‘Baptists also should revisit their understanding of conversion as an experience with Christ, rather than the popular 20th-century transactional acceptance of a set of beliefs about Christ’
This quote comes from an on-line article at Associated Baptist Press by Robert Dilday and Ken Camp. The article summarizes a talk given by Bill Leonard, who is a Baptist Historian. Leonard describes the changes in the American landscape both around and within Baptist churches and how these changes affect the Baptist Church. Notably in his talk Leonard focused on the declining numbers of young families in Baptist churches and how it is that Baptist churches should proceed in an age when being Baptist is not as influential as it once was, when being a part of a church is no longer considered important.
I found the quote above very interesting, even though it doesn’t sound all that radical. At its heart, in its earliest inceptions, as I understand it, Baptist faith grew out of the idea that the conversion of a person involved a connection between the beliefs and practices of the believer. It was not enough to simply recite a creed and accept a certain constellation of ideas, but one also had to practice faith. On a certain level, Baptists were originally intended to be a small group of Christians who decided that they needed to gather together to show ‘the Church’ and the wider world, what life with Christ should look like… This involved an assumption that ‘the Church’ had failed to hold people accountable to following Christ, simply being satisfied if the creed or ideas were accepted. So the Baptist church was meant to be a witness to the Church and to the world of how belief should shape, influence and yes change (hence the term conversion) the practices and actions of the believer.
Which I think is an important point for us to consider as Baptists today. We tend to focus so much on ‘Soul Liberty’ the idea that each individual is free to read and interpret the bible as s/he sees fit, that our faith becomes very individual centered, or as Leonard says, focused on a ‘set of beliefs’. So that the highest ideal is that we are free to construct our own ideas about who Jesus is and what Jesus did. While soul liberty is important it is not an end or a value in and of itself. It is connected to the witness that the free individuals gathered and covenanted together, offer church and world. In other words, it is not enough to think about Christ, or ‘believe’ but a Christian will ‘follow’ or practice the life of Christ. This is how I understand Leonard’s phrase, ‘an experience with Christ’. It assumes that to know, one must have a relationship with the one known. It also assumes that if we know and are known by Christ, we will be changed. Finally it assumes that there will be something distinctive about the way Christians ‘live’ in the world. That is what I am interested in exploring… what is different or distinct about the way Baptist Christians live in the world… what looks odd or unique about our thinking and living?