At the time of this column I am wrapping up my second year of Ph.D. studies (and, no, I am not almost done). This semester’s final torture came in the way of a qualitative study involving conversion narratives. Our class interviewed 36 people about their conversion looking at common themes and questions asked during their process. While I will spare you the technical details — since they are reserved for an academic conference this fall — one common trait stuck out and has given me cause for reflection both as a pastor and a believer.
Most of the interviewees acknowledged multiple conversion moments. Whether they grew up in the church or came to faith later in life each person recognized particular seasons and catalysts that moved them to a deeper experience with God.
Sometimes the occurrences were as simple as someone handing them a C.S. Lewis book to read on a long plane ride. Other times they involved supernatural light and visions.
One respondent told of having a conversion on a walk with a youth leader and later having that conversion sort of ratified by a drunken homeless man. While the youth group sat around a bonfire singing, a homeless man with a brown bag sat next to the newly converted respondent I interviewed. He remembers the guy speaking utter nonsense for 30 minutes and then suddenly becoming lucid. He looked at the young man in the eye, said his name and told him the Lord has special plans for his life. Then the man went back to drunken gibberish and wandered away. The young man is a pastor now.
Whether miraculous or mundane, most if not all respondents had moments where they distinctly recall a shift from unbelief/nominal belief to a deeply personal faith. It made me think of my own conversion experience.
I grew up an Adventist preacher’s kid and was baptized at 11 years old. However, my faith didn’t become personal and experiential until I responded to an altar call at a large charismatic church in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
What all of the respondents indicated is that those moments helped sustain them through difficult times in the present. When doubts or discouragements erupt in their lives now, they can look back and reflect on those seasons of awakening, and it gives them strength.
The Bible talks a lot about setting up altars and monuments to remember God’s leading in life’s journeys. After crossing the Jordan River, Scripture records, “And Joshua said to them, 'Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, "What do those stones mean to you?" then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever'” (Josh. 4:5–7). Whether physical monuments, tablets of stone, or feasts and festivals — God leads His people to place markers in life to help them remember.
One of Ellen White’s statements (that has been used almost to the point of cliché among Adventist camp meetings and publications) is, “We have nothing to fear for the future except we forget the way God has led us, and his teaching in our past history” ("General Conference Bulletin," Jan. 29–30, 1893). Speaking of the last days, White also says, “In order to give such a message as John [the Baptist] gave, we must have a spiritual experience like his. The same work must be wrought in us. We must behold God, and in beholding Him lose sight of self” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, pp. 332, 333). Adventists tend to break out in rashes if we hear the words “experience” and its frightening cousin “feelings.”
One theological element from Methodism Adventists eschewed was the idea of the “second blessing” — a sort of instant perfection experience after one had decided to follow Jesus. This seeking after a second-blessing sanctification helped lead to the speaking-in-tongues phenomenon in the early Pentecostal church.
While we don’t follow that model of sanctification, we do believe in a baptism of the Spirit. We believe there is more than a mental assent to the truth. There is a moment, or moments, when we have a deeply nonrational encounter with Christ that creates a knowing of His love in our hearts that is transformative. Jesus even says we are to be reborn (see John 3).
So, do you have a moment you remember? Or moments? When was the last time you had one? Take time to reflect on your conversion and, if it has been too long, make a moment right now and ask Jesus to bless your heart with a fresh conversion to give you strength on your journey with Him.