Thinking about Conversion

Conversion – turning to God in repentance and putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ – is a prominent theme in the New Testament.

In November 2006 the Sider Institute held a conference on “Salvation: Exploring the Meaning of Conversion” at Grantham, PA. The planners asked me to give some reflections on conversion, based on my years as a Christ-follower, pastor and bishop. Here are those reflections.

Conversion through the Eyes of One BIC Pastor
John B. Hawbaker

Change – transformation – we see it in the world around us, as when an earthbound caterpillar becomes a bright and beautiful butterfly. We also see it in people.

Anyone who comes to God through faith in Jesus Christ his Son begins a new life.

As has been described earlier in this conference, conversion is both a point of decision – a turning to Christ in faith – and also a life of ongoing transformation by the love and power of God. For this concluding session I shall limit myself to talking about conversion as a point of turning to God in repentance and faith. Here are some of my reflections on this great work of God in human lives known as conversion.

There is so much I don’t understand about conversion.
From the teachings of Jesus I understand that this is the normal state of affairs for all humans. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” John 3:8, NIV.

With this in mind, I do not understand why Christopher was so open to put his faith in Christ. He and his fiancée Jean came to my office to ask if I would officiate at their wedding in our church. Before I said yes, I walked them through the things we expect of a couple getting married at our church. I also reviewed in detail God’s plan for our salvation – and asked them whether they were followers of Christ.

Jean said yes, she had received Christ at a young age and was still actively following Christ. Christopher, although he had attended Manor Church as a child, said that he had never made a personal decision to trust in Christ.

I asked him if there was anything that would prevent him from putting his faith Christ now, and he said, “No.” So right there in my office – the first time I ever had a spiritual conversation with him – he prayed a prayer to trust in Christ as his Savior. Later he was baptized, and he and his wife are active members in our church. I also had the privilege of conducting their wedding.

I can’t claim credit for Christopher’s openness to the gospel. I don’t understand everything about conversion.

I do not understand how my uncle Frank (not his real name) can be so resistant to the gospel. He is surrounded by Christians, including his wife, who is the epitome of Christian faithfulness and graciousness. But all his life Frank worked hard for what he got, and he figures he can take care of himself and he doesn’t need God. So he stubbornly refuses to open his heart to God’s love.

When he was sick in the hospital, his wife’s pastor and his own nephew came to visit him, and Frank said to them: “If you have come to talk to me about religious things, I will tell you right now, I’m not interested.”

Prayer, resistant hearts, receptive hearts – there is so much about conversion that I don’t understand.

But I do understand that conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit and that we can cooperate with God as he does his work.

The Apostle Paul went to Philippi and spoke to a group of women. One of them was a woman named Lydia – a businesswoman, a dealer in purple cloth. The Bible says, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message…” Acts 16:14, NIV.

It is a work of God (shall we say a miracle of God?) that anyone is converted, but we can cooperate with God in this great work of his through our presence, love, listening and, at the appropriate time, telling the gospel.

Harry came to my office in June. He had attended our church a few times with his sister-in-law. Now he was in distress because of his parents’ poor health, his job situation, disagreements with his wife over finances, and depression. I listened, prayed with him, suggested he see his family doctor for a check-up, and encouraged him to see a Christian counselor at a counseling center nearby. I also explained God’s way of salvation – and asked him if he was ready to receive Christ that day. He was not. But he said he would think about it – and he took the booklet I gave him.

Some time later we met again in my office. He was much improved in his outlook on all of life. After we talked about many things, I asked about his relationship with God, and he said that in the meantime, on his own, at home, he had prayed and invited Christ into his life.

There are many things I don’t understand in life. But I do know that Harry’s conversion was a work of God, not of John Hawbaker; and at the same time, I also know that I had the awesome privilege of cooperating with God as he did his work.

I have come to respect the process that precedes conversion.

Theologically, we call this “spiritual awakening” or “conviction of sin.” Practically, it means that few people respond to Christ the very first time they hear the gospel. They need time to become aware of the depth of their sin, to weigh the meaning of the gospel message, to count the cost of following Jesus, and to consider what their friends might say. Then they can make an informed decision. Some students of evangelism say that on the average a person needs to hear the gospel seven times before she or he says yes to God’s invitation.

And in our day (maybe it was true in every day) people want a relationship with you before they will consider a relationship with God. In that sense, belonging often precedes believing.

Anita, a member of Manor Church, met Dori and they became friends. They shopped together, laughed together, and talked about life. Anita talked about her faith and the Bible. Dori didn’t have a Bible – so Anita gave her a Life Application Bible. Then they met in Dori’s home for a series of Bible studies – and at the end of the studies Dori accepted Christ as her Savior.

