One of the core elements of evangelical church life is the conversion experience. From old-time revivals, to seeker-sensitive church services, to post-modern outreach strategies, evangelicals have placed a very high emphasis on the point of conversion.
This practice is based on a theological perspective; it’s not just a tactic to get people in the church. Stanley Grenz wrote, “[A]t the heart of the evangelical movement has always been what Donald Dayton calls ‘convertive piety’ or what Roger Olson terms ‘conversion piety,’ i.e. the vision of the faith that proclaims that ‘true Christian piety—devotion, discipleship, sanctification—begins with a distinct conversion experience not identical with [infant] baptism.'” (Renewing the Center, 47-48)
A common concern, however, with this view is that we turn conversion into “believism.” If you have a point in time when you know you agreed with the right doctrines about Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection, then you are “in.” If not, then, well, we should call your eternal security into question. In his book Present Perfect, Greg challenges this misappropriation of conversion:
“I’ve observed that we in the West—especially Christians—tend to attach great importance to what we believe. We treat beliefs almost as though they have magical power, as though merely believing something makes it so. For instance, many assume that believing Jesus is Lord of their life magically makes him Lord. This is undoubtedly why so many evangelical churches place so much significance on getting people to believe in Jesus and why so much is made of the moment sinners raise their hand or go to the altar to profess their faith in Jesus. This one-time event, it is often assumed, makes Jesus Lord of their life forever.
“The truth is, merely believing Jesus is Lord no more makes him Lord of my life than believing Kim Jong-[un] is the leader of North Korea makes me his follower. For Kim Jong-un to be my leader, I would need to submit my life to him and become a citizen of North Korea. So too, for Jesus to be my Lord, I need to submit my life to him and become a citizen of his Kingdom.
“Research shows that however emotional people may have been when they raised their hand or responded to the altar call, fewer than 4 percent reflected any change in their lives several years later.
“I’m not trying to minimize the importance of beliefs. Obviously, it’s impossible to surrender to Jesus unless you first believe that he is Lord. Still, the belief is not itself the surrender. Embracing a belief is something you do in your mind. Actually surrendering your life is something you can only do with your will. And since the only life you have to surrender is the one you’re living at this present moment, the decision to surrender can only take place right now.
“The important question, therefore, is not what you believe. The important question is what you decide to do, moment-by-moment, on the basis of what you believe” (47-48).