Showalter: What makes a convert?

Aug 14, 2017 by

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Why do evangelicals become Anabaptists? Why do Anabaptists become Orthodox or Catholic? Why do Orthodox or Catholics become evangelicals? Why do young people leave “the church,” of whatever variety? What is the power behind new Christian movements, such as Anabaptism in the 16th century, Pentecostalism in the 20th or the new monasticism of the 21st? And why do people of other major world religions choose Christianity?

Richard Showalter


For sure, we want a faith that matters. A few weeks ago as I sat among a group of new believers in the Middle East, we began talking about the teachings of Christianity — repentance, faith, obedience, love and the power of the Holy Spirit. Only a few months before, they had no knowledge of Jesus except that he was a “prophet.” Now they were committed followers of Jesus.

One of them remarked, “I became a Christian because it makes sense; it is true. As I began to read the Bible, I was amazed that it talks about humanity as it really is. It is not framed in some super-religious, self-righteous pretense. I would have hidden the sins of the kings of Israel. Certainly I would hide the sins of prophets like Moses and David. But in the Bible, it’s all there.”

He went on. “Some things about Christianity are easy to embrace — the love of God, forgiveness of sins and ‘God with us’ through the Holy Spirit.

“But other things are really hard. The hardest thing is when I’m asked to love my enemies. That seems impossible. Sure, I can accept God’s forgiveness of me. But when I pray the prayer of Jesus, I am asking God to forgive my sins like I forgive those of others against me. Can I actually do that?”

We continued talking. I watched those young believers face the core of the gospel without watering it down and softening its message. They pondered and prayed. They embraced it. All the distinctions within the global Christian community were foreign to them. But they were face to face with Jesus, and they believed.
It had not been an easy choice. They face ostra­cism from friends and families. Their whole culture stands against them. Every day is a new adventure, a new series of tests, in walking with Jesus. It is a faith that matters. Joy, suffering, hope, faith, new life — it is all there.

Running like a subtext through my mind was a complementary set of questions from inside Christianity. An Anabaptist friend who became Catholic. Another who became Orthodox. A Pentecostal friend who became Anabaptist, an Anabaptist who became Pentecostal, and on and on. Why? And what difference does that make to these new believers?

All these friends had responded to a God who broke through particular traditions that had shaped their existence since childhood. Deep inside, they longed for reality, and when God did an end run around their traditions, they said yes.

No, not all religious change happens when God breaks through. Often these changes are simply the product of relentless social pressure or of restless minds in search of personal power and peace. Much of religion, as well as anti-religion, results from humanity enthroned as god.

But when the living God breaks through, mere religious tradition in any form loses its power and place. Not only do non-Christian religions often insulate people from encountering the living Christ. Sadly, it’s also possible to be Mennonite, Catholic, Orthodox or Pentecostal without really knowing Jesus.

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.

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