Tag: evangelism

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.

Converts or Proselytes? The Nature of True Conversion

We hard-pressed to find a better missiologist in our day than Andrew Walls. Though Walls has not written prolifically, he makes up for it in the profoundity of his work. He has written two landmark books that explore the relationship between history, missions, and theology: The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History along with a number of articles.

Former missionary to Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Walls later served as director of the Centre for the study of Christianity in the Non-Western world, at the University of Edinburgh. In an article appearing in IBMR 2004, Walls explores the difference between proselytes and converts in the Early Church.

The Great Commission or Cultural Commission?

Given the fact there were a remarkable number of hits on my entry Two Great Commissions: Cultural and Evangelistic, I thought I would follow it up with a few more thoughts. In that post I simply raised the question: Are there two great commissions–the creation/cultural mandate (Gen 1.27-28) and the disciple-making mandate (Matt 28.18-20)?

There are, of course, both mandates in Scripture, but various theologies have neglected one or the other. One could argue that mainline liberal theologies, and perhaps liberation theologies, have neglected the command to make disciples of Christ, teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded, by focusing on social justice, environmental issues, and family (fruitful, multiply, have dominion). On the other hand, there are soul-centered theologies and movements that have advocated spirit salvation to the neglect of the salvation of body, creation, and culture.

This practical division can be resolved by addressing interprerations of the commissions from various angles. One particular angle has been advocated by Andrew Walls. In The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith Walls makes the simple but profound observation that the Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations. We get the word “ethnic” from the word for nations, indicating that Paul was not thinking in modernist geo-political terms, but instead of distinct cultural and ethnic groups. Jesus leaves his Jewish apostles and the Church with a command to make disciples of these non-Jewish ethnic groups.

In the Early Church, there was a tendency to make Gentile disciples into Jewish disciples, that is for them to take up all the cultural trappings of Judaism (circumcision, dietary codes, etc.). This is akin to early Protestant and Roman Catholic missionary attempts to Westernize indigenous peoples. Walls points out that Jesus did not command us to make disciples from all nations–that is to extract people from their culture and conform them to our “christian” culture. There is no single chrisitan culture, certainly not a sanctioned christian culture. The beauty of the Great Commision is that it presupposes the diversity and creativity of the cultural mandate. We are to make disciples of not from all ethnic groups. As Walls writes:

Conversion to Christ does not produce a bland universal citizenship: it produces distinctive discipleship, as diverse and variegated as human life itself. Christ in redeeming humanity brings, by the process of discipleship, all the richness of humanity’s infinitude of cultures and subcultures into the variegated splendor of the Full Grown Humanity to which the apostolic literature ponits (Eph 4.8-13). The Missionary Movement, 51

This means that to a significant degree, one’s culture should be preserved as a Christian. In fact, the teachings of Christ should lead to a person becoming an agent of cultural renewal, not out of hand rejection.

The original text of Matt 28.19 does not have an “of” or a “from,” but the construction lends itself to an of interpretation. Grammatically, a from interpretation is not a possiblity, hence the English translations–make disciples of all nations. To make disciples of all nations is to redemptively reaffirm the pre-fall cultural mandate to be fruitful, multiply, fill, rule and subdue the earth. The gospel renews culture and remakes its citizens to become a redemptive, creative, and culturally diverse influence in societies all over the world. This unique and diverse expression of the gospel of God throughout history and time redounds to his glory with each new encounter.