Putting a Face on Conversion: A Review of “Journeys of Faith”
There has been a lot of talk in recent years of people migrating from one Christian tradition to another. Though the majority of converts have come to evangelicalism from liturgical, high-church traditions, an increasing number of Christians are leaving evangelical churches for Rome, Constantinople, or Canterbury. Whenever the migration between traditions is discussed, we tend to focus on the phenomenon abstractly, neglecting the personal elements that play a role in these transitions.
Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism(Zondervan, 2012) puts a face on conversion. Edited by Robert Plummer, Journeys of Faith tells the story of four “migrations.” Following each testimony is a thoughtful response from a scholar who belongs to the tradition the convert chose to abandon.
- From Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy (Wilbur Ellsworth, with response from Craig Blaising)
- From Evangelicalism to Catholicism (Francis Beckwith, with response from Gregg Allison)
- From Catholicism to Evangelicalism (Chris Castaldo, with response from Brad Gregory)
- From Evangelicalism to Anglicanism (Lyle Dorsett, with response from Robert Peterson)
Plummer expresses three goals he hopes this book will accomplish:
- To help Evangelicals understand why persons are leaving their churches for Christian traditions that are more liturgical.
- To help Evangelical leaders in responding to questions from church members who are attracted to liturgical Christian traditions.
- To help non-Evangelicals, such as Catholic and Orthodox Christians, in understanding why persons have departed their traditions for Evangelicalism, why some Evangelicals are now moving in the other direction, and what fundamental differences remain between Evangelical and non-Evangelical communities.
In order for these goals to be accomplished, readers will need to pay careful attention to the heart-motivations that rise to the surface in these conversion stories. One of the common elements in the conversion stories away from Evangelicalism is a dissatisfaction with contemporary, seeker-driven worship services. The three men who moved into liturgical traditions express a longing for worship that is more established, reverent, and rooted in history.
That said, it’s important to note that liturgy alone is not the reason for the conversions. Neither is theology. One might think that every decision to cross Christian lines takes place after a fruitful and lengthy engagement with the Scriptures. But in these stories, the narratives are driven by the convert’s longing for something they felt was missing in their own tradition. For example, Wilbur Ellsworth claims that a Christ-centered approach to the Scriptures was what attracted him to Orthodoxy. What was missing in one tradition was discovered in another. Of course, it’s not difficult to find Christ-centered pastors and scholars in Evangelicalism. Nor is it difficult to find reverent, traditional worship. But for Ellsworth (and the others), conversion was a paradigm shift. He writes:
We cannot tweak our way to the deep roots of the Church and its faith. There is a great difference between scripted worship and inscripturated worship. (78)
The discussion on Catholicism centers (not surprisingly) on the question of authority. Brad Gregory’s response to Chris Castaldo’s conversion to Evangelicalism focuses on the division among Protestants as proof of sola Scriptura’s failure. Castaldo replies by pointing out how Catholicism is much more divided than it appears.
Journeys of Faith is a captivating book. It accomplishes Plummer’s three goals and does not minimize the differences between the contributors. Take Gregg Allison’s expressed intention: “that if any readers are contemplating a journey toward the Catholic Church, they will be persuaded that they are moving not from lesser faithfulness to greater faithfulness but from greater faithfulness to lesser faithfulness, a journey they must reconsider and abandon.” (115)
Though the book is well worth reading, there are some parts that lead to further questions. For example, I was puzzled by how Evangelical and Evangelicalism were capitalized in the book. This may seem like a minor quibble, but the capitalization implies that the Evangelical faith is a church tradition similar to Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, or Catholicism. So even if Ellsworth’s conversion isfrom the Southern Baptist Convention to Orthodoxy, it is set up as a conversion from Evangelicalism in general. This isn’t problematic if one is placing all low-church traditions under the umbrella of evangelical identity, yet each of these stories is from one definable tradition (within evangelicalism) to another.
Something else struck me while reading these stories. All the contributors first placed conscious faith in Christ in a low-church evangelical church or revival meeting. But even when the contributors express their appreciation for their spiritual heritage, they fail to explain the lack of corresponding emphasis on conversion (in the salvific sense) within the liturgical churches they now belong to.
Why this neglect of conversion in the salvific sense? When I was involved in mission work in Romania, evangelicals were labeled “repenters” for our emphasis on repentance. Though the term was meant to be an insult, we wore it as a badge of honor. What is a Christian if not a “repenter”? Although all Christian traditions agree that heartfelt repentance and faith are necessary for salvation, it appears that individual salvation is emphasized in evangelical circles and neglected in the liturgical churches. I would have liked to see more reflection from the contributors as to why this is the case.
In all, I believe Plummer’s book is an example of helpful ecumenical dialogue. The friendly tone of these discussions does not detract from the significant differences between the contributors. The result is an enlightening read that will prompt good conversations among evangelical church leaders.