This Conversion Business


In his 1999 biography of Alastair Cooke, the Brit-turned-Yank who helped to interpret the USA for several generations of British, author Nick Clarke tells how Cooke’s father, a lay Methodist preacher, helped to found a mission for the down and out in a suburb of Manchester. The mission was built…

“…for deadbeats, drunks and derelicts, which acted as a shelter for runaways and battered wives, as well as carrying out

voluntary work amongst the very poor. Only as an old man did Samuel Cooke reveal the full seaminess of life at the Mission,

blushing as he related to his son tales of roaring drunks and whores, and children abandoned outside pubs. In Cooke’s

recollection, ‘my father never tried to convert them. They could be the foulest human beings alive, but they wouldn’t be

turned away.’ “

I confess to being puzzled by this tribute Alastair Cooke raised to his father. Samuel Cooke obviously was a man of compassion, spending his life and energy helping the needy, regardless how society treated them. The son had good reason to be proud of such a father. But learning that his “father never tried to convert them” leaves me with unanswered questions. What does Cooke mean by that? Did he see conversion as brain-washing, scalp-counting, or arm-twisting? Why does trying to convert the down and out strike Cooke as disreputable? And why does he laud his father for never attempting it?

The fact that Alastair Cooke rebelled early against the church and went on to become an agnostic about religion suggests that the senior Cooke may have used the same passive approach with his own children.

I fully recognize that words have all kinds of usages, and that evangelism, missionary, gospel, and conversion–staples of the Christian’s everyday conversation–may carry negative connotations for some who have been abused by religion.

Almost daily we hear reports from the tsunami-devastated regions of southern Asia of more religious groups arriving in the region to offer rice and water and comfort. Some Christian groups are plainly working to evangelize the survivors of this disaster. “These people are ripe for Jesus,” a ministry group from Texas reported on its website.

Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse ministry has publicly committed its people and resources to a five-year stay in the region in order to give lasting help to the victims. Our denomination, the Southern Baptists, has representatives–we dare not call them missionaries, an inflammatory designation in many parts of the world–who offer aid of various kinds to the hurting. Are they trying to convert people? I don’t know. I’m confident they are available to give spiritual counsel and answers to all who come to them. Is that the same thing?

If our Christian ministry groups are doing the same thing overseas they do here in the States, they are giving comfort and aid to the hurting and offering their services in any way possible. They are praying for them and offering counsel to help them through this crisis. And in the process, many people devastated by hurricanes, fires, and floods, will pray with the relief workers to commit or recommit their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s so natural a response to the kindnesses they have received, and so unforced that it never occurs to most of us some observers could take it in the wrong way.

According to the news media, a backlash has arisen among Asian Muslim and Hindu leaders, accusing Christians of preying on these unfortunates, catching them at a vulnerable time in their lives, and seducing them into accepting this “foreign” religion. The very workers who put their lives on hold and sacrificed to travel to the back side of the world for no other reason than to help the helpless suddenly have become the bad guys, crass manipulators, and scam artists offering a “bait and switch” philosophy of ministry.

Apparently, the only way to satisfy our critics is to send money and stay home, which incidentally, is the very thing most of us would choose in the first place. It’s much easier to write a check, drop it into the offering plate or mail box, and get back to the football playoffs. That, however, is an option which Holy Scripture does not allow God’s people to choose.

Theologians have a phrase that sums up the Christian approach: “Incarnational Christianity.” God the Father was not content to remain in Heaven dropping love letters on earth like so many helicopters spreading leaflets from the sky. The Apostle John said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God loves the world so much that He got involved and came Himself. That’s why the story of Jesus is so pivotal. It’s about the Creator coming to His creation, all the way down–to a manger, to a carpentry shop, to the life of an itinerant preacher, to servanthood, to death on a Roman cross, and finally to the grave–to experience our humanity, bear our sins, and put things right.

For those who know this wonderful Jesus Christ personally, sharing the news about Him is not “converting” people. It is not scamming them, manipulating their trust, or misusing the relationship. It is the most natural thing in the world, akin to giving food to the starving, water to the thirsty, or a life-saving medicine to the dying.

God’s people most definitely need to be aware how their work and words are received by outsiders. Our gifts must come without strings attached, as in “accept my gift, receive my religion.” Personally, the only thing I require is that my gifts be given in the name of Jesus Christ. If the recipient rejects my gift because of Jesus’ name on it, it’s his choice.

After the tsunami hit, our office sent out a postcard to the 140 or so churches and missions in greater New Orleans encouraging them to “make your gift in the name of Jesus” by sending their relief offerings to our International Mission Board in Richmond, Virginia.

As I write this, a letter has come from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association inviting tsunami relief contributions to their “World Emergency Fund.” Mr. Graham writes, “We will help immediately in a meaningful way, and of course, we will do it in the Name of Jesus Christ.”

If I had one wish, I would love for outsiders to understand why God’s people–a term we apply to all who have received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, regardless of church affiliation–desperately want people to learn of Jesus and receive Him. It’s the simplest thing in the world.

In fact, not to share the Lord Jesus might be the cruelest hurt the needy ever receive.

Imagine a doctor who spent his vacation working with some of the poorest, most backward tribes in the remotest part of the world. He returns home and reports, “We pulled a lot of bad teeth, set a lot of broken bones, gave away a lot of penicillin, and did a lot of good. But I’m glad to say at no time did we make any effort to teach proper hygiene or the basics of nutrition or cleanliness.”

Who among us would applaud a medical doctor who refused to give lasting, deeper help to the needy?

Two blocks from the French Quarter in downtown New Orleans, Tobey Pitman administers the Brantley Center, a five story building which provides meals and overnight accommodations to over 200 men and women every night of the year. Many of their guests are homeless, while others hold low-paying jobs in the area. David Rhymes, a longtime friend of mine and fellow worker with Tobey at the Center, tells me the first three nights are free–food and lodging–and thereafter, costs five dollars a night. “We have worship at 7 o’clock each night,” he said, “and it’s voluntary. We also have a rehab program with room for about 30 people.” Many of the workers at the Center came first as overnight guests, then attended the chapel service where they prayed to receive Christ, and finally, went through the rehab program.

I cannot begin to imagine someone boasting that “we feed them and give them a place to sleep, but never try to introduce them to the One who can replace their misery with hope, their darkness with light, their death with life.”

I cannot imagine not trying to convert them to Jesus Christ.

1 thought on “This Conversion Business

  1. From the Top of the Map

    Joe, I’m not certain what those who went to serve and proclaim did and what they had told their hosts before they arrived that they would do. More and more, I see Christians taking on the world’s way of doing business — the ends justify the means. Rather than becoming all things to all people, we go at our tasks without understanding the people to whom we take the message. Since we consider our message to be right, we are offended that some are taken aback by the means of the messengers.

    Living in a part of the country where evangelicals are evident but are not in the majority has allowed me the opportunity to listen a lot to what so called non-evangelicals say they feel about the ways that they have been witnessed to.

    I’m wondering how I would feel if my life was devastated by a tragedy and Muslims brought me aide, but every bit I received was given with the announcement that “there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” It is hard for us to imagine Muslims being so generous or our being so needy. It is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those to whom we go, but we must if we want to do the work of the kingdom and be effective.

    One of the sad phenomenons resulting from the polarization of our religious culture is that self critique seems to be impossible. I noticed that as the conservative take over of the SBC took shape, moderates who at one time had plenty of constructive criticism of methods tried by moderates stopped evaluating their part of the spectrum. To critique oneself or ones group seemed to suggest that there was a weakness, something neither group would admit. I see this happening throughout our nation in the culture war

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