Conversion December 18, 2008

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. 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. 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: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels and Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy.

Tell me: Does your church tend to favor one of these models? Do you think conversion is a process? Or do you think there is a distinct, conscious moment of conversion for anyone who is converted?

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 (6) consequences. 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 these two books 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.

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  • the conversions in the Bible are very interesting. most seem to show a process or journey of life change. reading Acts gives a glimpse at how people from all walks of life come to the Kingdom. Paul. Ethiopian eunuch. Cornelius the Centurion. those Paul encounters. then there’s the gospels. Jesus with the Samaritan woman. thief on the cross. Zacchaeus. etc.
    what does all this tell me? there ain’t no magic formula! categorizing conversion just doesn’t work. why? people are different; people have different stories; people have different life experience. whether someone comes to Christ in a “moment” or is “nurtured” over time, a significant course of events had to lead and follow the conversion.
    i’m willing to say, conversion is ALWAYS a process…the question is: if we recognize that conversion is an ongoing process whereby individuals are refined, transformed, changed over time, how do we present the Gospel in order to reflect this reality? do we do the come to Jesus, altar calls at camp, conferences, retreats, etc? how do we give opportunities to respond while also respecting the process?

  • Kyle

    Living in a culture that is atheistic by default, I’ve found that there is a definite process and it does seem to follow your pattern outlined above. I can think of two types of crises that usually spawn conversion or at least questions about faith:
    1. Beginning in middle school and particularly in high school, atheism is the norm, the required position of teachers, and by graduation all students have read Marx and Freud. Students coming to college know all of the standard arguments against religion espoused by 20th century atheists. When they get to college they will often have a “crisis of faith” upon hearing of other religions for the first time, and seeing the faith of their professors.
    2. When villagers move into the city they have a cultural crisis that often leads to spiritual questions. Villages are either extremely atheistic (particularly when the village leadership is politically oriented) or very entrenched in ancient forms of worship. The cities in contrast are rapidly Christianizing so this often causes a cultural crisis when villagers move to the city.
    Since you have done a few sociological studies at this point and are a proponent of evangelism, what have been the main things that these studies have taught you about sharing our faith?

  • This reminds me of Tom Wright’s waking up analogy for conversion from Simply Christian. He talks about how some of us are woken suddenly and sharply by the alarm clock, whilst others wake up slowly and smoothly!
    The church I work for tends to go for both a nurture and a personal response approach, we use the Alpha course as one of our primary evangelistic tools, and we get some people who have a set point (usually on the weekend away) when they ‘convert’, whilst others will not be convinced but will continue to come to church and slowly find themselves becoming convinced.
    I have to be honest I’m not sure what you mean by a sacramental conversion so I don’t know if those also happen at our church.

  • mariam

    In terms of my conversion from atheism 2,3 are correct. Crisis followed by quest. I did encounter a couple of people offering Christ and personal salvation as a solution, which just freaked me out. Although I started attending a nearby church, there was no overt attempt to “convert” me, just offers of healing prayer and emotional support. It was my own decision to pray and read scripture nightly, even while I was an atheist, which probably facilitated the conversion process. I encountered God through scripture and prayer. The liturgy of the weekly Eucharist cemented that. Commitment was again my own decision made somewhat independently of the faith community. I kept reading and kept talking to God, whose existence I doubted, but who seemed to be speaking to me whether I believed in Him or not. At church I was invited or encouraged to take communion. I said I wasn’t baptized. I said I wasn’t sure if I believed. They said that didn’t matter and held it out to me, like someone sharing their favourite meal (which they were), convinced if I just tasted it I would want more. I said I preferred to figure things out first. They said OK and left me to it. I struggled with what I thought God wanted me to do and worked through it, without discussing it with anyone, even though I knew I would have had non-judgmental support if I had asked. Eventually I approached the priest and asked to be baptized. I asked if there were any requirements. The priest showed me the baptismal service, but said not to worry about taking it too literally. She said the only requirement was to keep my heart open to God. I suppose that my church follows a sacramental model, since they encouraged me to take part in communion. But I was doing my own thing – which was a personal conversion and they didn’t interfere with that, although I know they prayed for me, although I don’t think they prayed specifically for my conversion. They were overjoyed with my baptism because it meant I had come to the end of one particular struggle. Not having any background in the meaning of the sacraments, I didn’t really understand what taking part in the Eucharist or even baptism would accomplish, except as symbolic acts. Now I know. If I miss church several Sundays in a row, for whatever reason, I feel parched and ragged. It’s hard to explain the eucharist to those who don’t practise it. It really is like a cooling stream in a desert. Although if your heart is not open and ready, (which is the whole point of the rest of the service) I don’t know whether the sacraments would have any effect.
    So, I think all three processes were involved in my conversion – nurture (although of a very gentle, healing and non-interfering sort), sacramental, and personal. All three models were supported by my faith community and I don’t see them as being in conflict.

