I was participating in a "theological discussion" (aren't you impressed) at SMU on Thursday and my round table was talking about ... well, they were talking about conversion. Several people were speaking passionately about finding the nonbelievers and bringing them into the church; that was the goal. Of course, I had to add my two cents about how my ministry was focused more on kingdom building than church building and that made some people in my congregation (those who are forced to watch the bottom line) very anxious.
One of the people at my table has to deal with the anxiety of giving and budgets all the time. He is a local pastor at two churches (this is not this same as an ordained clergy, but someone who has undergone special training in order to be able to serve communion, baptize and perform weddings, along with all those other clergy duties that happen 24/7). He said, "You have to be careful because if you make people mad, they will stop giving money to the church."
Remember that sound Al Pacino made in "scent of a woman" ... OOOH-WAH! I hear ya brother, but I really, really hate that reality. I confess I struggle with people who seem to believe they can hold the church hostage by withholding their support (and support can be on several different levels).
Our church is going through a financial challenge right now (church speak for, "we're broke.") I say, start encouraging people to tell stories about how our church's ministries have changed their lives in a most profound, surprising and refreshing way. Others say, "Well let's just send everyone a letter and ask them for more money now." I feel ya, brother. James 4:2 says you have not because you ask not. I just don't like the idea, as Pastor Bill used to say, of presenting Jesus as a beggar looking for alms.
Well, I flew off my original train of thought, which was this notion of saving the unchurched. It was very obvious that several people were hot and heavy on the idea of converting the heathens (but we don't call them that because we love them so much). Now if I'm not mistaken, Jesus said in the Great Commission in Matthew's gospel that we are to go out and make DISCIPLES of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit and teaching them everything Jesus had commanded them (the original disciples, to whom he was speaking).
Making a disciple is different from making a convert. A convert is someone who professes faith in Jesus Christ and is baptized and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. Heaven help us if it all ends there! In contrast, a disciple is someone who embraces a particular teaching or way of life and teaches others to do the same.
I will go so far as to say that discipling should occur before, during and after conversion.
I'm not too crazy about taking an approach to salvation that really is just a fire insurance policy. See, I'm a United Methodist and we believe that salvation is the freedom from the guilt of sin and freedom from the power of sin. That's a whole lot more than "...and you won't go to hell." When our faith is all about fire insurance, suddenly Jesus' promise of living abundantly (that's living, not surviving) goes right out the window.
I confess I did not say at the round table, "I think conversion is totally overrated." Yeah, they would have tossed me out of there. And I don't believe that anyway. I'm just saying ... just saying ... that putting a proverbial notch on the conversion belt is not what Jesus had in mind. There's much, much more.
I will end with sharing a comment from the lecturer that day, Joerg Rieger, a professor at SMU's Perkins School of Theology. He said that we often make the mistake in urban ministry of believing we are bringing God to those in the inner city, as if God had left at some point when we did as a part of the flight to the suburbs. Instead, we need to discover what God has been doing since we've been gone and join in his efforts. I loved it! I nearly stormed the podium and kissed him on the cheek. But then that may not have made a favorable impression either.