Friday, July 17, 2009

Setting the Record Straight: the Instability of "the Conversion Story"


I wish I had more time today to write an extensive blog article on "conversion stories." I've recently been in a few squabbles with close friends on my "radical views" on why I don't think much of them, and I strongly oppose having them as part of a church service.

David Waltz has provided yet another example of the instability of using "the conversion story"- "Setting the Record Straight" - A Public statement by Ken Guindon. I have nothing against Ken, - he's a nice guy, and we've had some pleasant conversations. Converts to Romanism and Orthodoxy love using the "story" as an apologetic tool. I've written about this here. I consider them nothing more than examples of the theology of glory.

As to conversion stories, I don't approve of them being used as apologetic tools, for the simple reason they are based on subjective experience. Someone else's experience is not the Gospel. God doesn't need the help of your "story" to evangelize.

Often, if you boil down a "conversion story" people like talking about themselves. They like the attention. I know one particular person who will launch into her "story" at any minute, especially with a new acquaintance.

In the worship service, I don't approve of someone bringing attention to themselves and their "story"- I don't really care about their story. I want Christ's story. Some people hold that at baptism, it's good for the person to tell their "story"- I disagree. Perhaps it's because I'm embarrassed at the sins I've committed against Christ. When I bring them up...it's like reminding the person you love how awful you've been against them.

As to dramatic conversion stories, I believe that "dead in sin" is "dead in sin." Each person, before regeneration is equally dead in sin. God then raises a person to spiritual life. Some people aren't more "dead" than others because they were a worse sinner. This pops their "conversion story balloon." Suppose Christ called Lazarus to life from the tomb, along with another person who was a bit more sinful. Which person being called forth from the tomb has the more dramatic testimony? Neither! Both are equally miraculous.

On a positive note, I have no problem with getting to know someone and hearing their "story". This is fine over a cup of coffee. But please, keep your "story" out of the spotlight. If you want to tell a "story"- tell Christ's story.

Again, I wish I had more time to write about this. I'd like to thank David Waltz, Ken Guindon, and all my Roman Catholic "conversion story" sages for providing so many examples of the instability of "the conversion story." For me, I'll stick with the Scriptures and their story.

37 comments:

David Waltz said...

Hello James,

You posted:

>> David Waltz has provided yet another example of the instability of using "the conversion story"- "Setting the Record Straight" - A Public statement by Ken Guindon. I have nothing against Ken, - he's a nice guy, and we've had some pleasant conversations. Converts to Romanism and Orthodoxy love using the "story" as an apologetic tool.>>

James, you are so far off the mark on this one, that if I were you, I would seriously consider a retraction.

Ken approached me with a request to post a public statement he had been working on since his decision to return to the Eastern Orthodox Church. He told me that he wanted to “set the record straight”, but did not want to create his own blog to do so. I was reticent at first, but felt our friendship was more important than the misunderstandings and ad hominem attacks that were sure to follow.

For the record, I do not see Ken’s return to the EOC as an apologetic tool in ANY sense; that you have portrayed it as such is quite saddening to me.


Grace and peace,

David

Nutriaboy said...

I agree in principle with your comments about the conversion story; however, I would add this point.
If done correctly, a conversion story IS a story about Christ and what God has done. To me, the issue is not whether or not we should have conversion stories in our services, but whether how and what they say in that story.

As far as Ken is concerned, he was always in the wish-wash and seemed way too sympathetic towards the RCC and EO faiths IMO. Like many others, his familial connections have tainted the well.

James Swan said...

David,

I have no desire to attack Ken. My comments were general to the entire genre of "conversion stories." Ken's revert or conversion or whatever, serves as yet one more example of the instability with conversion stories.

