When Re-Conversion Is Easier Than Repentance

Many evangelical church cultures make it safer to deny last year’s Christianity than to admit you are a struggling believer.

Let me tell you a familiar story from my days in evangelical youth ministry.

A teenager with roots in the church would make semi-regular appearances throughout the year, be respectful during Bible study/church, but otherwise seem non-cognizant of Christianity the rest of the year. Then one year, the teenager goes with the youth group on a week-long “mission trip” to a Christian camp. At one point during the week, the teenager has an emotional (possibly tearful) experience and tells their youth leader they need to be truly saved. This joyous announcement follows the teenager home where she stands in front of the whole congregation a couple Sundays later and shares her story of “realizing for the first time” that she “actually needed Jesus in her life.”

Fast forward 12 months or so. Around winter the teenager had largely dropped out of the Bible studies and fellowship nights she had been regularly attending. Everyone knows this teen is a Christian—they were there at the camp—but nobody really knows where she’s been for the past few months.

Now the youth group is taking another week-long summer trip, and she’s coming too. And just like last year, at some point in the week, she gets emotional about Jesus. Also like last year, she asks to talk to her youth minister, and yet again like last year, she comes to realize that she wasn’t “really” a Christian after all. Through tears and hugs she announces her newfound authentic faith, and again brings her testimony home to the church. But like last time, summer doesn’t last forever. By February people are asking where she’s been, and some are already becoming cynical: “Just wait til she gets saved this summer.”

***

In my evangelical church experience, “re-conversions” were as common as conversions, and sometimes more so. Emotionally charged church events, such as youth camps, revivals, etc, would almost always be the occasion for a re-conversion. Sometimes the re-conversion seemed less than authentic, but sometimes it stuck, too. At one point in my life these occasions became so common that we looked forward to the annual church camp trip simply because the trip represented a high point for the youth group that we knew wasn’t going to be repeated or even sustained throughout the year.

No matter who it was that “re-converted” at a given summer, those of us in the group generally knew what had been going on for this person. They liked church, liked their Christian friends, and enjoyed studying the Bible, but for whatever reason the person they were at youth group was not the same person they were at school, work, or online. In a lot of cases we even knew the sins our friend was confessing to the youth minister in the corner. We didn’t know why last year’s trip didn’t stick. We only knew to pray that this one would.

Looking back, youth camp trips were the practical expression of our muddled Southern Baptist ideas about “once saved, always saved.” We believed that. We also believed each tear that fell from the usual suspects each summer. If we sensed a tension between our group’s annual ritual of “really getting saved” and what we said we believed about not losing one’s salvation, we didn’t lose sleep over it. After all, one can be genuinely mistaken about their own soul, and that more than once. Right?

But here’s what has bothered me for a while now. I’m beginning to think that the summer re-conversion ritual said more about our church culture than it said about the tearful teens. I’m beginning to think that the church camp re-conversions were really about how insecure, ashamed teenagers felt safer in the group denying last year’s Christianity than admitting that they were believers who were struggling. Confessing you were a bad Christian last year was a significant social risk that could be met with suspicion and shaming. Confessing that you weren’t actually a Christian at all, but you are now, was just good news.

I’m not saying that these friends were definitely Christians or were definitely not. I don’t know that and I’m glad I don’t know. But as I’ve encountered more evangelical culture as an adult, I’ve seen and heard enough to convince me that many church-going evangelicals have a far more vibrant theology of “getting saved” than they have of ongoing repentance in the life of a believer. Evangelicalism’s mentality seems to be that “repentance” is what non-Christians do when the Holy Spirit tells them they’ve been living a phony life. What do Christians do when they’re convicted of sin? Well, we’re not really sure, because we’re not really sure what to think of Christians and sin.

Re-conversion offers many evangelicals the emotional catharsis of acknowledging sin without the social shaming or awkwardness that comes when people who claim to be Christians acknowledge sin. If you weren’t really a Christian but you are now, wonderful! Enter into our joy. But if you actually are a Christian and you have to talk about sin that you’re not entirely sure how to address, well, how close should we stand next to you? How contagious is it?

