I am a campus minister, but I am not going to try to “convert” you. If you ask me how I “became a Christian,” I’ll tell you I was born into a Christian home and was baptized as an infant. If you ask me how I “got saved,” I’ll tell you that, at least according to Paul, I am not “saved” yet and neither are you. If you ask me to tell you what I think the gospel is, I will open my Bible to the Gospel According to Mark and begin reading until you tell me to stop. And I always have to chuckle a little bit when I see a banner announcing that a church has scheduled a “revival.”
Well, that’s a long story, but thankfully Gordon T. Smith has begun to tell it for me in his excellent, recent Christianity Today article, “The New Conversion: Why We ‘Become Christians’ Differently Today.” Long story made short, Smith narrates the ways in which evangelicals are finally shrugging off the language, assumptions, and techniques of 19th century revivalism–that form of evangelical piety which is entirely centered on “winning souls,” “getting saved,” going to heaven when you die, praying the sinners’ prayer, and “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior (and/or Lord–depending on who you ask).”
That way of thinking about Christianity lost all purchase on reality for me some years ago as I came to realize that not only was it an approach to Christianity developed only a little over a century and a half ago, it also makes hash out of the language of the New Testament (to say nothing of the Old). In this respect, the title of the article is unfortunate. For “the new conversion” for which most post-revivalistic evangelicals (if I may coin a phrase) are looking is not some radical innovation but a recovery of the ancient modes of evangelical witness which were shoved aside and forgotten amid the confused evangelistic hullabaloo of the last century and a half or so. The patient, quiet, deeply personal work of discipleship was drowned out by the noisy “Crusades,” rallies, and “revivals,” and abandoned in favor of various “get saved quick” schemes.
But that long, difficult work of making disciples still needs doing, and it’s high time we relearned how to do it. So, please, read Smith’s article. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
(Just as a side note, I think that in the long-run, revivalism has done more harm than good. It is an inherently anti-ecclesiological, anti-sacramental, anti-traditional, and anti-intellectual framework. The fact that revivalism has been American evangelicalism’s theological frame of reference for the last century goes a long ways towards explaining the present confusion of the American church.)