On the other hand, you say, "I do not see Ken’s return to the EOC as an apologetic tool in ANY sense; that you have portrayed it as such is quite saddening to me." Well, Mr. Guindon felt the need to have public statement, so his comments were directed at the...public. What benefit do they serve? What is there intent? Do you mean to tell me they serve no function? Your blog article notes 10 reasons for his "move"--- do seriously think the issues raised have nothing to do with apologetics, and don't serve as a basis of conversation? Do you really think that Mr. Guindon wouldn't share his 10 reasons with someone considering Orthodoxy? Perhaps he did not intend them to be apologetic, but they are. They serve a purpose. They are theological statements that say "What I hold is true, and here's why."

If Mr. Guindon didn't intend to have a bit of the spotlight, perhaps he should've kept his decision to return to Orthodoxy to himself. Again, I have nothing personally against Ken. He's welcome to comment here- he's welcome to e-mail me. He can even message me via Prosapologian.

I retract nothing.

Matthew Bellisario said...

James wrote, "As to conversion stories, I don't approve them being used as apologetic tools, for the simple reason they are based on subjective experience."

Me,
Wow, I wonder if Saint Paul's conversion story should be retracted from the pages of Sacred Scripture now? If no one passed on their experience that they have with God then no one would be converted. This is what Christ calls us to do. That is pass on what has been given to us, and that is life with Our Lord.

Apologetics is not all about debating Scripture passages, it is about extending the love that God has given us to pass on to others. That is sometimes done through conversion stories. I vehemently disagree with this post. I am sure that doesn't surprise anyone here. Anyways, good day to you.

James Swan said...

I would add this point.
If done correctly, a conversion story IS a story about Christ and what God has done. To me, the issue is not whether or not we should have conversion stories in our services, but whether how and what they say in that story.


Keep in mind, I'm primarily speaking about the use of the story in a worship service.

I tend to want to err on the side of caution. That is, even if there were a "right way" to do a conversion story in church, I would oppose doing it, to be on the safe side.

One cannot look into the heart. The person one lets speak in front of your church may....convert back to Orthodoxy later on. I would rather simply stick with those stories found in the Bible. It's a sola scriptura thing.

James Swan said...

Wow, I wonder if Saint Paul's conversion story should be retracted from the pages of Sacred Scripture now?

That's the point. Paul's experience is in the Bible, therefore it serves as a basis of truth. Your story, or whoever's story, does not. I'm going to stick with the certainty of the Scriptures.

Matthew Bellisario said...

I disagree James. I am not talking about giving it during a worship service because that would be inappropriate anyways, at least from a Catholic standpoint. But, to say that people sharing their experiences with God is not useful for bringing conversions is not a tenable argument. We are to share our love of God and our experiences with God with others so that they too may have that opportunity as well. Just because there are bad conversion stories floating around out there doesn't mean that we outlaw them all. What about Saint Austin's famous conversion story that has helped to convert many lives? God works in many ways, I disagree to throwing this tool away wholesale.

Also I think that Saint Paul is also setting an example for us as well in the pages of Scripture. If we too have a powerful conversion story to share with others, then following Saint Paul's example is a good thing. I do not think that Scripture tells us not to share our conversion stories does it?

David Waltz said...

Hello again James,

You responded to my concerns with:

>> I retract nothing.>>

I had a strong feeling that you would not; but at least both of our views on the matter are now on record.


Grace and peace,

David

James Swan said...

But, to say that people sharing their experiences with God is not useful for bringing conversions is not a tenable argument. We are to share our love of God and our experiences with God with others so that they too may have that opportunity as well.

Matthew, reread Acts 2:14-39 later today if you get the chance. Second, we probably disagree on the nature of conversion, so we'll never see eye to eye.

In my view, it is the preached word of God and God's Spirit that cause regeneration (Romans 10:14-15, 1 Peter 1:23; John 5:210. god doesn't need any help from a subjective story that may, or may not be true.

James Swan said...

I had a strong feeling that you would not; but at least both of our views on the matter are now on record.


I'm sure my comments will be a lot more kinder than others. I only knew Mr. Guindon casually via the Internet.

Tim Enloe said...