Perhaps what was happening every summer is that teens who really did have a sensitive heart toward Christ and the church were just utterly confused as to what being a Christian meant for people like them…people who wanted to be liked by the coolest kids in school, people who wanted to be invited to the best things, people who actually had a life beyond Bible studies. They knew intuitively something was off between the Sunday morning testimony in July and the missed gatherings and neglected devotions in February, but they didn’t know why it was off. They just knew they felt differently during those church trips. What was it they felt? The Holy Spirit, which is what they’ve been told shows up when we’re about to repen…erm, get saved.

One of biggest tragedies of evangelical spirituality is that we’ve neglected the Bible’s tender, compassionate words to Christians. We’ve reduced Christian practice to avoiding the non-respectable sins and presenting the gospel to sinful unbelievers, trying to get them to convert and leave all that sin behind. But we’ve missed so much of the immense patience, lovingkindness, mercy, and encouragement in the Bible toward real believers who are struggling against the sin that so easily entangles. Maybe it’s because we don’t know our Bibles. Or maybe it’s because our vision of God is too much like ourselves: We think of him not as a Father who picks up our falls but as the gatekeeper to an exclusive club that demands that old, imperfect members buy a whole new membership to keep the club tidy.

I wish my church experience had seen more repentance and fewer re-conversions. Jesus promises, after all, to forgive and cleanse the unrighteousness we confess to him. Better to be who we really are in front of our loving Father than to just find a new mask to wear. That’s the gospel. Is it evangelicalism?

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Millennials, Free Speech, and Analog Learning

I think it’s past time to admit that the hostility we see from college students toward speech and ideas they dislike is a generational issue. I know this sounds like I’m encouraging stereotypes of millennials, and reasonable people are not supposed to talk about any group in that kind of systemic language (well, almost any group). But denying the generational character of anti-free speech attitudes puts us at a serious risk, I think, of failing to understand why so many millennials feel this way in the first place.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up in an internet age. Note the wording carefully, because millennials are not the first generation to come of age with the internet (Gen-X). They are, however, the first Americans to have had their childhood shaped by the rhythms and cultures of online life. This is enormously important, because it means that millions of millennials grew up having their worldview and (more importantly) their relational identity calibrated by technology that is ephemeral. Because many millennials were online at formative intellectual and emotional times of their life, their expectations of what life is really like are shaped by digital technology…which means, among many other things, that many millennials have, since their early childhood, practiced a semi-autonomous sort of mastery over their world. The delete, cancel, log off, and block buttons have always been right by them. And for many of these millennials, adolescence meant the mobilization of this technology. Whether it’s the family PC or their own iPhone, millennials have, for what is functionally their entire existence, related to the “other” through digital medium.

To me, this suggests that what anti-free speech millennials misunderstand is not “free” but “speech.” The idea that words and ideas can exist outside their personal power to mediate them is a confusing idea, because that’s simply not how they learned about the world. When Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro or Ross Douthat write or say something that aggrieves their presuppositions, the millennial brain responds by insisting that not only are those words wrong (which is a legitimate response), but the fact that they had to hear them is a moral negative (which is not). If ideas are nothing more than words, and if words are nothing more than customizable strokes on an interface, then it does not make any moral sense that anyone should have to read or hear anything they dislike. Such a concept runs afoul of the techno-epistemological system that millennials raised on the digital age were shaped by. The entire premise of the internet is that you get what you want, and nothing more.

Analog learning, by contrast, impresses upon our minds the objective reality of words. Nothing you can do can make the words in that book go away. You can throw it out, tear out the pages, burn it if you wish (you wouldn’t be the first!), but the words are there, the book is there, and the meeting of ink with paper has produced, however small, a moment of cognitive everlastingness that can only be ignored, not erased.

Human nature craves absolutism and uniformity, not dissent and debate. Learning from books does not by itself stem this craving. Wisdom is not merely about form. But in analog learning, the relationship between me and the other is given definite shape and texture. The words will always be there, and it is my choice how to respond to them. By contrast, the internet temporalizes and commodifies thinking, so as to make the consumer as intellectually plastic and capable of more consumption as possible. This might mean, then, that shouting at millennials on Twitter to be more accepting of free speech is a loser’s cause. Recommending that they log off and read some books, however, might be a start.

