This is the 3rd Reflection in a series titled “Born Again for Mainliners.” In the first couple Reflections, I juxtaposed the Mainline tradition and the Evangelical tradition, implying that Mainliners don’t really talk a whole lot about being born again.
But maybe you’ve wondered, what exactly is an Evangelical. The term has politicized, for certain, often conflated with a particular political party. But before that, there was a category of Christians known as Evangelicals. There is a difference here between the more radical Fundamentalists and the more mainstream Evangelicals, but that's a topic for another day. There's also a light of diversity among the Evangelical tradition, which we'll discuss next week.
Evangelicals hold to 4 cardinal beliefs, according to scholar John Green. First, they believe in the errorlessness of the Bible. The Bible is, to use their term, inerrant. Second, an Evangelical believes in the exclusiveness of salvation – only Christians go to heaven, simply put. Thirdly, an Evangelical believes in the essentiality of conversion. We must have a born again experience, in other words. Lastly, an Evangelical believes in an evangelism mandate. We must seek to lead people to that same born again experience.
Mainliners either don’t hold to one or all of these cardinal beliefs, or they don’t believe to the same degree, meaning they may hold to one or all of the beliefs but not as strongly, not placing a great emphasis on those beliefs.
With that explanation offered, maybe you’re asking the simple question – why am I preaching on this? Why does it matter? Why do Mainliners need to bother with the idea of being born again?
Well, I’ve hinted at a couple answers to the related questions. A couple Sundays ago I read from John 3 where Jesus in a conversation with the teacher and leader Nicodemus states, “you must be born again.” Well, if Jesus said it, it is important, right? And if there is a must in what he said, it is even more important. This means we should talk about it.
Then last week, I expressed that we might have something to learn from the Evangelical tradition. After all, that tradition has been more successful than the Mainline church when it comes to overall numerical growth, engagement, and involvement, which survey after survey indicates. They are doing something right. We should discern what they are doing right, separate that from a lot of what they do wrong, and maybe emulate the right things in our own ways.
I want to reiterate, I am not saying we need to become Evangelicals. There is a lot Evangelicals get wrong. Homophobia comes to mind. Racism comes to mind. Harmful exclusivity comes to mind. Selling out to partisan politics comes to mind.
But what they get right is something we should learn from.
And I think Evangelicals get that 3rd cardinal belief, that conversion is important, mostly right.
What do I mean? In what way is conversion essential for us Mainliners?
From my years of experience in the Mainline ethos, most people who are part of the church have come to that either from growing up in the church, being baptized and confirmed within that church. We might call these folks lifers. Those who are not lifers have come to the church through assent to a particular church’s approach, meaning folks find a church whose mission and ideals align with theirs and join the team.
In this setup, there is little mention of any kind of conversion. What do I mean by conversion? I mean an spiritual experience that changes something inside us. Last week I talked about accepting Christ into our heart. Now, it doesn’t have to be as specific as this. The specifics will vary. But the common denominators of a conversion experience are this – it is heartfelt, it involves something transcendent whether we call this God, Christ, grace, or love or even music, and it changes something inside us.
I’d dare say we’ve all had conversion experiences. We’ve all had moments where our hearts experienced something transcendent and we were changed for the better as a result.
Let me be clear such moments were Christ forged moments. Whenever lives experience the transcendent and are changed for the better, Christ is there. I firmly believe this. Christ is in the Good. Christ is in the Good always and forever. Again, let me say, all moments of real transformation are Christ induced, my friends.
But here’s what I’m trying to get at. We don’t talk about these conversion experiences enough. We don’t talk about our transformative moments enough. We don’t talk about our theophanies, our when God was shown to us moments, enough. We’ve all had them. They were all Christ induced. But they are left unspoken. That needs to change.
Before I became a church pastor some 10 years ago, I was a hospice chaplain. I had officiated more memorials than Sunday services at that point. Of course, officiating memorials continues. To be honest, early on, when I compared the memorials I officiated to Sunday services, the memorials felt much more powerful, meaningful, and heartfelt. In many ways, this remains true. I’ve asked myself why for some time. Why are memorials so powerful compared to your run of the mill Sunday service? Well, because memorials include remembrances of transformative moments and transformative relationships. Memorials include loved-ones talking about how their lives were touched or changed by the person being remembered. Sadly, Sunday services don’t include such testimony.
I’d like to change that.
Beginning in February, I’d like to incorporate what the church I grew up in called personal testimonies. I’m going to ask if any of you all would like to come up on a Sunday morning and give a personal testimony, sharing with us about your story of your conversion, about a moment you experienced God, Christ, or love or grace and were changed by that experience.
I’d like to end this with a testimony of my own using a poem written years ago. It is a poem that arose from a moment of stillness that changed something inside of me.
Another Salvation - To My Son
A singularity nudges dour days and night to the side
as I watch mesmerized by your first willful smiles
and the sounds of pre-language accompanying them.
What else could lift me so high to a reality purer than light?
What else could bring laughter in me so foundational, as joyous
How could tears be so completely unfiltered by thought?
How could I have ever fathomed a moment of such nirvana?
You answer with lively eyes, toothless smiles, a poem of coos.
And the moment ordains itself, and I sit so, saved and selfless.