And of course, there is a difference between converting to Christ (regeneration by God's sovereign grace giving faith where there was none before) and converting from one particular church to another (a self-centered and self-directed alteration of community affiliation). Especially when the church-moving is of a "Once I was a blind ____, but now I see the light of the Pure Truth of the One True Church," the convert story genre plays off the legitimacy of the former to give credence to the latter. A conversion story from, say, atheist to some sort of Christian church might have limited utility in personal discussions, but a conversion from Baptist to Catholic isn't quite the same thing. They should not be used as apologetics tools precisely because they are merely personal experiences, and there is way too much confusion of subjective experience with objective truth in apologetics these days.

Turretinfan said...

It is a little disappointing that he does not clarify that while he was interested in the Reformed churches but not actually a part of them.

steve said...

I'd add that modern-day apostates also churn out deconversion stories.

James Swan said...

They should not be used as apologetics tools precisely because they are merely personal experiences, and there is way too much confusion of subjective experience with objective truth in apologetics these days.

This goes way against the grain, as I've found out recently, even among some people in my own church. I realize conversion stories are interesting, as opposed to that allegedly dull Gospel and exegesis stuff.

Preaching to the choir time:

I would go even further than most. I don't even recommend "Testimony Time" in a church service, in which someone expounds on some miraculous work or answer to prayer. They can tell me privately, but not in a church service. What happens if someone has been praying for something for a long time, with no answer, and then someone gives a "testimony" to some sort of success? The normal person may question what's wrong with their prayers that they don't get answered.

Again, it's Christ's story, not mine.

James Swan said...

It is a little disappointing that he does not clarify that while he was interested in the Reformed churches but not actually a part of them.

I don't recall the specifics of Ken's Reformed affiliation. Perhaps he mentioned it on the ISI interview. I'm not sure if Arnzen or Ken wrote the blurb for the interview, but this statement is very apt:

Ken fully realizes that due to his history of apparent instability in his theological experience he is vulnerable to the charge of not heeding the admonishment of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:14: "...we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming", but believes every path he has taken was motivated by a genuine, sincere desire to honor, obey and serve God rightly. He now realizes his greatest error was searching for "The One True Church", rather than seeking out fellow believers in the One True Gospel.

James Swan said...

I'd add that modern-day apostates also churn out deconversion stories.


The response I've gotten from pro-conversion story folks is that you can't throw something out because it's been abused. In one instance, it was said to me, "The Bible has been abused...should we throw it out?"

Again, my response is to err on the side of caution. I'd rather keep conversion stories out of churches and not run the risk of possible negative side effects.

I'd be interested in knowing if, besides the ISI interview, if Mr. Guindon told his previous story in a church, or at a meeting of some sort.

I don't want to appear to be picking on Ken. Again, he's a nice guy, but I would caution him to maybe not tell or advertise his life story any more.

Tim Enloe said...

From about age 13-21, I was a charismatic. A regular feature of charismatic life is continually talking about personal spiritual experiences as an indicator of "what the Lord is doing for me." This has two related effects. First, it makes the locus of faith things that are happening "in my heart" rather than things that happened extra nos and to which I ought to be striving to conform what is happening "in my heart." Second, it facilitates a very shallow, and frequently misleading to self and others, form of piety that insulates one from both correction and realism about the ups and downs of the life of faith.

When the focal point of one's life and relations with others is a "conversion story" or a "testimony," one easily confuses mere emotional highs with maturity of faith, and this in turn leads to a kind of "groupthink" wherein you can never admit to others that you are having problems with something because you don't want them to think you are a "carnal Christian," or something a good bit less than "spiritual." Smooth appearances become everything; hard reality recedes into the background. And this again leads to easy, systemic self-deception as to one's own condition that also produces an arrogant and defensive posturing attitude when the validity of one's personal experiences is challenged. Frequently, the "conversion story" or "testimony" becomes a tool of manipulation, a way to make others feel like they are on the outside looking in, and you have some kind of superior wisdom or superior connection to Christ that they really, really need and can only get by following your example.

