This is part five of our series ‘What is an evangelical?’. You can read the series opener here.
While most of us don’t go about using the label ‘evangelical’ regularly, I’d say that one of its central components, conversionism, is at the very core of the faith which many of us live out;
· An active change
We believe that we’ve chosen to actively turn away from a way of life which leads us away from God. And that it’s through repentance and acceptance of Jesus as our savior, that we’ve found the way to be reconnected with God again.
Whether it began through a memorable moment or a gradual process, we believe that this journey is one which never stops, as we continually seek to be more like Jesus.
· The Holy Spirit’s role
Yet we also believe that it’s not just our decisions which determine how this journey looks – the Holy Spirit is working behind the scenes in ways we often (more like ‘usually’) can’t explain, bringing people across our path and softening our own hearts.
In the words of George Smith, the experience of encountering the risen Christ is, ‘choreographed by the Spirit rather than evangelistic techniques’ (Oxford handbook of Evangelical Theology, p210).
· A change for the better
And counter to the stereotype of Christianity and its ‘rules’ preventing our fun, we believe this change brings us freedom to live the ‘abundant’ life we were originally created for (John 10:10).
I’m constantly amazed by stories of how Jesus is making a difference in people’s lives all across the UK. Sharing these stories through greatcommission.co.uk is definitely one of the highlights of my work – hearing people from diverse backgrounds such as Balbinder, Neil, Lee and Natalie who talk about the peace and purpose they’ve found through their relationship with Jesus.
But surely, for us millennials, having a faith based on needing to change, and wanting others to change too, jars with the mantra of our day: “accept everyone as they are”? After all, how can our friends trust us if we’re sitting in judgment – wanting them to change their beliefs and actions?
This is exactly how five party-going young women felt when faced with spending a month in a Norfolk convent – a somewhat different ‘spiritual journey’ to what they’d expected when they signed up to the Channel 5 reality show! Arriving in their high heels, heavy make-up and short skirts, their assumption was that the nuns – covered head-to-toe in their habits – would judge, condemn and look down on them.
But what they found was genuine love and friendship, offering them a different way to think about the world. Spending time with the sisters helped them reflect on what really mattered, and realise the places where they were searching (unsuccessfully), for their identity and self-worth. As the Bad Habits series unfolded, we could see them realising for themselves how they needed to change – actively asking for forgiveness, reconciling broken relationships, and starting to focus on others.
So perhaps the message that we need to change isn’t something so off-putting after all, as long as we remember to ‘beyond all these things put on love’ (Colossians 3:14, NASB).
In fact, I’d argue that many of our beliefs around conversion actually resonate strongly with millennials;
1. Wanting to ‘change the world’
I believe that when really pushed, most millennials would agree that the world is full of problems which need addressing, and that we all have a part to play in seeing change come in our communities.
The change we encounter during conversion is not about escaping the real world, but is instead ‘the radical transformation of an individual life towards generous service in the world’ (Oxford handbook of Evangelical Theology, p212). I’d say that’s an appealing concept for millennials.
2. Wanting to become a better version of ourselves
In our age of insecurities and anxieties, just like the five ladies on Channel 5’s Bad Habits, I think lots of us are looking for a more fulfilling way to live. And as we try to fill that hole with social media, drinking, friendships, career success and more, many of us become aware that we can’t do it on our own – we need help. And the faith we hold to says that the only one who can save us in that situation is Jesus; ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).
3. Recognising life is complex
Millennials aren’t after pat-pat answers and simple formulas for success – we know that life is messy. So, the evangelical understanding of conversion as a complex experience, with people coming to faith in Jesus in many different ways, suits millennials – it means the way we discover Jesus for ourselves doesn’t have to fit a pre-prescribed mould.
4. Being genuine
Millennials hate hypocrites. And in this age of fake news, I believe people are refreshed and impressed to see others who genuinely change and shape their lives around what they believe.
Our beliefs about conversion reflect that we’re each living out a dynamic personal relationship with Jesus, not just going through the motions for the sake of it. ‘We cannot be detached’ as we recognise ourselves as sinners who desperately need the salvation which is only found in Jesus’ (Alistair McGrath in Evangelicalism and the future of Christianity, p68).
So, I’d say that our beliefs about conversion, while not something we often sit down and think about, actually run to the core of what it means for us to live out a dynamic personal relationship with Jesus. And they also remind us that this genuine relationship should attract others to want to explore what Jesus-shaped change could look like in their life.