You can't see into someone's heart

22 Mar 2024

You can’t see into someone’s heart.

The Church of England has been in the midst of a row over “conversions other Christianity” as part of the asylum process. Many critics felt it wasn’t doing enough to stop “fake conversions.”

In response, the church “launched a review into its advice to clergy last month.” In the end, the church decided that it would not adopt a set of cast-iron criteria for deciding whether to baptize asylum seekers (Reuters).

“How do you assess something that is in somebody’s heart? It is very, very difficult to do that… Some of the Home Office (interior ministry) approach and tests have been exactly that, trying to see what people’s knowledge might be about the Bible,” Francis-Dehqani said. The current guidance states a need for clergy to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves when ministering to asylum seekers.”

Every missionary research is familiar with this debate. I have been told several times, “I just think someone could devise a set of survey questions that will determine whether a person is a true believer or not.” There are three reasons why this is impossible: (1) denominations do not agree on what the essentials are; (2) survey questions can be answered correctly or incorrectly by both believers and unbelievers; (3) what we attest to be true today, we might tomorrow think twice about.

Following Jesus is a journey that has a start, a middle, and a transition into eternity. It’s not about what you know. Nor is a “profession of faith” akin to a “magic spell” that transforms you. If either were true, then getting the initial point of conversion absolutely right would be all that matters.

Rather, the life of discipleship is a life of spiritual formation that begins with grace and what is effectively a loyalty oath. For those who have seen the movie series, “The Lord of the Rings,” I am reminded of the scene in The Two Towers where Pippin impulsively offers his life in service to Denethor (a terrible example of a ruler, in the end), and only later slowly comes to realize all that his vow might require: “You’re in the service of the steward now. You’ll have to do as you’re told, Peregrin Took.”

There have been testimonies in movements of believers who started their faith journey reading Scripture with other unbelievers, and asking questions about it, even being shaped and formed and obeying the Scripture long before a profession of faith and baptism. While there are many stories of people who “came to a moment of decision” in a night and “walked the aisle,” the far more prevalent form of conversion is the people who, over a period of time, come to believe and follow the same things their parents, families, and friends all believe and follow — discipleship as a journey, not a moment.

Given that discipleship is a journey, the point of conversion - even if “faked in that moment” - can become true over time. Or, it could be a moment of “I believe, help my unbelief.” Or, it could be a moment of, “I want to be part of this community that I think will help me,” even if I don’t understand fully what it is I am signing up for.

Missionary researchers know we cannot measure “true belief,” because it cannot be easily defined nor observed. Only God knows who is “in the Lamb’s Book of Life.” At best, we missionary researchers - and the Church of England, in this instance - are measuring observable fruit, and that very imprecisely. Figuring out how to measure the “edges of Christianity” (does one count Muslim evangelicals in the USA? Muslim followers of Jesus in South Asia? Latter-day Saints? Unitarians?) is challenging, but really very small cases on the fringe compared with the whole.

The practical result for most people is that they must decide on their “aim”: you can either (a) try and get people to “pray the prayer” and then get very disappointed when they don’t live up to that moment or (b) get into peoples’ lives and walk with them, through the messy ups and downs. (Reading through 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians is an illustration of this.) While measured statistics have to do with observable events like baptisms, the practical realities of discipleship treat statistics only as signposts on a very long journey.

A version of this article appeared earlier as a commentary in my Premium Roundup. You should subscribe.