As Youthworkers, have we really thought about the implications of Conversion? Have we considered Conversion God’s work? Have we tried to take God’s place to manipulate young people? Do we even have a plan for what comes next the day after Conversion?
“To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep on taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility.” ~Peter L. Berger
My guess is that many good folks in Youthwork simply don’t take Conversion seriously. I don’t mean that as a slam. I am pretty sure I did not take it very seriously either until I start working on a small team to develop a truly Wesleyan model for Youthwork.
We met for many weeks in the late 90’s talking about how few resources there were for doing “Methodist” Youth Ministry in the United Methodist Church. Sure, there were program books put out by the United Methodist Publishing House. That is not what I mean. We were asking the question: “What would John Wesley do in any church we have served, big or small, rural or urban, liberal or conservative, if he was the Youth Minister?” What was his praxis and could we still use it today?
We came up with three framing concepts that were so interconnected we were convinced we were on to something. 1) Identity– Young People are asking “Who Am I?” and “What is my purpose?” 2) Conversion– was there more to it than an altar call added to the end of every youth event in an obligatory way or worse yet an altar call always shunned and never used because it felt like manipulation? 3) Community– were young people going to learn faith as a solitary religion or as a social religion?
I drew the short straw for researching Conversion. And I felt pretty darn happy about it. I mean, to understand Conversion you just need to know Paul’s story and then maybe you read William James and then (most likely) a good Baptist theologian has written a book that explains it all. I figured I would be done in 6 weeks tops! Well, not only was that 12 years ago (and I am still not done with all the primary source reading) but I found my intellectual life’s calling: to really understand what is happening to the person in the lifespan, at any age, in the moment of Conversion and in the life long process of being Converted. You could even say I was Converted to Conversion!
You see before I started, I thought the typical altar call was just simply…..ummm…..well I didn’t really think about it but I was sure determined to never allow it because I had decided in my 10+ years of Youthwork that it was only emotional manipulation to get Youth “saved” and to report Monday morning how many salvations I had recorded in a praise report on the old Youth Ministry list serve that I belonged to. I could not have been more wrong. But, in some ways, I also could not have been more right.
John Wesley took the life cycle seriously. Now, he certainly didn’t think about the life-cycle the way we moderns think about it post-Erickson and post-Fowler. But his praxis (I was told not to use this word which means “practice”) was to meet people exactly where they were in their salvation journey. He had a plan of what to do and what each person should be a part of prior to New Birth and post-New Birth. He saw what was happening to the good people Whitfield was Converting and that they had no follow up plan and said something like: it would be better if they had never been converted at all because a year later they are in worse shape than they were before Conversion! Now that is harsh.
Isn’t that what we do? We work and work and work, to move Young People to a certain point of faith, and then we get so busy moving more Young People to the same certain point of faith that we don’t have time to really go deep with a planned Sanctification ministry for each person as an individual and meeting them where they are in their Life’s Journey with God.
Don’t get me wrong; working with Young People beyond the influence of the Church (Prevenient Ministry) will always be a Vital Driver for any Church; and working with Young People to help them make a serious commitment to the God of Jesus Christ (Justification Ministry) should remain at the center of what we do. But do we take the Wesleyan call to grow in Grace and move on toward Perfection (Sanctification Ministry) seriously in our ministry with Young People?
I simply don’t think we hold these 3 things in balance in a typical Youth Program.
If you asked John Wesley “Is Conversion something that happens in a moment or a life-long process?” he would answer “Yes!” My thought is that in general we do not really take the moment any more seriously than we take the life-long process. Sure the whole thing can happen in a moment like it did for the thief on the cross next to Jesus. But didn’t he miss out on the full lifetime of sanctification that 99.1% of our Young People have the potential to enjoy?
If you doubt my theory, that we don’t take the Conversion process seriously you only have to look at the research out now about Young People’s understanding of God and what God does in our lives and in the world. To ruin the ending to many of these great books out, Young People have a shallow faith primarily because their Families have a shallow faith as well. This cuts across all religious traditions but seems to have had an effect on Mainline Denominations like the United Methodist Church the most. Maybe, we were never really doing the right things in Youth Ministry even back in the heydays of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s if both Parents and Youth have not yet experienced the full Glory of Sanctification?
Maybe it is time we start?!?!?!
Peace and Grace,