After I left charismatic circles, I had a guy actually refuse to read a book of Scriptural analysis of charismatic theology because, he said, after he read the first two pages and saw that it was going to challenge his deeply held personal beliefs, "the Holy Ghost told me not to read it."

It has been interesting to me over the years of dealing with converts (mostly Catholic, but the occasional Protestant, to) to see how these patterns come out in much of the apologetic work that they do. For the first few years that I was Reformed, I made some of these same errors because of my past history with a subjectivistic slant on faith. With time and the help of many friends and several good pastors, I got over this and moved on. That's why I don't have much respect for the convert story industry (and it is an industry), and why I do not use my own "conversion story" to Reformed as a tool when talking to others.

James Swan said...

and it is an industry), and why I do not use my own "conversion story" to Reformed as a tool when talking to others.

I have had people ask me how I became "Reformed", and I will share it if someone asks. It isn't all that thrilling of a story. They probably figure, based on the fact I was not raised Reformed, I must have someone incredible story in which I wrestled with the Bible screaming "NO! Calvinism can't be true!" Such was not the case, so the story is more like, "(Yawn)...and then I was Reformed."


Preaching to the choir part (General comments, not directed toward Tim):
I have given some personal information about me over the years here on the blog, and also via the ISI broadcast. But I'd delete it all in a minute if someone thinks it means anything more than it is. For instance, I have deep hostility to my mentors in my Philosophy training. I could turn that into a story. But... it isn't the Gospel and god doesn't need my help, that's for sure.

A friend of mine knows a person who actually murdered someone. That ex-murderer is now a Christian, and uses his "story" to help other kids in jail or trouble to realize God can even save a murderer. I have to ask a fundamental question though: Does God need the help of our stories? Is that the pattern of Peter's message in Acts 2 when he preached? Shouldn't the very word of God be enough to change a heart?

Steve said...

I too, am not crazy about conversion testimonies either.

The Holy Spirit creates faith when and where He wills.

I'm sure he uses a multitude of scenarios for that purpose.

The bottom line is that He does make the blind see again.

We are all (believers) living proof of that fact.

Thanks.

James Swan said...

Steve,

Well stated. Thx.

James Swan said...

After reading through Mr. Guindon's essay, Ken Temple commented on this statement:

Guindon: Their sermons are intellectual, stressing the exegesis of Scripture and biblical languages, and they are packed with anecdotes to maintain the audience’s attention. Popular pastors are often charismatic masters of homiletics.

Temple: And John Chrysostom, the "golden mouth preacher", was not?

And then the Crimson Catholic:

Of course he was. The problem is that Protestant preachers are exclusively so. There is no Holy Mystery in Protestant worship, so it is not the simply having these things, but their exclusivity and detachment from the others, their excess, that makes them wrong. In that respect, it is like excessive love of anything mundane to the exclusion of the supernatural.

So now the discussion can be completely derailed. "My Church is better than your church! Nah nah"

Churchmouse said...

I don't like conversion stories either and I would refrain from them if I were a JW, turned Baptist, turned Catholic, turned EO, turned Calvinist Baptist, turned EO again...

It is much more simple just to say that I am a sinner, saved by grace, through a faith He created in me, and all for His own glory.

Carrie said...

This is an interesting discussion and in general something I have struggled with in my own "Evangelical" church. I agree that conversion stories have been elevated to a level that is disturbing yet I don't have an issue with people's stories in the right setting.

I think my issues with the "popularity" of the conversion story method is the larger problem of the subjectivity of it all. In my experience this movement has dumbed down Christians to a point that they can't understand the basic tenets of their own faith and likewise can't understand why certain groups are apostate. And since they often get their marching orders directly from "God speaking to them" they are closed off to correction.

On the flip side though, James, I wonder if your take (here in the comments) is a bit too strict. For me at least, it is difficult to find the right balance and not react so much to things like this that I become too sterile.

