The Taser's Edge

Conversion is a Process

Earlier this week, our church had its first meeting for a number of folks reading through several books (Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, Andy Crouch’s Culture Making, James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World) and discussing them over the course of the next year, specifically as a way to understand God’s calling on our church to be “in but not of the world” in our local community in Durham, NC and the surrounding area.

As you might have read here last week, I really loved Keller’s Generous Justice. My love for the book is that it introduces God’s call to justice, integral to the outworking of the Gospel, in a very pastoral way to a group of Christians who have a hard time hearing that call–American conservative evangelicals.

As I talked with others about the book, however, I noticed that what had seemed like nitpicks may be larger flaws in what Keller lays out.  To be clear, I think Keller can tell us a lot about what a justice-doing Church or Christian looks like, but I also don’t believe that his theology gives an adequate account of the inner workings of the process which turns a church into a justice-doing church or a Christian into a justice-doing Christian.

There are two basic questions to look at this further: (1) What is conversion? and (2) What is the Church?

What is conversion?  In many Christian circles, conservative evangelical and beyond, conversion is an on-off switch, a binary.   Do you believe?  Then you are ‘saved.’  You will go to Heaven.  In fact, however, the very word ‘conversion’ shows that it’s not a binary but a process.  The question is not “Are you saved?” but “Are you being saved?”   It’s not “Are you a convert?” but “Are you being converted?”

We are being reshaped into the image of God; we are having God’s broken and distorted image restored in us.   That is to say, the work of the ‘saved’ is to take part in God’s ongoing conversion of the world and of ourselves.  Conversion is a process which will not be fully completed before our deaths.

This is where my second question comes in: What is the Church?   For Keller, it’s not exactly clear from this particular book, even though he might give an actual definition somewhere in it, and I just don’t have it at hand.  Probably he would formulate some sort of missional statement akin to “The church is a missional outpost of God’s kingdom in the world.”

In any case, the problem with Keller’s theology of the church, is that it, too, is overly binary.   The church, like the individual, however, is a community which is in the process of being converted.  Christ’s church has not arrived; it is becoming.  What’s more, the church is a community which is being converted which converts people.  Is that clear? The church is itself being converted and the church is God’s instrument of our conversion.  It may not seem ‘efficient’ but that is the witness of the disciples gathered around Jesus.

I mentioned in my initial book review that I kind of detest Keller’s subtitle, “How God’s Grace Makes Us Just.” While the words are entirely true (if we are just, it is only God’s grace which has made us so), the way that Keller presents it in the book is very individualistic.  Basically, he claims, when I come to know the depths of how I have been loved and greatness of the gifts I have received, I will see others in a different (more gracious) light and become a generous person.

But that’s not how people work or how people change.  Just because you have been given a lot doesn’t mean you’ll give a lot. Think of the spoiled child or a country’s dictator or how you hate giving a good tip to a bad waiter or Jesus’ parable of the man who had been forgiven a huge debt but would not forgive his own debtor.  There is a gap, which Keller doesn’t account for, between being one who receives generous gifts and one who gives generously to others. I would argue that the community of the church is how we bridge that gap, or rather that the community of the church is how God converts us into generous and just people.

The church is not just a gathering of people who go out and do generous things. The church is a community which creates generous and just people who live differently in the world. The reason the church often fails to do this is because the church is, like us, still being saved.

So then, we arrive at yet another couple questions, which are the same question at their hearts: (1) “How does our church become the type of church which is itself very consciously entering into God’s process of converting it?” and wholly connected with that, (2) “How does our church become a church which creates that type of disciples, the kind who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God as Christ does?”

These are questions which any church must ask if it hopes to become the church which the Good News of Jesus Christ calls and empowers us to be.