Tag Archives: Conversion

Back to the world

John Mitchell 1929-2015

John Mitchell 1929-2015

It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that John Mitchell, my father, died suddenly on 31st May. He had sent me his last blog post the previous day, the third in a trilogy on conversion, which I am now publishing below in his memory.

The regular reader of this blog will be alert to the fact that the last two editions have pondered over two of three aspects of Christian conversion. It follows this must be the third and final presentation of our chosen topic – a matter of relevance and significance in the undergirding of our evangelism. There are three conversions to a Christian man or woman’s life. First, to Christ, then to the Church and then back to the world. Or, put another way, there are three ways in which an alleged conversion may be incomplete and imperfect. This exercise introduces itself thus: a conversion is incomplete if it does not leave us with a sense of overwhelming responsibility for the world. The sisters and brothers we are bidden to strengthen and support are both outwith the church and within. A temptation for the church is for us to become a holy huddle, cosying up to one another for warmth. Yes! I know! I know! I have pleaded in the second post on this theme for us to create the warmth of a loving, caring fellowship. At the same time, a church must never become a closed shop, drawing its blinds to the world outside; lost in praise and prayer; connoisseurs of preaching and liturgy; busy congratulating itself on the excellence of its Christian experience and Christian fellowship. Although in recent years the church has accepted its responsibility to serve the present age, sadly in my view there are still some Christian folk who see the church’s sole role as securing the soul a space in heaven.

The name Bob Holman may be a familiar one to some if your newspaper is the Herald or the Guardian. There was a time when he regularly wrote for both those newspapers. Although not all of his readers always agreed with him, his columns were popular as they were stimulating and challenging. I may be wrong but I would credit him as an ardent, evangelical Christian by conviction, with a strong measure of socialism surging through his veins. What is more, he practised what he preached. He was a professor at Bath University, from which post he resigned to launch a community project among vulnerable residents in a deprived area of Bath. After ten years there, he and his wife moved to Easterhouse, a suburb of Glasgow with a reputation of deprivation and its accompanying social problems, and there he became associated in the social and community ministry of the pastor of the Baptist Church he attended. He not only worked in this greatly disadvantaged and much publicised community, he lived there, side by side with his neighbours, identifying with them, helping in their personal and family crises, supporting and encouraging them when they were in conflict with the authorities. And in between, he wrote to newspaper editors and politicians on matters of political concern or social injustice, championing the cause of the poor and inadequate.

I have on my shelves a book by Bob Holman entitled Ordinary Christians. He writes: For nearly fifty years, everywhere that I go God gives me friends, ordinary people with whom I feel comfortable, whom I care for and who care for me. The book tells the stories of twelve ordinary people who became Christians and shows that God still calls such people to serve Him. Like Bron, a converted agnostic, who, in spite of personal difficulties and disappointments, raised funds, supported and visited as a volunteer a ministry in El Salvador. Even in her fifties and in retirement she lived frugally and bought all her clothes from charity shops. She said: As a socialist I gave 10% of my salary, as an Anglican I gave 30%, when I became a Catholic I thought it should be all for the Lord. The stories of the others are similar, converts to Christianity, joining the church, sustained by the fellowship and following in the footsteps of the Lord, loving, caring and working for those who are among the world’s born-losers.’ Converted to new life; converted to serve; back to the world. A worthy response to the Good News of Jesus.

65 years a preacher

65 years a preacher

John Mitchell

3rd July 1929 – 31st May 2015

Rest in peace

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The Church – the Body of Christ

A conversion is incomplete without Jesus in central place in our life, Lord of All. And second, conversion is incomplete if it does not bring us into the full fellowship of the Church. Who believes it these days? Fewer and fewer – at least in our country. For more and more people, the church is not for them – an anachronism, the butt of ridicule. Doctor John White, a well-kent figure in church in his day, preaching at an open-air meeting was heckled continuously. One heckler shouted at him, “Why should I go to church? It is full of hypocrites!” “Correct”, Dr White threw back at him, “but there is still room for another!”

There is more room than ever today for hypocrites and whosoever will belong. If we cannot arrest the spiralling decline in church membership by 2040, we are informed, only 0.5% of the population will belong to church. Enough said! There are many reasons given for people ignoring the church, apart from the absurd idea that we are all a bunch of hypocrites, or that we have not moved with the times. I am certain a lot of our friends have voted with their feet because of what they consider to be the entrenched stance of the church over matters of personal morality. And it seems to me that, in this respect, the voice of concern and protest in regard to family planning and contraception has, for the time being, given way to matters relating to same-sex marriages.

