The old word is “conversion.” It was an important word in the development of America. The camp meeting movement and the pioneer evangelist were parts of the westward growth of our country. Christian preachers would adopt huge areas of uncharted land to serve. They would travel on horseback from farm to farm, sleeping under the stars or occasionally in barns, equipped with a blanket, a water bottle, and a Bible. When they came upon homesteaders they would stay a day or two, reading stories from their sacred Book and converting people to the Faith. Then they would be off in search of the next farm, maybe a mile or five or twenty through forests and rivers or over mountains. Always, though, they would promise to be back in a few months to read more stories, to baptize babies, to marry young couples, or to bury the dead. They were known as “circuit riders” and helped carry Christianity west as America grew. Their passion was simply to see people accept the Christian Faith (to become “converts”) and then to live after the principles of Jesus.
The word “conversion” has fallen into realms of suspicion if not outright disrespect. And some of that is understandable. It conjures up images of zealous people forcing other people to abandon indigenous faith practices and accept a belief system not their own. Often that has included violence in the name of a God of Love. We saw that during the Crusades and the Inquisition when Christians were the aggressors, and are seeing it now in some middle eastern places where Christians are the targets. Violence in God’s name has never been and will never be godly.
That being said, “conversion” (when properly interpreted and employed) is not a negative word. In fact, it is too often a forgotten or neglected word that has the potential to make the world a better and brighter place if rediscovered. 59% of the world’s more than seven billion people are adherents of a particular religious faith. 36% are “non-religious,” including 13% who self-identify as “atheists.” Do the math. Over 2.5 billion people on earth today know and serve no God. Without even considering converting someone from their faith to ours – what if we simply regained the circuit riders’ passion for winning non-believers to faith? What could this frightening world look like if suddenly 2.5 billion additional people decided to live by the principles and teachings of Jesus? And furthermore, what could their personal lives be like? How much more fulfilled and at peace and hopeful and kind and happy and compassionate and helpful could those people be if they discovered what He has to offer? And, if it would make a difference in the world or in the lives of others, why would we not share with them what we have found?
If you and I knew a cure to cancer or AIDS or diabetes or Ebola, we wouldn’t keep it a secret, would we? No. Instead, we would be shouting it from the rooftops so that everyone could be spared the pain of those dreadful illnesses. In reality, we know a Truth greater than those. We know how to find Life that is both abundant (meaningful) and eternal. Why would we be hesitant to share that “good news of great joy”? So, if any of that makes sense, then I am compelled to reflect a bit and ask myself the question: “How long has it been since I told anyone how much my faith means to me, or even since I have invited anyone to visit my church where they can explore faith for themselves?” Maybe in a world like ours, what we need is a new kind of frontier circuit riders. And in our own personal lives of discipleship, maybe at some point that’s what each of us is called to be.