What is conversion? Maybe the better question is When is conversion?
Do you think folks convert at a single moment or do you think it happens (for some) over time? Do you think it happens different for different people — some all at once and others over time?
Let me give a big sociological sketch first as this will help us rethink conversion. Studies reveal that folks, in a general sense, “convert” to the Christian faith in one of three basic ways:
- through a church process of being nurtured into the faith,
- through another church process of ongoing exposure to the sacraments, or
- through a personal decision emphasis.
My own contention is that denominations and local churches tend to favor — putting it mildly — one of these processes, and they build institutional life in that church or denomination upon their theory of how conversion occurs. The result is that nurturance converts can be a bit nervous with sacramental converts and personal decision converts can break out in a rash when they encounter either. Studying how conversions take place is discussed in two of my own studies: Turning to Jesus and Finding Faith, Losing Faith.
Our studies conclude that everyone’s conversion — whether through nurturance, sacraments or personal decision — involve six dimensions: converts emerge out of a
(1) context because of
(2) a crisis of some sort. This crisis prompts
(3) a quest to solve the crisis. The quest leads to
(4) an encounter and interaction with someone or something that advocates conversion.
That encounter prompts (5) a commitment and
Because it is easy to talk theory but theory must be confirmed by experienced reality, we tell stories for each of these dimensions in our study Turning to Jesus.
One of the more interesting features of learning to see all conversions in these six dimensions was the discovery that patterns emerge when you begin to explore different experiences. Thus, we discovered that Jewish conversions to the Christian faith have a pattern, that evangelicals who convert to Roman Catholicism have a distinct pattern as does the pattern of Roman Catholics who become evangelical (this study was written by Hauna Ondrey in Finding Faith, Losing Faith). What surprised me the most was that stories of those who abandon the Christian faith also settle into a recognizable pattern.
The upshot of this is clear: conversion is a process. Perhaps my biggest hope for rethinking conversion is that churches will become sensitive to the various contexts of various peoples so that each person is given the opportunity to experience the grace of God in various ways.