A reader writes in:
"I am a lifelong Episcopalian and spend a lot of time with a diverse group of people from different branches of Christianity. As the lone Episcopalian in this setting, I am hoping you can answer a question causing confusion for me. My question is this: They (non-Episcopalians) are insistent that everyone must accept Jesus as their own "personal Lord and Savior". I was always taught that He is our Savior but that He belongs to everyone and is not our "personal" God. Which is correct, according to the church as Episcopalians? Thank you."
The language “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior” is indicative of certain traditions within Christianity in America. Evangelicals and revivalists often speak of conversion using these terms. By “personal” they mean you as an individual as opposed to you as a member of a group. By “accept” they mean to emphasize you choosing, you deciding (or not) to be a disciple of Jesus and verbally and publicly acknowledge Jesus as your “Lord” (the master of your life) and “Savior” (the one who rescued you from sin and death). Once you have made such a public profession of your faith, then you are a candidate for baptism (called “believer’s baptism”).
Most Episcopalians don’t use the jargon of evangelicalism (but there are a few who do). Tell your evangelical friends that you are a follower of Jesus and you are putting yourself in God’s hands, trusting in Jesus, and receiving God’s mercy, love, and grace. They are apt to be skeptical. Generally, unless your spiritual journey mimic’s that of an evangelical and you are skilled in the use of the jargon of evangelicalism--they will be skeptical of your relationship to Christianity. Don’t let it bother you. Neither the thief on the cross nor Paul on the road to Damascus had read the “Four Spiritual Laws” (an evangelical pamphlet) nor prayed its “sinner’s prayer.” Yet, it is correct to say that both were saved. Tell them you are depending on Jesus to save you. Speaking their language may calm their fears for your soul.
To answer your question more directly: the emphasis on the individual has more to do with American individualism than it does biblical faith and Episcopalians try not to fall into that way of thinking, emphasizing instead the community of faith, the people of God, and the Church. Likewise, the emphasis on the decision of the individual and the importance of making a choice, sounds to our ears like a “salvation by works.” That is to say, that you are only saved because you did something. We tend to want to place the emphasis on what God does regardless of our lack of appropriate response (we call it “grace”). Finally, at some points this way of talking and thinking can move from religious to magical. If you don’t say just the right words (the “sinner’s prayer”) and have an emotional experience, and then follow it with baptism by full immersion, then you are not a real Christian. Thoughtful evangelicals would never say such a thing. But, people who are naturally superstitious and engage in magical thinking and who are evangelicals are apt to speak that sort of nonsense.