Homeschooling and the Benedict Option

While reading Charlotte Allen’s nice takedown of a fearmongering Washington Post piece about homeschooling, I was reminded again how hard it can be to extinguish certain anxieties. The anti-homeschooling activists profiled by the Post have had difficult life experiences inside homeschooling. That shouldn’t be minimized or ridiculed. But, as Allen points out, the rhetoric of these anti-homeschooling crusaders far supersedes any demonstrable harm. What animates these activists is not really evidence, but dread: The dread of social units that live outside the immediate purview of the state. Again, I’m sure some of this dread comes from abuse received and seen. But I think the point of Allen’s rebuttal piece is that this dread is more ideological than existential. It’s a dread that comes from assumptions about parenting, children, education, government, etc etc. And the reason that noxious myths about homeschooling persist, especially among progressives, is that are (for the most part) downstream from worldview rather than from experience.

Realizing this made me think about the Benedict Option. Rod Dreher’s book releases soon, and it’s already causing a fair amount of debate and controversy. I haven’t read the book, though I’m familiar with Rod’s essays and blog posts on the topic. I won’t endorse the book without reading it, and I have reservations and critiques of the whole project (many of which have been eloquently voiced by Andrew Walker). But I am broadly sympathetic with Rod’s diagnosis of Western Christianity and culture. To that end, I think the fearful mystique around homeschooling can actually educate us when it comes to the debate over the Benedict Option.

It’s not hard to see a connection between the BenOp and homeschooling. To be sure, many homeschooling families choose homeschooling for non-religious reasons. But, especially for religious families, the premise of homeschooling is attractive because it offers an internal logic that is consonant with the BenOp: A strategic withdrawal from mainstream cultural institutions (in this case, public school) and a replacement that is consistent with beliefs and convictions (in this case, curriculum, especially science and the humanities). You might consider the religious, homeschooling family a laboratory-sized microcosm of the Benedict Option.

And just like some of the more gut-level suspicions of homeschooling are fueled by ideology rather than facts, I think too some of the instinctive responses I’ve seen to the BenOp are about presuppositions. Debating the Benedict Option, like debating homeschooling, is most helpful when each side agrees on some basic assumptions. You and your neighbor can both believe that parents have a fundamental right to educate their children and that such education can and should happen in a Christian context. That agreement doesn’t mean you will both homeschool, because homeschooling entails more than those presuppositions. But if you and your neighbor disagree on those two ideas–for example, if one of you believers that children belong to the public square at least as much as they belong to parents, or if one of you believes that religion is superstition that stifles learning–then an intramural debate on the merits of religious homeschooling is useless.

I think this can apply as well to the BenOp conversation. The Benedict Option presupposes that such a thing as “secular culture” actually exists and is actually opposed to the life and witness of Christians. This is not a presupposition shared by all. If you believe, for example, that human sin can be sufficiently described by concepts such as power structures and systemic injustice, then the idea of an encroaching “secular culture” doesn’t make sense. The Sexual Revolution cannot be thought of as inherently contrary to the gospel if what we mean when we say “sin” is only–or primarily–the oppression of other people’s autonomous wills. Sexual relativism does in fact end in violent rape culture, but it doesn’t begin there, and a narrative of Christian mission that cannot coherently call to repentance “victimless” sins doesn’t have a category for something like the Benedict Option.

Like homeschooling, the BenOp assumes that Christian faithfulness entails the public square but does not terminate in it. Again, this is not a persuasion that all self-described evangelicals have. If your eschatology denies the invasive character of the coming kingdom, and instead solely articulates the transformation of the current world, then it won’t make sense to prioritize fidelity to the gospel itself–fidelity to doctrine–at the risk of losing opportunities in the public square. Believing that attending to our own Christian institutions and practices is a fundamentally selfish thing to do is not unlike believing that families who homeschool prevent their children from being salt and light.

An idea like the Benedict Option makes an assortment of presuppositions about the nature of Christian faith and the mission of the church. These presuppositions may be right or they may be wrong, but they are at the foundation, either way, of something much larger than just an intramural scrimmage over a new book. I think what we are seeing, particularly in some of the more visceral responses to the BenOp, is a division over major theological and ethical questions that evangelicals have too often pretended weren’t there or weren’t “relevant” to the life of the church. To the extent that this conversation over Dreher’s ideas brings more clarity to these divisions, I think we can be grateful for it.