It used to be common to hear a new convert described as someone who had "got religion." Occasionally one hears that phrase still. It makes religion sound like a disease. One gets religion like one gets a cold or a cancer. It happens to some people but not to others.
The trouble with this description, besides casting religion in an unfavorable light, is that it overlooks the role of personal choice. Admittedly, religious conversion involves more than the convert's choice--God's choice, for example, is even more important than the convert's, and other people have a role to play as well--but the convert's choice is nonetheless critical.
And that's exactly what one would expect. After all, a person's volition - his or her faculty for making choices - is an essential part of the conversion process. For this reason, forced conversions are always inimical to genuine spirituality and are counterproductive to the practice of faith (something ISIS has yet to learn).
Personal choice in conversion (at least in Christianity), is crucially important, and yet what a person is choosing is not obvious. Is she choosing to go to heaven when she dies? Is she choosing to believe certain doctrines about God and what he has done? Is she choosing Jesus for her teacher and leader? Is she doing all these things at once?
In my own experience, the first stage of conversion was founded on the thoroughly self-centered choice to avoid hell. That choice was the trailhead for my journey but not, thankfully, its terminus. I have gone on to see and desire many other things: to know God better and love him more, to become the true and complete person God intends me to be (to his glory and my joy), to bless others as one who is learning to do life the Jesus-way, and more.
Since making that first (admittedly) self-centered choice, my world has expanded dramatically, and it has done so in proportion to my own growth and change. I see so much more now than I did then and, because I see more, my ability to choose has grown. People sometimes criticize religion for limiting people's choices. My experience has been just the opposite. Faith in God through Jesus has opened to me possibilities I otherwise would not have known existed.
Any description of conversion that ignores the role of personal choice fails to do justice to the scriptures, and yet the convert's understanding of the choice he or she makes often varies from one person to the next. That leads one to wonder if there is any essential component, a sine qua non, to conversion.
Does conversion begin with one universally mandated choice? No, because conversion does not begin with a choice. It begins with a revelation, a new thought, a call beckoning one further in and further on. In other words, it begins with God.
Yet even though conversion does not begin with everyone making the same choice, it eventually leads everyone to the same choice: to confess (in biblical parlance) "Jesus is Lord." This is the critical point in the conversion process. If a person, confronted with that choice, refuses to make it, the process will come to a halt. It may resume, but only when that choice is made.
All this takes for granted that conversion is more like a process than an event. Near the beginning of the process, a person turns (and is turned) to God with faith, but it doesn't end there. That first choice opens the door to a multitude of others. The process of conversion proceeds along the line of those choices, converting a person from one loyalty to another, from one value system to another, from one worldview to another. Conversion is, to borrow Wendell Berry's wise words, "the result of a long choosing, chosen and chosen again."
The conversion process is not scheduled for completion in this lifetime. At present, the worksite is often littered with debris. But it will be worth it. When the process is complete - or, to be at once more precise and more biblical, when the person is complete - the convert will not only confess Jesus is Lord but will live Jesus is Lord.