One of my favorite roads is located in the south San Francisco Bay area, in a quaint, densely wooded neighborhood called the Los Altos Hills. It is a road that Amy and I have traveled together many times—it is the road to her parent’s house. Alongside the road, about three-quarters of the way to my in-law’s home, are small, newly planted trees, each held in place by sturdy wood sticks and twine. These little trees were introduced into the Hills after a severe storm rolled through the area and uprooted a eucalyptus tree which subsequently fell onto a cyclist. The cyclist was killed. Only weeks after the cyclist was crushed by this eucalyptus tree, several of the eucalyptus trees in the area were pulled up and hauled away. After some months, new trees were planted where these large yet easily toppled trees once stood.
There is another road a few miles south of the Hills that I also consider a favorite: it is the road from San Jose to Gilroy. Along this road stand large, weathered, mature, stately oak trees. They have yet to see a storm that has intimidated them—they are oak trees. Unlike the newly planted trees in the Los Altos Hills, these trees have matured to a point where they can withstand any kind of weather: torrential downpours, gale-force winds and severe heat. And they do not need the protection of wood sticks and wire; their roots have grown deep into the soil and anchor them into the ground; their trunks are wide and their limbs, thick. They are ready for anything.
On more than one occasion, as Amy and I have trekked through the Los Altos Hills, I have thought to myself how much these baby trees remind me of new Christians. They are small, vulnerable, and unable to withstand much of anything without the help of some external support. Their roots are shallow and their limbs are tender. They are not ready for birds to nest in their branches, and they are certainly not prepared for eager children to scurry up their trunks. Their business right now is not to provide wide shade cover for travelers, or homes for squirrels, or perches for birds; their business right now is to grow, so that someday they will be able to do what big trees do.
So it is with new Christians. They do not yet have the maturity to take on great leadership responsibility, or to provide others with profound spiritual wisdom and insight, or to withstand powerful storms. That is why Paul tells Timothy that a new convert is disqualified for the office of overseer on the basis of his recent conversion. He does not yet have the spiritual wherewithal to carry the burden of leadership without succumbing to pride and self-exaltation (I Timothy 3:6).
That is why I am constantly dumbfounded when celebrities, who give evidence of genuine conversion, are upheld as examples while their iconic status is used as a platform to speak to others about Christ. Almost immediately after a famous actor or athlete comes to Christ they either write a book or are thrown into various speaking engagements; not because they have demonstrated any maturity, but because they are famous. In my opinion, the last thing they need is to be in the spotlight as a Christian. After their conversion, they should be hidden away for a season, allowed to grow some roots, and then, perhaps (but not necessarily) brought back into a more public arena–if they are brought back at all. I am afraid much spiritual growth has been stunted in what are otherwise sound conversions because these young, tender trees are made to carry burdens they were simply not meant to bear at this point in their Christian life. Grace has been hindered because pride has been unwittingly cultivated (James 4:6).
But can this happen in the church as well, with those who are not famous? I believe it can. New converts who are gifted with natural talents like confident public speaking, strong leadership, academic intelligence and charming charisma, can be placed into leadership because their natural talents are mistaken for solid spiritual maturity. The results can be disastrous. At a time when they should have been purposefully kept from leadership, they are encouraged to pursue it. When they should have been given a bucket and a mop to clean the church bathrooms, they are given a pulpit and a captive audience. When they should be learning how to feed themselves and grow their roots deep, they are feeding others and trying to produce fruit their roots and limbs cannot yet support. As a result, hypocrisy, pride, self-deception, and self-exaltation begin to take hold of the new Christian and their spiritual growth is halted. What could have been soil for rich and abiding growth has become a seedbed for sin and foolishness.
My hope is that the church at large will begin to develop a more thorough theology for dealing with new conversions. What are we to do with new converts? How can we make sure that those who have recently professed a new relationship with Jesus Christ be kept from the soul-killing enemy of pride? Is there a Biblical discipleship plan that is ready to be implemented once a new convert professes faith? Who will come alongside them? What will we teach them? What ministries will they be encouraged to pursue? What ministries will they encouraged to avoid at this time? We treat newborn children with the utmost attention and care; why do we not treat baby Christians like this? With careful, thoughtful, loving, constant guidance and concern, with the hope that they will grow into strong, mature, deeply-rooted Christians? May we begin to do so, for the eternal good of our new brothers and sisters in Christ.