human role in being saved.  As Randy Maddox of Duke so adroitly defines in his book, Responsible Grace, we have a responsibility in our personal salvation.  Namely, as in any other relationship, there is what Maddox calls “synergism.”  God grants and gives us amazing grace and unconditional love, but we can either reject it or accept it.

Rick Warren’s diagnosis was so apropos that his treatment was adopted uncritically.   Leaving conversion all up to God is so attractive.  A parody on a great hymn is, “Sit down you child of God, there’s nothing you can do.  God both wrote and runs the plan; he has no need of you.”    Indeed, in contrast to the 19th century when Methodism was thriving, more new Christians today are Calvinists than are Arminians.  What a contrast to the real hymn written by William Merrill: “Rise up ye saints of God, have done with lesser things; give heart and soul and mind and strength to serve the King of Kings.”

Wesley left us the incredibly rich heritage of  a converting message–“a love that will not let  you go.”   But entropy has set in!  We have become more dedicated to preserving the itinerancy of clergy and the appointive system of placing pastors than we are of bringing people into an experience of peace with God and a ministry of reconciliation in the dynamics of personal relationships and institutionalized systems. Our form has trumped our function; our method has trumped our message.

Every bishop, district superintendent, general agency staff, pastor and lay person should scrape up Bishop Richard Wilkie’s book, And Are We Yet Alive?  That  book was our real “call to action” and it was ignored.  We were in denial of the elephant in the room.  While the data is dated in Bishop Wilkie’s book, his insight is prophetic and fresh as the morning dew. Let me  take you to a slight paraphrase of  his opening salvo: “Our sickness is more serious than we at  first suspected. We are in trouble, you and I and our United Methodist Church.  We thought we were just drifting, like a sailboat on a dreamy day.  Instead, we are taking water and slowly sinking, like a leukemia victim when the blood transfusions no longer replace the diminishing red blood cells.”  We can drop those words into our “daily minutes.”

Wilkie reminds us  of a meeting many of us read about long ago. It took place in August 1745 in the “New Room” of Bristol, England.  Eleven people were present—John and Charles Wesley and nine other Methodist preachers. A new rule was added to the ones adopted in 1744: “You have nothing to do but to save souls; therefore, spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those who need you, but to those who need you most.”

Does that language sound archaic?  Maybe, but the essential truth in it remains embarrassing contemporary. Several years ago I heard Eddie Fox say, “We have done a so much better job of “passing the cup of water to the physically perishing than we have naming the Name of Jesus.”  He then set up a chant, “Pass the cup and name the Name, Pass the cup and name the Name, pass the cup and name the Name.”   If we limit the essence of “being a Christian” to humanitarian service, our foot soldiers will grow too old, too weary, or too discouraged to continue.  Only when the message motivates conversion will new disciples “come on line.” As Lewis Rambo  of San Francisco Theological Seminary wrote in 1993, “The result of conversions will be new rules, new visions and new values.”

Elton Trueblood, the great Quaker who was more a philosopher of religion than an evangelist, called ours a “cut flower” religious culture, reflecting the diminishing spiritual resources of earlier roots.  He said that we retain some manifestations of the Gospel, but are cut from our source of nourishment.   A Wesleyan corollary to this is the  quotation used so often that it has lost  its punch: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist will cease to exist…But I am afraid they should exist  as a dead sect, having a form of religion without the power.”  Can we dare we have the temerity to deny the contemporaneity of that quote!

The word “conversion,” once the watchword of Methodism, was replaced in the 1880’s by the word “gradualism.”  One need only to do some homework on the major denominational voices of that day to document that intentional shift.  We saw it in our seminaries, our Sunday School literature editors (like John Vincent and Atticus Haygood), and our pulpits. Some of this was a good correction to the revivalistic stereotype that for one’s conversion to be genuine, a true Christian must have a date, place, time and title of the invitational hymn!  But, as always, we “threw out the baby with the bathwater.”   I plead for the recovery of a “Holy Spirit conversion.” However, I also warn against too simplistic an understanding of being “born again.”  It has been tempting to confine Wesley and Aldersgate to this motif, but Randy Maddox guides us through Wesley’s own metamorphosis in defining conversion.  Just after Aldersgate, he was very “Moravian” but over the years, reclaimed some of his Anglican soteriology as he reflected on his own journey and observed the lives of his Methodist people.

In our need to recover what Wesley calls “God’s way of salvation” and to recover the evangelical language of Christian conversion, we must not fall into quasi-biblical formulae like “praying the sinner’s prayer,” or “walking the Roman road,” or  Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” or even Billy Graham’s “decision for Christ.”  All of these are “God boxes” and the Lord God Almighty will not be cabined, cribbed, nor confined!

In 1785 Wesley wrote to Mary Cooke, “There is an irreconcilable variability in the operation of the Holy Spirit on human souls, more especially as to the manner of justification.  Many find Him rushing in like a torrent… But in others He works in a very different way.”  Then Wesley quotes someone else, documenting the variability: “He deigns His influence to infuse; Sweet refreshing as the silent dews.”  Wesley then says to Methodist Mary: “It has pleased Him to work the latter way in you from the beginning…in a gentle and almost insensible manner.  Let Him take His own way: He is wiser than you.  He will do all things well.”

Alan Walker, an Australian Methodist, had a picturesque way of portraying Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.  Walker pictures their sitting on a Palestinian  rooftop, feeling a Mediterranean breeze on their cheeks. As Nicodemus struggled with what it means to be born again, Jesus said,  “Listen to the wind, Nicodemus, listen to the wind.  It blows as it will. You don’t know from where it comes nor to where it is going but you know it is here.”  So it is with the work of the Holy Spirit; so it is with conversion.  Our prayer must be the concluding words of Holy Scripture: “Come Lord Jesus.”

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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