("The Conversion of St. Paul,", Michaelangelo Buonarroti, 1542, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Jan. 25, 2011)
Readings for the Feast Day of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25:
Psalm 19 (Morning)
Psalm 119:89-112 (Evening)
"Saul/Paul and the road to Damascus" is very likely etched indelibly on the brains of most Christians, and honestly, there is very little I can say about this archetype of the Christian conversion experience that hasn't already been said, and by people far more erudite than me. In fact, the story of Saul/Paul's conversion, for many of us, is the polar opposite of our own experience of "encountering Jesus." It's probably the decided minority of us that have ever heard God actually speak to us and lead us to repent and change our attitudes and behaviors towards Jesus.
Really, the only conversion I know very much about at all, has to do with another of my passions--college football. In college football, one of the most exciting things (especially in the fourth quarter of a close game) is that a kicked point after touchdown is worth one point, and one that is run or passed across the goal line is worth two points. In fact, in the NCAA overtime format, once two teams have reached triple overtime, it's mandatory that the two point conversion be employed.
Various sources attribute the success rate of a two point conversion between 40 and 55 percent. The two point conversion, in college football, creates a risk/reward between the win and the tie, or the win and the loss. It has been so extensively statistically studied that in the 1970's, when Dick Vermeil was coach at UCLA, he actually developed a formula of when to "go for two" that is still cited and used in college coaching today.
Perhaps that is really the crux of the Christian conversion experience--when in our lives do we simply take the easy near-sure thing and "kick for one" rather than "run it for two?"
I'm afraid in the world of spreading The Good News In Christ, the institutional church in the past century, has been too complacent to "kick for one"--and the result is declining membership in the mainline denominations. The non-denominational megachurches, however, "run for two" at a rate far more than their mainline counterparts. The result is often increased membership. However, the flip side of that is recent studies show that this "increased membership" is often the result of shifting alliances rather than new converts. Megachurch attendees shop--and when they are no longer entertained, they move on.
Of more concern is the data in recent Gallup polls that show the numbers of people who attend church hovers at 30 percent year after year, but the number of people who never attend church continues to increase.
This is just a guess on my part, but it seems to me that a worthwhile strategy to explore in sharing The Good News In Christ and teaching people to desire that as a lifelong proposition is to first examine our own lives. When are the times in our lives in Christ that we risked "going for two?" What did we learn as a result of both our failures and successes? Did we use our two point conversion attempt wisely or foolishly?
Likewise, when are the times we really needed to kick for the relatively safe point after touchdown? Did we do that, or did we get impatient, risk going for two, and fail?
Perhaps then, we should extrapolate it into the lives of our parishes in terms of outreach and evangelism.
When is the last time your parish took a decided risk in "going for two" in terms of reaching out to the disaffected, the lonely, and the marginalized?