Conversion, Then and Now image

Conversion, Then and Now

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Historically speaking, might it be the case that the periods which have seen the greatest missionary expansion were those which placed the least emphasis on conversion, rather than the most? Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his excellent (if occasionally eccentric) A History of Christianity, reflects on the difference between conversion in the first millennium of the Church (and much of the second), and conversion as we understand it today. It is provocative, and worth reflecting on:

These conversions sponsored by missionaries from Ninian through Patrick and Augustine far into central Europe were not conversions in the sense often demanded by evangelists in the twenty-first century, accepting Christ as personal Saviour in a great individual spiritual turnaround. In the medieval West, there were only one or two recorded examples of such experiences, taking their cue from the New Testament’s description of what happened to the Apostle Paul. So Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century and Anselm of Canterbury in the twelfth do indeed write about spiritual struggles which sound like those of Paul on the Damascus Road: they talk of dramatic new decisions, realigning their whole personality. In the Reformation, Protestants picked up the same tradition, and since then personal conversion based on assent to an itemised package of doctrine has become almost a compulsory experience in some versions of Christianity. Yet from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, one of the most successful periods in the expansion of the faith, when all Europe became Christian, people rarely talked about conversion in that sense. If they did, they generally meant something very different: they had already been Christians, but now they were becoming a monk or nun.

How, then, did the Western Church convert Europe piece by piece between the thousand years which separated Constantine I from the conversion of Lithuania in 1386? At the time, those who described the experience normally used more passive and more collective langauge than the word ‘conversion’: a people or a community ‘accepted’ or ‘submitted to’ the Christian God and his representatives on earth. This was language which came naturally: groups mattered more than single people, and within groups there was no such thing as social equality ... Mass rallies were not their style; most evangelists were what we would call gentry or nobility, and they normally went straight to the top when preaching the faith.

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