There are quite a few opinions about a recent celebrity in the spotlight for a high-profile conversion to Christianity. Or an alleged conversion to Christianity, depending on your point of view. Which celebrity it is doesn’t matter as much, because any time a celebrity joins anything, the people who belong to the faith or organization are thrilled. It’s like getting an endorsement or like a draft or trade in professional sports: “we got so-and-so! Maybe this year we’ll finally make it to the playoffs!”
Many devout believers – whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Mormon, or other beliefs – are used to being somewhat out of step with popular or dominant culture. So sometimes language of piety can dress up what may be a simple gut response: “we finally got a cool one!” Like a trading card game, the secular materialist kid slides his celebrity card to the Christian kid, and the Christian kid is relieved, because she’s recently lost several trading cards to the messy-mystical universalist kid.
Yet other believers are genuinely excited at the news of any testimony of conversion, and that’s a good thing. They don’t care about the “trading card” feel of it, because they’re genuinely just as thrilled when they hear testimony of conversion from the clerk at Dollar General. Take Fran: an elderly woman I encountered while working in a nursing home. She had a contagious, off-kilter laugh and a contagious, off-kilter love for Jesus, and she wanted everyone who came into her room to know that Jesus loved them. It is a zany follower of Christ who sees the call for assistance with bathroom needs as an opportune moment to talk to people about Jesus. And people like Fran don’t care if it’s an aide in a nursing home or a rapper married to a reality show star, they just want you to know that Jesus loves you and that they love you. People like Fran don’t see faith as a giant Pokemon challenge to, “catch ’em all,” collecting conversion trading cards for a stronger deck.
High-profile converts to any religion tend to attract extra scrutiny, and usually questions are raised about whether it’s genuine. People of a certain age will remember the controversy about fiery Watergate figure Charles Colson’s jailtime conversion. But whether testimony of following Jesus Christ is genuine isn’t a new question generated by the entertainment industry highlighting celebrity lifestyles. The early church dealt with this question, and leaders often counseled prudence, care, pastoral sensitivity, and community accountability. They weren’t dealing with a global celebrity conversion, a testimony of a religious experience given by someone with a history of giving and rescinding high-profile support to other high-profile figures; they weren’t dealing with a testimony by someone with a history of making sweeping, grandiose claims sometimes consistent with certain features of some mental illnesses.
Or maybe, in a way, they were. Maybe the early church did encounter these kinds of dynamics. Converts within the early church may not have had millions of fans spread through every time zone, but they certainly had parallel influence in their own world. During Jesus’ own time, one of his followers was Joanna, wife of Herod’s steward – broadly speaking, comparable to the Chief of Staff’s spouse. There were plenty of other powerful people who were public – or even private – followers of Jesus. (When Nicodemus went to talk surreptitiously with Jesus at night, you won’t read Jesus saying, “now, Nicodemus, you believe in secret, but when are you going to go public?” It’s worth some mulling.)
Later, when blinded Saul-turned-Paul gasped to others of his vision of Jesus, he wasn’t believed by some because he was so renowned for his violent persecution of early Christ followers; they were afraid of him and thought they were being trapped. They didn’t easily trust his testimony of conversion. There was deep skepticism and some understandable fear of what might come next.
Things got quite bad for Christians, whether their background was Jewish or Gentile – Nero’s treatment of Christians is infamous. And so one of the challenges in the early church was quite painful: what to do with people who denied their faith during persecution – physical torture with threat of death – and then came back later, apologizing, saying they really did believe? During a time marked tragically by martyrs, imagine losing friends and loved ones, surviving, then gathering for worship on Sunday and seeing someone who was alive because they had denied Jesus. What do you do with that? What approach does the church take as it hears their story? Early church leaders didn’t wholesale reject people who, in the face of horrible suffering, had denied Christ. And yet – what does it mean to testify to genuine faith? Could they believe these remorseful people rejoining their gathering – or, like the fear about blinded Saul, were they being trapped?
That very same terrorist-turned-missionary Paul gave pragmatic advice sometimes in his letters, a reminder that sometimes we need to appeal to the earthy wisdom of common sense even while practicing spiritual discernment.
So how should Christians respond when anyone testifies to converting, when anyone declares that they now follow Jesus? And how should Christians respond when someone does that who might, in your own congregation, elicit a sense of suspicion or hesitancy?