It all began with friendship and spending time together. The process that goes before conversion is so important.

I rejoice in the wide variety of conversion experiences.

Bethany is part of the Manor church family and is a student at Messiah College. When she was six years old, she went to her cousin Brittany’s house for a sleep-over. Brittany asked her, “Do you know how important it is to invite Jesus into your heart as your Savior? Have you ever done that?”

“Well, no,” Bethany said.

“Would you like to do it now? Here’s how.”

Bethany is now age 21 and is actively following Christ – and it all began at age 6.

When I was Bishop of the Allegheny Conference, I got to know John Geyer, pastor of the Clear Creek Church at Everett (PA). John had no Christian influence in his home as he was growing up. He says, “My Dad taught me two things – how to make beer and how to play poker. And I’ve forgotten both of them.”

But a neighbor lady held a Good News Club in her home. John attended, heard the gospel, and got saved. (I was hoping it would be acceptable to use that word in that way at this conference, and what I have heard throughout the day reassures me that it is acceptable!)

When I was Bishop, I also met Jeff, who says that he came to his senses – and came to Christ – because of the prayers of a Catholic charismatic prayer group. Jeff grew up in the Roman Catholic Church in Mechanicsburg, but what he heard made no sense to him at the time. He says. “The only thing I remember from church is the image of Jesus in the stained glass windows.”

Jeff became a wild guy in high school. By his junior year he was living for parties, and was addicted to drugs and alcohol. His parents couldn’t reach him and were feeling desperate. His father told the priest of their concern. And the priest passed the word on to a prayer group in the church, a charismatic group that met every Tuesday evening. “Pray for a young man who has lost his way, and his parents don’t know how to reach him.” That was the simple wording of the request.

Then Jack entered the story. He was a college student who loved Jesus and had a Christian rock band. (If you knew me in my years as a student here at Messiah College, you would know how far I’ve come that I can say “Christian rock band” without raising a storm of protest.)

So here’s Jack, the Christian rock band leader, befriending Jeff. That summer (after Jeff’s junior year in high school) at a meeting where George Otis, Sr., was the speaker, Jeff felt his need of God. He didn’t know how to pray or what to pray. He just raised his hand toward God. A warm sensation came over his whole body, and he soon discovered that he had been instantly delivered from his addictions to tobacco, drugs and alcohol.
So Jeff went back to his senior of high school as a new person in Christ.

This Jeff is Jeff Dunlevy, pastor for several years of the Hanover Church, and now pastor of the New Joy Church in Ephrata. Jeff says, “The day I turned to God, Jesus stepped out of the stained glass window and into my life.”

Nobody’s story is quite like Jeff’s. And nobody’s story is quite like yours. I rejoice in the wide variety of ways people come to faith in Christ. I also try not to put God in a box as to how he will reach the people who are currently on my heart but who are not yet believers.

People come to faith in a variety of settings.

Some people come to Christ at an altar, or other setting for response, in a public meeting. That was the case with an eleven-year-old boy who went forward in a revival service where John Rosenberry was the preacher. I know that story well. I am that eleven-year-old boy.

Some still come to Christ in a public meeting, but many others come to faith in a variety of settings – often not at the altar following a public invitation.

Lauren invited Christ into her heart at age five, after a conversation with her mother and led in prayer by her mother.

Nick trusted in Christ as Savior as a seventh grader at a youth retreat.

Jake, a college student who was raised by atheist parents, came to Christ in my office after a Sunday morning service.

Amy is in her twenties. She grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and has struggled to understand what evangelicals mean by being “born again” and “trusting in Christ as your personal Savior.” But after many conversations with her believing husband, and after attending Manor Church for three or four years, and after a long conversation with Pastor Bob Sheetz, and after another long conversation with me, and after reading a book by Rick Warren, Amy concluded that now she does trust in Christ – and that this is truly her own personal faith. Last summer she was baptized and joined the church.

Phill, married and the father of a young child, also opened his heart to Christ at home, after attending a small group Bible study of Manor people.

Another Phil came to faith slowly, in this way. He began attending Manor Church with his girl friend Alicia. Phil is a deep thinker, so he had lots of questions about Christianity. He invited me to lunch at a restaurant – and he brought a tape recorder with him! He asked my permission to record the conversation – because he had a list of questions, and he wanted to review my comments later and think them through carefully. That was the only time anyone ever asked to tape a conversation about spiritual issues. Phil is a special person!