Just thinking out loud - I need to think on it some more.

Thanks :)

James Swan said...

Carrie,

I know my position is extreme. I am open to dialog on it. Again, I'm not against conversion stories or testimonies per se, but I simply want them out of the church service.

A post from you any time soon?

Carrie said...

Again, I'm not against conversion stories or testimonies per se, but I simply want them out of the church service.

Agreed :)

A post from you any time soon?

I wish. I miss you guys, but my brain is wrapped up on other stuff at the moment. I'm hoping my time will free up soon.

L P said...

I am skeptical about conversion stories too.

Sometimes I think the habit of using conversion stories is more Americana than Christian.

LPC

Lvka said...

You know as well as I do that we didn't invent them; we've just borrowed them (not necessarilly in a conscious manner) as a counter-proselytising tool. Likewise did the Jews ("Jews for Judaism").

Jerry said...

Yes I agree with James, conversion from sin, judgment and death into light, life and peace with a Holy God is "the" Christian conversion story!

Andrew said...

I think a story can be useful at the right time to the right person(s). Maybe you are witnessing to someone and they divulge information about themselves and it turns out that it might help them (not God) to know that you have been where they are. I could think of other situations where it might be appropriate also, but that example should suffice to make my point. I agree that a conversion story is not a useful apologetic tool as there are undoubtedly conversion stories about going from just about every religion to just about every other. It proves nothing. I also agree that the conversion story during worship itself is often times less than useful. I have sat through a few doozies. To summarize I guess it depends on the time, place, intention of the story teller, and the audience. It's definately not a good apologetic tool though. It may be an effective tool one a certain level, but not a good one.

L P said...

I am skeptical because Mormons have conversion stories too and they testify that they used to be bad and now they are good people after their conversion.

In other words from being not so nice folk to being very nice people and the burning in the bosom people in; false doctrines have conversion stories too.

I prefer conversion from lack of faith in the Gospel to presence of faith in the Gospel.

Rather than, "see, how nice I have become"?

For after all, the Gospel is not about you, it is about Christ for you. The accents of these two concepts are million miles apart.

LPC

Andrew said...

LP,

You have made an excellent point. Do you perceive some agreement betwixt us? I think I do.

L P said...

Andrew,

I agree that a conversion story is not a useful apologetic tool as there are undoubtedly conversion stories about going from just about every religion to just about every other. It proves nothing. I also agree that the conversion story during worship itself is often times less than useful.

I agree.

If someone asks why you change denom then that is fair enough.

LPC

Rhology said...

It's funny that many in today's church conflate and equate one's testimony with the Gospel.

I'm trying to get over that. It's not easy, in a SBC church where "he made a decision" is frequently shorthand for "he got saved" (I wonder what the hex is wrong with "he got saved" anyway?) and "he was able to share his testimony" is seen oftentimes as a suitable substitute for sharing the Gospel (or better yet, the Law and the Gospel) with a lost person.

-Rhology

Carrie said...

It's not easy, in a SBC church where "he made a decision" is frequently shorthand for "he got saved" (I wonder what the hex is wrong with "he got saved" anyway?)

How about "he gave his life to Christ"? I tend to prefer "Christ gave his life for me". Maybe it's semantics, but the emphasis in these type of SBC (and other Evangelicals) buzzphrases seems to be misplaced.

And don't get me started on "asking Jesus into your heart"...

I prefer conversion from lack of faith in the Gospel to presence of faith in the Gospel.

Exactly.

Andrew said...

Carrie,

I once saw a billbaord that said:

"For a happy, healthy heart, ask Jesus into your heart."

There was some bible verse cited, but I don't remember what it was. Anyway, I thought I would share that.

I thought that was ridiculuous.

Wayne said...

For all the discussion there was not much Bible to back up anyone's arguments. 1 PETER 3:15. But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:

James Swan said...

For all the discussion there was not much Bible to back up anyone's arguments.

See my comments above, July 17, 2009, 8:32 AM.