Conversion vs. Transformation

As part of my research for an upcoming project, I’ve been watching a speech by Holy Land Trust Executive Director Sami Awad. Towards the end of his talk, he quotes American Pastor Bob Roberts, who says, “We don’t serve to convert others, we serve because we are converted.”

This got me thinking about the difference between salvation as conversion and salvation as transformation. You could say it’s the difference between being willful and being willing. If I’m focused on conversion, my primary objective is to convince others that my beliefs are correct. This naturally pits my will against theirs, my arguments against theirs, my evidence against theirs, and so on. In the end, it forces me to adopt a hostile religious identity, because if I’m to win this battle of ideas, someone else has to lose.

However, if I’m focused on transformation, my primary objective is not to convince others that I’m correct but rather to allow my beliefs to transform me into a different kind of person. I may invite others into this change process, and some people will be pulled in as a matter of course. But their involvement will never be motivated by my desire to replicate my beliefs in another person. It will simply be a natural outflow of my own metamorphosis.

This brings me back to the two definitions of truth I outlined in yesterday’s post: truth as “an indisputable set of propositions” vs. truth as “that which sets us free.”

It seems to me that if you adopt the first definition, you will define salvation as conversion. If you do serve others, it will be a means to an end–persuasion–rather than an end in itself. If you adopt the second definition of truth, you will likely define salvation as transformation. You don’t serve others merely as a way to share the Gospel. Serving others is the Gospel.

All that to say, I think Pastor Roberts is onto something…

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About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • David Nybakke

    An interesting line of inquiry. Simply as a word choice, I prefer transformation, so I lean into your thought here. Yet let me though throw out a couple legit uses for conversion that come from an experience of forgiveness from the Forgiving Victim. From our friend James Alison: “… we learn to desire through the desire of others, by observing what they desire. This means that our self is something which is very malleable and comes into being from what other people give us over time, starting from our infancy. From this insight we can learn about the transformation of desire — which is what we mean by conversion — from something which is both imitative and acquisitive (over against the other) to something which is imitative but nurturing of the other.”

    From my mentor Gil Bailie: “Conversion begins when I am recognized, in all of my mediocrity and ordinariness, by someone who recognizes Christ in me. Conversion in turn enables me, my mediocrity and ordinariness notwithstanding, to recognize Christ in those who haven’t a clue about Christ and whose only access to Him is the puzzling sympathy and affection they see in my eyes and hear in my voice.”

    In a review of Rene Girard’s work, Trevor Merril writes: “This « path of initiation » has another name: conversion. The idea of conversion is an intriguing one: by breaking with the world of mimetic desire, the subject manages to find a measure of inner peace while at the same time achieving enough detachment to recognize the lie he was living. … conversion often means getting over some stubborn obstacle. … Conversion is primarily an existential and not an intellectual or philosophical problem. Meditating on the problem of desire may change us, but there are no guarantees.”

    And last ‘word’ on conversion from Heather King:

    Peace* I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Jn 14:27

    • Kevin Miller

      Thanks for sending this, David. I hear you, it could just be a matter of semantics. When someone says conversion they could just as easily mean transformation or sanctification or theosis. But what I’m trying to get at is how our understanding of salvation affects the way we view the other. The line you quoted from James really nails it: “From this insight we can learn about the transformation of desire — which is what we mean by conversion — from something which is both imitative and acquisitive (over against the other) to something which is imitative but nurturing of the other.”

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Conversion vs Transformation – I love it! BTW, are you familiar with the Eastern Orthodox concept of salvation as theosis? I think it fits very well with what you’re getting at here:

    • Kevin Miller

      Thanks, Rebecca. Yes I am familiar with the Eastern view, which has definitely influenced my own thoughts.

      • jason greene

        thank you! Great article…. Do you think that theosis is similar to the Methodist/Wesleyan view of salvation? The idea that we are saved but being saved into a life of loving God and neighbor culminating in being with God forever…

        • Kevin Miller

          I’m not familiar with the Wesleyan view, but I can say I have a Catholic friend who puts it this way: I was saved, I’m being saved, I will be saved. This speaks to a trajectory/ongoing process. Of course, I always like to ask, “Saved from what?” :)

  • Randy Siever

    Love this. And if I understand it correctly, this thinking is central to our work as well. Glad to have smart guys like you working on this. You’re way ahead. Thank you.