An enthusiastic campus ministry leader approached me my freshman year of college. We discussed the ministry's events and meeting times, and eventually the sweet woman asked me whether I had made a decision for Christ. I had. A couple of times, actually. When I was six, I "asked Jesus into my heart," When I was around fourteen, I felt the decision I made when I was six somehow didn't "stick," so I prayed the sinner's prayer again, made another public confession of faith, and was re-baptized. In my eyes, I wasn't truly saved until I was fourteen.
Growing up Southern Baptist, a common part of the church service is the "invitation," or "alter call," after the sermon. It includes an emotional song and exhortations from the pastor to come forward and make a decision for Christ. Often, the alter call can be emotionally manipulative, convincing many that perhaps they aren't truly saved, or maybe they didn't really mean it the first time around.
Or, your initial decision for Christ did stick, but you've backslidden since then, so you can go forward during the invitation to announce you want to "rededicate" your life to Christ. There is no limit on the number of times one can rededicate. I don't mean to say that the emotional manipulation is intentional on anyone's part, but these feelings often result.
I shared my experience with the energetic campus ministry leader. However, she persisted in sitting down with me to draw out the bridge of salvation and explain how I could be saved.
I felt very awkward at this point, explaining to her several times that I'd already made the decision, and had used this very bridge illustration to lead others to make the decision for Christ. It didn't matter. The ministry leader still had to make sure I'd heard and mentally assented to the correct steps to salvation. Or perhaps my prior decision(s) hadn't stuck properly, so she would be responsible for my being outside the fold if she didn't show me the bridge illustration.
This emphasis on cognitive, personal conversion is another empty Master-Signifier in David Fitch's The End of Evangelicalism. During the modernist-fundamentalist controversies, an exaggerated split developed between the decision to receive pardon for sin in Christ and the decision to live in the Spirit. As a result, many evangelicals today have coalesced around the decision for Christ, an individual, voluntary act that is "nurtured through individually acquired learning and worship" (p. 79). This emphasis turns the conversion experience into mainly a cognitive one. Discipleship is receiving information and instruction, and church becomes "an informational gathering centered around the sermon" (p. 80).
Watering down the conversion and formation of a Christian to information and tallies of decisions has exposed the decision for Christ as an empty Master-Signifier:
The recidivism rate of those who make "the decision for Christ" is famously high. Eternity Magazine reported as far back as 1977 that evangelistic crusades among evangelical churches could locate only 3 percent of those claiming to have made "a decision" as being found in any kind of Christian church. Billy Graham said publicly on David Frost's PBS show in the 1990's that he believed only 25% of the decisions recorded in his crusades resulted in people actually being born again. At the time, this shocked evangelicals. One of the largest evangelical denominations reportedly disclosed that there had been 384,057 decisions for Christ within their churches in 1995, but only 6 percent could be accounted for in any way the following year. (p. 82).
Separating the decision from the changed life that is supposed to result makes the poor recidivism rate palatable, because adding anything to the decision would be salvation that is not by faith alone. To evangelicals, a works-based salvation is worse than thousands of people who initially show an interest in following Jesus, but cannot be found the next year.
The most damning result, though, is that the hallowed decision enables Christians to claim allegience to the Gospel, yet makes "little to no demands on changing one's life" (p. 84). It unites people, helping to identify them as evangelicals, yet requiring nothing of said people. As a result, complete inconsistency with the confession to follow Christ and the behavior afterward is common. The nebulous personal relationship with Christ is the goal (praying, reading Scripture, attending church services), as opposed to believers making sure they are "doing" something, transforming their behavior, or helping others -- because over-emphasizing "doing" is too dangerously close to "works."
One example of an irruption hit very close to home: holiness codes of evangelical colleges. Fitch says these behavioral requirements reveal that making a decision for Christ often does not affect the practice of a convert: "we are saved, but this does not effect [sic?] how we live, therefore we must make sure it effects the way we live!"
Yes, I held to the Community Covenant at Wheaton, but it mainly served to bind a disparate group of people converging on campus from a variety of denominations. Isn't it redundant to require the students to follow this covenant while at Wheaton -- shouldn't we already behave this way, regardless of our status as Wheaton students? The agreement itself almost becomes a mini Master-Signifier, because it ensures that students, while all professing Christians, conform to an expected, uniform standard of behavior, usually with regard to evangelical biggies like sex and alcohol. Yet in reality, the covenant was empty at its core, as students would drink and have sex anyway (married sex is allowed, from what I hear...).
This chapter was definitely my favorite. I agree wholeheartedly with the assessment of the personal, individual, nebulous decision for Christ. I would add that this inward-focused, non-transformative element that divorces action from being a Christian has also crippled evangelicalism's ability to be a true force in righting social wrongs. As long as I read my Bible in my daily personal quiet time and follow the other items on the checklist of a good Christian, the social realm is too easily forgotten. Fitch does excellently address this in the next chapter, but I think the decision for Christ has contributed to avoidance of social justice just as much as, if not more than, the belief in a Christian nation.
So for my next post, I want to share a great example of this disconnect/avoidance of social issues that the decision for Christ brings. The subject of the Zizekian critique actually spoke at Wheaton's chapel a couple of times, too, to much applause...