Are We Approaching Conversion Incorrectly?

According to Andrew Walls, the word “conversion” has been used in two main ways throughout Christian history.[1] One way denotes “an external act of religious change” that is a movement to Christian faith, individually or collectively. The other way refers to “critical internal religious change” within the Christian community. I am concerned with the latter. Walls notes that Western missionaries exported their understanding of conversion and made it the norm among non-Western peoples. For many, this included moving from “nominal” to “real” Christianity, “issuing in a holy life typically marked by a period of deep consciousness of personal sin followed by a sense of joyous liberation dawning with the realization of personal forgiveness through Christ.” Missionaries expected a similar pattern from those they evangelized.

What missionaries encountered “on the field” then is beginning to occur on our turf, now. Many church planters have a pre-Christian past that is quite Christian, and quite pietistic, informed by mid to late 20th century evangelicalism. Similar to the missionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries, our conversions relied heavily upon a prevailing Christianized culture, upon a certain basic knowledge of the faith.

However, in regions such as the Pacific Northwest and New England and in spiritually similar cities of the U.S we are now encountering a very dissimilar cultural climate. No longer can we assume a basic level of evangelical capital upon which the Spirit of God may act. Instead, we are engaging un-churched and resistant peoples who have either forgotten more than they know or have, in fact, never known Christianity. As a result, the conditions of conversion have changed, and like former missionaries we must reconfigure our understanding and expectation of how people convert, how disciples are made. Our goal is not to make converts and disciples of our 20th century Christianity, but rather, to allow for new conversions—new creations—born by the Spirit in a 21st century, post-Christian context. We must heed the failures of the past and call people, not to our experience of conversion, but to the experience of the Spirit’s converting, whatever that process may entail.

[1] Quotations taken from Andrew Walls, “Converts or Proselytes? The Crisis over Conversion in the Early Church,” IBMR, Vol. 28, No.1.