My conversion came as a distinct moment as I spoke to Jesus about what I had just read in Matthew 6:33 of the Bible. Christ’s new life brought a “lights on” change in the dark room of my soul—a sense of relief and joy. I kept reading and found more and more delight: I was hearing God’s voice in what I read.
This post is a reflection on what followed my new birth rather than on the conversion itself. I remember going back to my church camp cabin where the cabin counselor was there by himself, reading.
“I just gave my life to Jesus!” I gushed.
He turned towards me with a puzzled look. Conversion wasn’t on his agenda just then.
“That’s nice,” he responded, “but just remember that these sort of emotions come and go so don’t be too upset when your low moments come along too.”
“No,” I answered, “it wasn’t some emotional splurge. I was reading my Bible and I finally realized that God wants us to be totally committed to him—so I made that commitment!”
“OK, that’s nice, but be ready for it to fade after a while.” He turned back to his book.
It dawned on me in an instant that he didn’t know what I was talking about—that he seemed not to have had the sort of meeting with Jesus I just experienced in reading the Sermon on the Mount. And his prediction was sheer nonsense: my delight has never faded.
What has faded is my expectation that all who claim to be Christians will have a distinct moment of becoming united with Christ. The experience of having night turn into light in a given moment, I now realize, is a rare feature in Christendom rather than its standard entry point. Yet my issue here isn’t to explore who is and who isn’t a Christian. God knows and that’s fine.
Instead my reflection is on the problem that comes with “spiritual leaders”—like my cabin counselor—who don’t actually lead, at least in term of cultivating a love for God. His response to my story was more like a local barista putting a tight lid on a coffee cup so nothing would spill out. It seems that he saw my raw enthusiasm—a word from “en theos” or “in God”—as messy . . . an event to be contained or managed. And in the years since I find that many others are like my counselor: more concerned to put a lid on faith by managing Christians than in stirring and cultivating faith. Even in Bible colleges and churches.
My experience with bold Bible reading illustrates this. I regularly promote partnership Bible read-throughs—reading the entire Bible in 3-4 months—as a remarkably effective way to build life in a church. At least five percent of any healthy evangelical church will be ready for a bold growth option. But pastors willing to try it themselves, or to offer it to their church members are rare indeed!
I know. When I share the proven track record of this approach—telling stories of how Bible reading has transformed lives—I’ve been met with stunning silence. Pastors just turn and continue reading their books. And in that moment they prove to be lids rather than leaders.
In one setting I was leading the church home group ministry. I suggested to the pastor I served under that it would be good to have one of our groups try the “read through” approach—with volunteers invited on the basis of their obvious appetite to grow.
“Absolutely not!” the pastor growled. “That has the potential of dividing groups into the ‘more spiritual’ and the ‘less spiritual’—we can’t have divisions like that.”
And I’m sure he was right on that point: there would have been a division. But I’m also sure the Bible reading group would have been gracious rather than proud—assuming the Spirit of God still produces his fruit in growing believers—and they would have offered a dynamic and winsome alternative to the relatively placid faith of the majority.
Was this pastor a lid or a leader? And, for that matter, what are we?