A Tale of Two Christmases
One of the defining moments for me on my journey to the Catholic Church was over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day two years ago.
We attended the Christmas Eve service at our Protestant, Baptist church. It was a beautiful service, filled with amazing music and a festive feel.
The following day, we attended Mass. We had just begun exploring Catholicism, and wanted to join in on the Catholic celebrations of Christmas day. It was a beautiful service as well.
But there was one difference then that stood out for me, and still does to this day.
At the Protestant service, the Pastor gave a sermon, then gave people the chance to respond to the Gospel message, to make a decision to put Jesus as Lord of their lives, then and there. The focus in the Protestant service was on making a one-time choice, in a public and time-sensitive situation, with relatively little information or understanding of the implications of conversion. People were on hand to pray. It was a chance to convert.
At Mass, the Priest’s homily was focused on how we live out our Christian life in our day to day living. It wasn’t focused on just the one-time decision. It was focused on the life that follows after.
I continually come back to that Christmas when I think about the idea of “Selling Jesus” and sales pitch evangelization techniques.
The Sinner’s Prayer vs. RCIA
As a Protestant, I remember having conversations with other moms of young kids. On one occasion, one mother expressed relief that her child had asked about Jesus and heaven and had prayed the sinner’s prayer.
For someone coming from a Once Saved, Always Saved background, having a child pray that prayer was a huge relief. If a child converted, they were going to be good to go.
I also recently overheard some non-Catholic Christians discussing evangelization. They talked about how to get non-Christians to a certain point where they would be willing to listen to the gospel message via a technique that sounded very much like a sales pitch, with the goal of a person making an in the moment decision to follow Christ.
But in the early days of Christianity, conversion came with a threat on the Christian’s life. It wasn’t safe to be a Christian. In addition, conversion was a process. Those moving from a Pagan existence to a Christian life spent a significant amount of time learning about Christian beliefs and transitioning from their old way of living to their new way. This process is still echoed today in Catholic RCIA classes. Under normal circumstances, it wasn’t something that happened quickly. There was an old way of living to leave behind, and a new way to build into. Conversion was patient. Conversion was clear about what would be gained, but also about what would be lost.
I have found, on occasion, in the Christian communities that focus heavily on a specific moment of conversion, that there is sometimes a struggle that can occur when the inevitable suffering happens.
Those situations come up because there is an undercurrent of the idea that following Jesus is supposed to feel good. That hyper-emotional moment of conversion felt good at the time. We were promised eternal life, which will also feel good.
And there is immense peace, joy, and hope to be found in our faith. But following Jesus doesn’t mean life will be easy.
Something the Catholic Church does particularly well, I think, is embracing the idea of suffering. We think of Christ’s suffering every time we look at a crucifix, or pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.
We also know that rejecting sin is painful. It works like so many things that are good for us but are difficult to do: exercise, getting up early to go to work, raising children, saying no to an extra piece of cake. Rejecting sin is not fun. And often, it hurts.
And we know for a fact that, while life has many joys, it also has many sorrows.
I’ve found that lack of preparation causes some new Christians to stumble. Being justified by God is not a ticket to an easy life.
The Cost of Conversion
In these “Selling Jesus” approaches to gain conversions, there is an emphasis on our sin as well as the atoning work Jesus did on the cross. There is such a huge focus on what a person has to gain.
But in years and years of hearing altar calls at many different churches, I don’t ever remember there being talk of the cost. And conversion has a cost.
I once read a Protestant pastor relate the gospel to a cruise liner, that Jesus did all this stuff for us so we can just sail on in to heaven.
But, as I mentioned above, dying to self doesn’t ever feel like a cruise.
And we aren’t allowed to just kick back as a Christian, thankful that God has our back. God calls Christians to do certain things, and requires that we do them. The Bible is clear: faith without works is dead (James 2). We are required to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to comfort the sick. We do none of those things of our own power, but we aren’t Christian if we ignore the plight of those around us who are in need of help. We don’t have permission to continue on in selfishness, or greed, or pride, or comfort, trusting that we are good to go because we meant what we said when we prayed certain words at one specific time.
Selling Jesus Short
We can’t sell Jesus. We can’t buff Him up and shine Him up and present Him as a fix-all to anything that scares us. We can’t prey on people’s fears to prompt conversions. It’s not fair to present Him as a feel good solution to eternal damnation. It’s selling both Jesus and our faith short.
And I don’t even think it’s fair to put such an emphasis on a concrete moment of conversion either. For those of us baptized in the faith, we have the seed of faith planted in us as an infant. And that seed, given proper support through the sacraments, Mass, faith formation, development of a personal relationship with God, prayer, and others, will grow.
Conversions can certainly be an immediate and emotional experience. I imagine Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was intense, and relatively immediate. But we can’t forget that, barring a lightning-bolt type situation, for many, conversion is a process over time.
That’s another thing that the Catholic Church does well. The Catholic Church, rather than focusing on a single moment of conversion, often spends its time guiding believers to live a life that follows God, and being obedient to God in a gratitude-filled response to the gift of salvation.
As a now Catholic mother, I’ve long since let go of the worry about my children needing to pray a specific prayer on a specific day. They have the seed of faith planted in them at their baptism. Catholics don’t believe in Once Saved, Always Saved, so, that doesn’t mean they are good to go forever. My children will need to do the exact same thing we all do. They will need to decide day by day, moment by moment, who they will serve. They will need to continue to convert their entire lives. Some times may be easy and filled with blessings, and other times may be hard. But, to continue in faith, they will need to say yes to God and to whatever and wherever following Him will lead.
It’s also important to teach our children and to share with those who don’t share our faith about all the aspects of Christianity. Jesus has wounds in His hands from nails driven through them. He has a gash in His side where He was pierced. Upon His head was placed a crown of thorns. Through His suffering and resurrection we indeed have redemption.
Becoming a Christian is likewise, in many ways, a call to suffer. To die to ourselves so that God can fill us. It will cost us everything. We must be willing to let God mold us and change us, even in ways that aren’t fun. We must be willing to accept everything He gives.
And, yes, it is vital we share that any loss we suffer is well worth the cost.
Because it isn’t all about the moment of conversion – it’s about the life and eternity after.