The theological term conversion has sufficiently troubled me that I have avoided using it for decades. Initially, this avoidance was unconscious but more recently has been intentional.
The English word conversion has today, especially in religious contexts, the overwhelming connotation of a change in a person’s beliefs or thinking. Yet Christianity is about learning to walk the Jesus path ever more faithfully, not about persuading people to hold right beliefs.
Actions speak louder than words. My observation of religious people (including me!) is that considerable disparity often exists between an individual’s avowed theological beliefs/thinking and what that person’s actions indicate s/he actually believes/thinks. While it’s easy to describe that disparity as hypocrisy, the disparity is frequently better understood as the aspirational difference between what a person would like to believe and what s/he actually believes.
Christian evangelical efforts focused on conversion easily produce unfortunate aberrations and coerced conversions. Until the nineteenth century, Christians occasionally baptized non-Christians and then slaughtered the newly baptized before they could commit apostasy. More recently, some evangelically motivated Christians superficially “count coup,” i.e., track the number of individuals who verbally confessed faith in Christ as a result of the Christian’s efforts while ignoring the deeper question of whether any real lifestyle or behavioral change occurred in the new convert.
Consequently, I find that the word transformation more accurately communicates the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, the Biblical word frequently translated as conversion. Having less baggage than does the word conversion, transformation emphasizes a change in a person and their actions as well as in their feelings and ideation.
Emphasizing transformation instead of conversion has shaped my ministry. For example, I am convinced that there is only one God and that many paths lead to God. One reason I subscribe to those views is that persons treading diverse religious paths hold varying beliefs but nevertheless experience similar life-giving and life-enriching transformations.
Those convictions cohered well with my ministry as a Navy chaplain. Historically, military chaplains have had three roles. First, chaplains minister to people of the chaplain’s faith community in as an inclusive a manner as possible. For Episcopal priests, inclusive ministry may include: (1) Conducting a wide variety of Protestant worship services, most of which are arguably some form of Morning or Evening Prayer; (2) Administering Holy Baptism when requested, to include full immersion of a believer who desires that form of baptism; (3) Celebrating Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites.
A chaplain’s second role is to facilitate the free exercise of religion for members of other faith communities. While on active duty, I provided space, equipment, and supplies as needed and upon request for Buddhist, Jewish, Latter Day Saint, and Muslim faith communities to worship and otherwise practice their faith. Memorably, I once had a Jewish sailor ask me to conduct a Passover Seder for him. I explained to him that if I conducted the Seder it would by definition be a Christian Seder. I then added that if he conducted the Seder, I would provide the foodstuffs, publicity, and coaching for him, as well as attend and recruit other attendees to ensure the presence of a minyan.
Incidentally, the last few decades have seen an increase in controversies over the military chaplaincy precisely because some evangelical Christian chaplains have abandoned facilitation in favor of conversion. Sometimes evangelical Christians have implicitly linked career or promotion opportunities to conversion. This move, reminiscent of some coerced conversion efforts in prior generations, seriously undermines the chaplaincy’s constitutional standing by prima facie establishing government support for a particular religion. Analogously, this move also inhibits the interfaith cooperation and communication that depend upon respecting the beliefs of all and honoring the integrity of other faith groups.
A chaplain’s third role is to care for everyone. A Marine whose mother has just died has, in my experience, no interest in religious conversion. The Marine simply seeks an understanding, caring listener. Other times, the person who has sought out the chaplain because of vocational concerns, adjustment issues, family problems, substance abuse, or a host of other difficulties may want to change, but is usually unaware of any theological dimensions of that change. The best chaplains in such situations function as catalysts for transformation rather than as conversion agents.
Widespread adherence to those three roles by military chaplains of previous generations built the mutual respect and trust required for genuine interfaith cooperation and established military chaplaincy as a model for such ministry. Similar patterns of ministry, perhaps articulated in different terms, also frequently shapes chaplaincy in other institutional settings, e.g., hospitals, prisons, and hospices.
Since retiring from the Navy, I have recognized that those three functions equally describe parish ministry at its best. The best parochial priests exercise a ministry that seeks to include as many people as possible while being faithful to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites. Illustratively, in my current diocese, this inclusivity sometimes means adapting ancient Hawaiian symbols and terms. But no parish, regardless of its size or resources, can meet everyone’s perceived spiritual needs. Honoring that diversity by pointing a person to a more suitable alternative – another Episcopal parish, a Roman Catholic parish, or a congregation of another denomination – ministers to that person while respecting his/her dignity and worth. Finally, the Church should care for all. Genuine caring seeks what is best for a person: healing, growth, becoming more whole, and living more abundantly. Genuine caring has no ulterior motive. Transformation, not conversion, best describes Christianity’s goal.