Why is the Church in decline? It is not! Maybe in the UK and Europe – yes. It is a different story in Africa and South America. World-wide the church is growing, most certainly giving expression to their commitment to Christ and Faith. A young woman being interviewed as a prospective candidate for the church’s ministry was asked what she would most like to see in the church during her ministry. She replied immediately, “Full churches”. Would not we all? The pessimistic streak in me thought “poor girl”. In a different mood, the prospect of a dying church and the adverse impact on the ministry and mission of Jesus, the vision I have of a church on its last legs is not as bleak.

We began this essay with the bold statement that our conversion is incomplete if our embrace of faith takes no account of the Church. Here we are about to enter to the realm of controversy – Is that opening assertion written in stone? I am not so certain. I do not hold with the view that all of those folk whom we would love to see in church do not share with us a spiritual hunger or are not impressed by the story of a Saviour’s life, his mission and ministry and the breadth of his love. I believe (there will be those who disagree) the many folk who assure us that they have no ambition to commit themselves to the church, that they have found faith and love Jesus without the restricting hindrance of the church. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view and find myself on occasions asking, might they not be in the sight of God, Christians, entitled as much as you and me to be named disciple? My friends may be relieved that, so far, I have returned to orthodoxy! I still hold that a conversion is incomplete until we embrace the full fellowship of the Church. For a number of reasons – I shall mention two briefly.

First: the journey of Christian faith is far too hard for any one of us to go it alone. We need one another, a helping hand as we stumble along the rough path of faith, a shoulder to lean on, and the wise counsel of those who have “been there – got the T-shirt”, a guide who is heaven-sent. Secondly, God needs the church, which is why it is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). The Body of Christ to preserve and proclaim the stories of Jesus and of the love that passes all our understanding, to seek out and bring women and men into the embrace of a Heavenly Father’s love. God still needs the church; still uses the church.

Lord of all

Conversion of St Augustine. Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Conversion of St Augustine. Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It has been said that there are three conversions in a Christian man or woman’s life. First to Christ, then to the church and then back to the world. Or, put another way, there are three ways in which an alleged conversion may be incomplete and imperfect. I propose in the next two or three issues to have a look at those three facets of the conversion process as stated above.

First, a conversion is incomplete if it does not leave Jesus in the central place in our life. In fact, without him it cannot happen. I have told the story; I repeat it without apology. It takes me back to Salvation Army days when I was young and had never witnessed an altar call. I have told in an earlier edition how I missed out on a visit to the penitent form. It was not uncommon in those days for the sermon in worship to conclude with an appeal to those who were not saved to claim the gift of salvation here and now. As I recall, the first testimony given by a convert went something like this: The worse of drink one Saturday night I followed the band to its meeting place [the SA Citadel] and I heard the story of Jesus from the Major. At his invitation, I staggered to the altar and knelt there and surrendered my life to the Lord Jesus Christ, my Saviour. I have never looked back; Amen!’ The testimony of a man for whom it happened the way St Paul told the people in Rome. He said: If you confess with the mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your hearts, you shall be saved. (Romans 10:9) How we describe who Jesus is may differ from person to person, circumstances may differ, but down through the centuries women and men have told the same story. Even so, the Christian church is far from monochrome in the way it does things, the way it says things, what it believes on certain issues and its expectations of its members.

When the Second World War ended and the need for reconciliation and the restoration of broken relationships was both urgent and necessary, the first post-war Conference of World Christians was planned to convene as soon as possible. The big question, in view of the great diversity, ecclesiastically and nationally – how could this large and diverse community come together and hold together? No easy matter, in the circumstances. Jesus Christ is Lord was the banner that united all who gathered in Oslo on that historic occasion. Surprisingly, Jesus was not called Lord very often in the Gospels. But of all the titles of Jesus, the word Lord became the more commonly used. By the time of Paul, in one form or another, the Apostle refers to Jesus as Lord some two hundred times and it was Jesus the risen Lord who saved and redeemed, that convinced them he is Lord. A bishop in some branches of the church is addressed as My Lord, although no one pretends that he or she ranks alongside Jesus in status or authority. Nevertheless, it is a pity that any servant of the Church is accorded the same title given to the One whose unique authority alone merits it. Do not let us confuse the one with the other, or even compare or imagine any likeness. Jesus is Lord, the one person with the sole right to claim our full obedience.

