Becoming Converted

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Below is an approximation of a talk I gave in sacrament meeting this morning on the assigned topic of “Becoming Converted.” (I had a little more time than I expected, so I also talked about several other practical ways to become converted that are not in this written out version, such as being humble = teachable [riffing on the become as little children part of the Matthew passage], studying the scriptures, and communing with the Saints.)

Many years ago there was a fairly common practice where a church leader would ask a group to show by raising their hands how many were converts. Maybe half the group would raise their hands. And then, in a sort of “gotcha” moment, the leader would remind us that we all must be converted, even those of us who were born and raised in the faith. The first time I saw that I thought it was an impressive bit of shtick and succeeded in dramatizing an important point. Of course, something like that only works really well once; as others tried to repeat it everyone already knew what was coming and it had lost much its effectiveness as a teaching tool.
The power of that little demonstration derived from an ambiguity in the word convert. As a noun, in our religious culture we mean it to refer to a person who is baptized and confirmed a member of the Church after the age of eight, and that is how the initial audience in the demonstration I described naturally understood the word. As a verb, the word might carry a similar sense, as in “the missionaries converted Sister Jones,” meaning that they helped bring her to the point that she became a convert.
But what happens when we ask ourselves a question such as “What does it mean to be or how does one go about becoming converted?” Now we’re not talking about a particular narrow status but about a process, one that ideally continues long after those baptismal and confirmation ordinances have been performed. In some measure, “becoming converted” is a process that lasts a lifetime, one in which we all in this room, every last one of us, are (or should be) engaged.
A friend of mine illustrated this once when she interviewed an AA70 for a stake history project. This was a man with a handcart pioneer type of pedigree. She asked him “When did you become converted?” which was met by his delighted laughter. He said that no one ever asks him that question, but that he in fact has his own conversion story about a time on his mission when he prayed and received a profound answer that changed his life.
Much like that Authority, I happen to have a significant amount of what I call Mormon ancestry cred. My father shared a common ancestor with Harold B. Lee, a man named Samuel Lee whose house lot in Nauvoo I got to see as a boy. An ancestor on my mother’s side, Thomas Grover, is mentioned in D&C 124 because he was a member of the Nauvoo High Council. Needless to say, I was born and raised in the faith and baptized at age eight (in a freezing baptismal font in Rockford). But I am highly cognizant that none of that makes me special in any way. To the contrary, I personally envy converts to the Church, as they had to make the conscious decision to join the faith, whereas for me it involved no angst or choice at all and was basically like falling off a log. I’ve always looked at converts with a sense of deep admiration, because frankly I have no way of really knowing whether had I not been born in the faith I would have sought it out and chosen it if left to my own devices. Frankly, I’m not at all certain that I would have done so in such an alternate universe, which is why I tend to look at converts rather like superheroes.
Remember what happened after the Last Supper? Let’s pick up the scene in Luke 22:31:
31 And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat:
32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.
33 And he said unto him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death.
34 And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.
“When thou art converted” Jesus said. Did he realize to whom he was speaking? Peter was the chief of the Apostles! Who could be more “converted” than that? But we all know the rest of the story, that Peter did indeed deny the Savior three times before the night was through, and wept bitterly at his own weakness. But this experience did indeed lead to Peter becoming “converted.”
The word converted in this passage is a rendering of the Greek compound verb epistraphO. The straphO means “to turn,” and the preposition epi means “back,” And that indeed is what our English word “converted” means. It comes from the Latin analog to that Greek verb, convertere, where vertere means to turn and the con element means back. If you look at modern English translations of that verse, the vast majority simplify the expression to something like “when you have turned back again.” What does that mean?
This is related to the Hebrew verb shub, which means simply to turn. Paradoxically, depending on context that one word can mean either to sin or to repent. How can that be? We must understand that life was considered a journey along a path, the way of the Lord. If you turn off of the path, you have sinned. But having sinned, if you return again to the right road, you have repented. So conceptually, conversion is very close to repentance; it means turning (or returning) to the Lord’s way.
Similarly we read in Matthew 18:3
“Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
In lieu of converted many modern English translations have something like “change, turn about, repent.”
So in a linguistic sense, to “become converted” means to turn back towards God and our heavenly home.
In a practical sense, how do we go about becoming converted? We do this by seeking a personal vision of the Gospel and its place in our life. We make the Gospel of Jesus Christ the core of what we are, our very being. This is not something we accomplish overnight; it’s the journey of a lifetime, which is why we put on this mortal in the first place. We seek to do that which is right, not only because it is right but for the right reason, in emulation of our Savior. We give of ourselves to others, who like us are our Father’s children.
In short, brothers and sisters, it’s easy to talk the talk. We can all be glib that way. What’s far more important is that we learn to walk the walk, to follow our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, and to do so with the pure love of Christ in our hearts. That is how we enter the lifelong path to becoming converted.

Comments

  1. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Kevin,
    I am much in the same boat as you. Born to parents who had already accepted the gospel and sort of raised in the church, although I was almost eight before we began to attend with any regularity. My process of conversion though has been bumpy, with interludes of spiritual darkness until I received a huge spiritual bump in midlife.

    We are told that we must endure to the end, but I have learned that does not mean holding on for dear life, but in trying to become more like Christ every day.

    Thanks for sharing that talk.

    Glenn

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Glenn.

  3. This is great, Kevin. I had a similar conversation on Saturday. I was giving a training to ward mission leaders where we were talking about ward mission plans, etc. One of the points I tried to make was that conversion, not testimony, is the goal. Our discussions about missionary work so often focus on getting investigators to ask the question “is it true” and to “gain a testimony,” that is, to find out that it is true. But that’s not really the goal. The goal is to preach repentance. Folks often have a hard time believing the outlandish story of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of priesthood authority, which can be an obstacle to baptism, and for that reason, a testimony can help remove that obstacle, but even then, it’s a step toward the main event, not the main event itself. I tried to stress that the goal is to help people repent and exercise faith in Christ (whether that is non-members, inactive members, or active members, it doesn’t matter). A testimony can come by asking “is it true,” but conversion only comes by repentance. Faith in Christ is necessary, but to exercise faith in Christ requires very little in terms of a testimony–only a trust to hope that he can change you. A testimony (knowledge by spiritual confirmation of the truth of the restoration) is neither necessary nor sufficient for conversion.

  4. Thanks Kevin. You are always worth reading.

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