*Watch and wait. Be as “wise as serpents and as gentle as doves,” a phrase that reminds the hearer to be both kind and shrewd. This attitude might take at face value the first time; then exercise caution the second time, watching for growth; then employ healthy skepticism the third time. Just as not everyone who calls a church for emergency assistance at the holidays is scamming, and not everyone who calls for emergency assistance actually needs help, so it is with testimony of personal religious experience. In the case of benevolent funds and people asking for assistance, good policies usually reflect the reality that some are genuine while others are not, and the dynamic is similar to people who testify to conversion. Sometimes they’ve genuinely encountered God; sometimes their peers became people of faith so they went along with it; sometimes there seemed something to gain by professing Christianity – dating a particular person, or gaining trust in the business community, or gaining trust from a suspicious spouse to maintain cover for the real thing they want to continue unhindered. So with kindness, and with shrewdness, watch and wait.
*You can celebrate genuinely, without flippantly assuming that someone who claims profound life change is now completely mature or spiritually, emotionally, and mentally healthy. It might look something like this – “That’s great. I’m happy they’ve had a significant experience of some kind. I don’t know the details, but I’m sure that like everyone else they’ll have some tough patches and will need a lot of support and community along the way.” And you smile, and thank God, and pray for the person, believing in God’s power to transform – and knowing that transformation is a process that extends beyond a moment.
Postures something like this give an uncomplicated benefit of the doubt, without making it sound like the community of faith will immediately benefit from this conversion, which is what an attitude of transaction or gain implies – the “We got so-and-so in the draft!” kind of responses. The Church as an organism doesn’t need any high-profile convert to legitimize itself. Rather, a posture like this acknowledges that the spiritual life is challenging; not everyone who initially responds will continue on the path. It’s like the parable of the seed scattered on the soil. Some sprang up quickly but wilted in the heat, other seed got choked out by weeds, but a little – a fraction of what was scattered – took root and grew strong. So celebrate seedlings: not as tally marks for what you can grow, but as fragile new plants needing care and support.
*A person’s value doesn’t come from whether or not they’re on your “team.” People aren’t a draft pick that will help vault your faith into the end zone. People aren’t just an asset gained because they can bring their existing platform to your congregation. A celebrity and a Dollar General cashier are both humans made in the image of God whether or not they ever darken the doorstep of your church. Their value doesn’t change when they decide to follow Jesus. Their value won’t change if they stop believing in God. Their value doesn’t change whether they lose their fortune or win the lottery. Do we treat people like individuals with a particular story – or are we prone to reducing the complexity of personal lives into a transaction?
People can tell when you’re trying to recruit them. When you want to add them to your deck as a handy asset. And if they can’t now, they will later, when their profession of faith is scored into a total for a post-holiday social media post about impact made – for the Kingdom… Don’t exploit peoples’ spiritual lives like this. You don’t know if they’re vulnerable and easing into a faith community after a horrific experience in a church – or if they know an eager believer makes a handy character witness for their upcoming legal needs! Celebrities, star athletes, business gurus, single parents on disability, the guy working the gas station register, the shopping cart collector at Target: each one is loved by God, and the value of each person isn’t determined by whether or not they’re on your team. Love people more than you love what they can do for you.
*Continue to remember our belief that people can turn to God, find faith in Jesus Christ, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, be transformed. Christians believe change is possible.Through Christ, the jerk can become the nicest person in town. Through Christ, the embittered can become thankful and gracious. Through Christ, the addict can find sobriety – one day at a time. Through Christ, the egotistical can become humble and helpful. Dramatic conversion stories sometimes appeal to people so deeply because people are so desperate to hope and believe that real change is possible. Even in the lives of the most obnoxious people you know, even when the most obnoxious person you know is in the mirror. God makes all things new and there is nothing out of God’s reach. God’s not intimidated by your stench and God’s not waiting for you to clean up your act. While we were still smashing the window or lying or feeding our ego, Christ died for all of us who were so unlike God (to paraphrase Scripture).
In Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, we read, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. ” (Romans 12:9-13)
What else are we to do in a broken, hurting world, but to, “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer”? When we see people desperate and hungry for God, we pray for them: we joyfully hope, we’re patient when it doesn’t go well despite our hope, and we remain faithful in praying. It’s part of loving others. It’s part of what it means to believe – not in a person’s own ability to change, but in God’s desire and ability to bring transformation anywhere and everywhere. When we hope with joy, when we’re patient, when we stick to praying with perseverance, then we can freely practice generous hospitality. Not so that we can hashtag it for social media fodder, not so that we can collect a rare celebrity trading card for our faith deck, but because we love people; we love them more than we love what they can do for us.