There is no better illustration than to think of our elder forebears in the faith subjected to the authority of the Roman Empire. At the very beginning of the Jesus movement, Rome was a force to be reckoned with throughout the then known world: there were few places where the Roman Ensign was not raised. But the Roman Empire was a vast heterogeneous mass, difficult to unite and hold together. Rome looked for some unifying bond and thought it had hit on the ideal solution. Caesar worship would do the trick. Once a year anyone living under the flag of the Roman Empire was required to burn a mere pinch of incense to the godhead of the Emperor and to say Caesar is Lord. Do it, then go home and worship whichever god or gods took your fancy. A simple and innocuous ritual, but it was too much to ask of Christians. They dug in their heels: there was to be no surrender and no compromise. Jesus alone was entitled to their obedience and none other than Jesus was Lord.

Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, put it like this: They heard from Him a divinely compelling demand. What Jesus stood for had an enormous intrinsic power. It compelled people, converted them, it turned them around. This is the touchstone of our Christianity, the first step in our Christian conversion – to be confronted by the wonder of Jesus that He can do for us what we can never hope to achieve by ourselves.

Say and do

How can I understand unless someone explains it to me? Philip told him the Good News about Jesus. Acts 8: 31 & 35

The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by the Deacon Philip. Lambert Sustris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by the Deacon Philip. Lambert Sustris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We do not know a lot about Philip. What we do know is that he was one of seven Church Leaders appointed to sort things out, following a quarrel among the members of the church about the management of certain funds and other practical matters, so that the Apostles could concentrate on their ministry of prayer and preaching, unhindered by such trivial distractions. Philip was also a preaching evangelist, sent to head a mission to the Samaritan people. A bold undertaking, for Jew and Samaritan had not got on with one another for a thousand years – the hostility intense and bitter. And tradition has it that Philip was the first to lead a black African to faith in Jesus. That is what the opening verse of this reflection is all about.

Even less is known about the Ethiopian who heard the good news about Jesus from Philip. We are led to believe that he was most probably black but a eunuch, and that he held high office, none other than Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. Candace was not her real name, but a title given to all the Queens of Ethiopia. When the two characters in our story met, the Chancellor had just been to Jerusalem to worship God. So, he was religious, either a Jew or a devout man fed up with the multiplicity of gods on offer, looking to Judaism for something better. When Philip meets him on the road out of Jerusalem he was riding in his carriage, reading and struggling with the text of Hebrew Scripture. Philip, man of the hour for this wandering pilgrim in search of true faith by asking the pertinent questions, longing and hoping for answers that made sense.

And Philip knew what to do and what to say – with great effect. Philip, grasping his chance, told him the good news about Jesus as they travelled the road together, unlikely to be looking at the scenery through which they journeyed. The Word of the Lord was by far more important and urgent. Whereas most of the commentaries consulted translate that Philip, “preached to him the good news”, I prefer the alternative, “told him the good news.” No chance of the award ‘PhD’ for that little morsel of biblical criticism! It is simply that as I endeavour to imagine the scene, “told” the good news somehow fits better, speaks more eloquently. What matter, the great thing in this story is that Philip knew what to say and what to do and a new convert was baptized and went on his way rejoicing. A conversion to Christian faith, always an occasion of great joy but it is just the beginning!

If there is time

English: Cross

A group of us were invited to supper by an ecumenical colleague to meet his visitor, a bishop in the Church of South India with whom he worked when he was also a bishop in the CSI. When we left the dining room we made ourselves comfortable in the lounge and listened to our CSI guest who spoke of the opportunities and difficulties that faced the Church in India. In the ensuing conversation someone asked a question. He wanted to know how many people were being converted and how difficult it was to make new Christians. Hindus, the bishop explained, were inherently a tolerant people and did not persecute so long as the church did not convert. Nevertheless, the church did baptise people from other Faiths but not in large numbers.

The bishop had some difficulty in saying how he thought the church impressed and influenced sufficiently to persuade people to change their religion and subscribe to a new view that God’s supreme revelation Himself is given in Jesus. In a multi-faith society like India, the bishop explained, there is not all that much to choose between the religion of the many and the religion of the few. All the more difficult where Christianity is a tiny minority religion. One thing the Church of South India must do if it is to make any impact, we were told, is to learn how to preach Christ and the Gospel. The bishop thought that would take a long time. Not the prognosis some might have expected who belong to a church which sent missionaries to the four corners of the earth to convert “the heathen.”

It would be difficult to argue that we are any more successful. Are we prepared to be as honest? The church in our country is set amidst an ever-growing secular society where Christian values are challenged; where Christians are not seen to be much different from the majority of unbelievers. And we spend much of our time arguing about structures, maintaining property, planning cosy church programs, conversation on the Work of God relegated to the last item on the Agenda – Any Other Business – in the hope there will not be time for it! What of the Gospel?

Galatians 1: 6–9