He continued to think seriously about life. By this time he was fairly certain that he wanted to become a Christian, and that he wanted to marry Alicia. But he wanted to be sure that he was ready to take seriously this matter of following Christ.

Then came Easter Sunday. Phil was sitting in the service with Alicia. He felt that God was speaking to him directly. When I came to the end of the message, I explained the kind of prayer a person can pray to his faith in Christ. Phil thought, “Yes, I do believe this, and I do want to become a Christian.” So sitting at his seat, with Alicia sitting beside him but not knowing what was going on in her boyfriend, he silently confessed his sins and put his faith in Christ.

He was still turning these things over in his mind as he and Alicia got in his car to leave the church parking lot. He thought, “I’ve just settled the number one thing in my life. What keeps me from going on to number two?” So a short distance from the church he pulled the car to the side of the road and said: “Alicia, will you marry me?” Her answer was yes.

I had the privilege of officiating at their wedding. They were baptized and joined the church – and are actively serving Christ together. People come to Christ in all kinds of settings and with all kinds of implications!

The pastor sets the tone for evangelism in the local church.

I am thoroughly convinced that the pastor, more than any other one person, determines whether a local church is active in evangelism. If the pastor prays for conversions, if the pastor is active in personal evangelism, if the pastor presents the gospel clearly in his or her messages, if the pastor teaches about evangelism, if the pastor provides training in evangelism, if the pastor leads the way in scheduling various kinds of evangelism events, and if the pastor shows that he or she expects that God will call people to salvation…then by and by the congregation will catch the passion for evangelism, too.

You may say, “That’s a lot of responsibility on the pastor, and that’s a lot of effort by the pastor.” It is. But I am convinced that the pastor is the one who has the main responsibility to set the tone for evangelism in the church. If you find some other way that works, please let the rest of us know.

In a healthy church both the pastor and lay people lead others to Christ.

There was a time at Manor Church when, if anyone came to faith in Christ through personal evangelism, it was through me or one of the other pastors. We have moved into a much healthier situation in recent years. Now, a number of our lay people are alert to spiritual conversations and are leading others to faith.

Anita, whom I mentioned earlier, leads workshops (which she calls Joyshops) on how to have a meaningful devotional life as a way to nurture intimacy with God. At the Joyshops she explains the way of salvation, and often there are new conversions in the response time.

Claudia works at a Prudential Office. She was concerned about Bob, and older man who works there part-time. Recently she picked up her courage, talked to Bob about God’s love and his Son Jesus, and asked Bob if he would want to put his faith in Christ as his Savior. He wanted to do so, and he did. Now he is meeting with a few Christian men who are discipling him.

Doug goes with seven other Christian men to Lancaster County Prison to lead the Alpha course, which is a study about basic Christianity, designed to relate to persons who are inquiring about our faith. One of the inmates is Lonnie. Because of his offense, Lonnie will soon be sent to a state penitentiary, to death row. Lonnie thought long and hard about what he’s been hearing in the Alpha course. On a recent Sunday he came to the leaders and said, “Last Thursday in my cell I prayed and trusted in Christ as my Savior. Now I need all the help I can get, to grow in my faith and to get ready for death row.”

Let’s keep working to build healthy churches, where both the pastor and the lay people lead others to Christ.

One more observation: I have come to see the necessity of discipleship following conversion.

I am passionate about this biblical truth. I have no time for any talk about conversion that does not stress also the absolute necessity of ongoing discipleship for the new believer.
“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” Colossians 2:6-7, NIV.

These are my reflections about this wonderful work of God known as conversion – a work that is filled with mystery, power, love and faith. We have no greater privilege than to partner with God as he goes about his great work of rescuing people from the dominion of darkness and bringing them into the glorious kingdom of his Son.

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One Response

  1. Pastor John! (or just John, or Mr. Hawbecker)

    hello hello! i wanted to write to you a long time ago but the interenet was not great, and then i forgot, and then i couldn’t find your blog site and now i did.
    i have seen a lot of really cool birds that made me think of you and our time in zambia quite often. when i get home, and when you are home and have time(and if you want to) i would be more than happy to show you bird pictures(and other pictures.

    i also wanted to write to you and say thank you very much for all the work that you did at manor. each sunday i was always excited that i got to listen to you relate teachings from the bible, some of your thoughts and everything in-between.

    i’m sure that i have no idea what it was like being a senior pastor. i can imagine that it was trying at times. whatever its worth, i’d like to say thank you, congradualtions, good luck with all that’s next, and God bless!

    -cory

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