  • I have to say that I appreciate our church and denomination, because from my limited perspective, admittedly, the Evangelical Covenant Church is more open to all of these dynamics expressed in this post, to some significant measure.
    I think the nurturing aspect within the local church as well as being among those with whom Jesus is specially present by the Spirit- these are important. But I particularly like the point that there is an advocate to help one come to terms with their needed change, showing them the way in words, I take it here. But that all of this involves a process I think is clear, especially when most of us look back on our lives to see how they unfolded.
    I love the book, “Finding Faith, Losing Faith.” But need to get my own copy of the other book, “Turning to Jesus” and need to read all of that. Sounds interesting, and a good companion volume to the other.

  • Tony Hunt

    I am a pastor’s kid who never rebelled (I know, we are almost extinct). I never had a “conversion” experience. From as young as I am able to remember, I have “known” that I was intimate with God. I agree, there are a variety of conversion experiences.

  • Another question I might add: Is conversion necessary for salvation or can you cognitively believe what Romans 10:9 says without a true transformation of the mind?

  • Most of the christians I have been around seem to emphasize personal decision. However, this decision is sometimes the result of a continuing process of being nurtured into the faith. I have not been to many churches that emphasize conversion through an ongoing exposure to the sacraments but I am not sure that I even understand what that looks like.
    I would agree that all conversions follow some sort of process. It is interesting to think about the 6 steps listed above. I cannot remember a specific crisis before my conversion, but perhaps the crisis could just be viewed as me becoming aware that I was not good enough to earn my way into heaven apart from Christ.

  • Steve Rankin

    Perhaps you’ve read the book by James Loder, The Transforming Moment. He uses Kierkegaard, among others, as well as experiences with counseling people to reflect on conversion. It’s been awhile since I read the book, but as I recall, it supports the six steps you summarize. it’s really a good read.

  • I would agree with the other Derek in that I grew up in church and did not have a jarring conversion experience. I think this is the difficulty in appealing to the biblical witness because the conversion stories took place in a context of adults who had grown up in a different context. So, for many who have grown up in a church environment, there is not an example to pull from. My own denomination that I grew up in urged me at an early age to make a decision for Christ. I suppose for me the line becomes very blurred because there was much I did not understand about this decision other than the fear that pushed me to “stay out of hell”. So, is conversion really a biblical concept? I think the word repentance might be more accurate. This would also play into the understanding of it being a process.
    I think conversion carries that idea that were a changing from one religion to another, but I don’t think Jesus was calling us to that. He was merely calling us to follow him.
    Any thoughts?

  • dopderbeck

    Derek (#10) I was going to say something similar to what you said. Moreover, I think my understanding of salvation is growing more Reformed in some ways — I’m not sure it’s correct to say “folks convert” rather than “God calls people to himself.”

  • Dan

    Speaking of the three emphases, is this another golf bag issue? Is it wise or even possible for those of us who are committed to evangelism to make room for all three?

  • Dianne P

    The second part of this seemed odd to me. Maybe I’m just being thick here and missing the main point. Truth be told, I’ve just finished my first cup of coffee and it’s time to walk all the way to the kitchen for my second cup, so my brain maybe in a relatively low caffeine state.
    I’m an Eastern Catholic by upbringing who spent a long time attending a non-denom evangelical church – at no time did I see that as a “conversion” experience, but a matter of connecting with a church community that helped me to grow in loving God and loving neighbor at that point in my life, in that particular place. We also spent some time in a Quaker house church, but I don’t consider that a conversion experience to Quaker. Having lived on the west coast, east coast, midwest, and now AZ (yes, we’re old), we’ve found that we don’t consistently attend any particular denomination from one place to another. We attend a particular faith community/ denomination because that is the one that does it for us in whatever geographic location we find ourselves. And we’re still struggling with that here in AZ.
    Are you talking about people who were pew-sitters in one denomination and then, on attending a different denomination, have a come-to-Jesus experience? Can you really be “converted” from RC to EC? Or is it from nothing/seeker to EC? Or, though I sure don’t consider myself Reformed, as dopderbeck says, eventually responding to God’s unending call?
    To the first part of this, having grown up in the Eastern Catholic church, my experience was like Tony’s. I have no memory of not being absolutely overwhelmed by the love of God. Life was just a matter of continued growth in that love. That simple and that hard. Simple, not easy. Sacraments were a huge part of that growth in that church.
    At this time, we don’t have a “proper” church home. Along with a small group of people, we serve about 200 homeless every Sunday morning in a very informal outdoor setting – the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant, thus the nickname “taco church” – and then we all worship and take communion together. Right now, that’s our church. It is an important sacramental experience for us. Grace-filled in a powerful but inexplicable way. One of those “you had to be there” kind of things. At this point of life, I find myself seeking out a more liturgical, more sacramental experience. Maybe I’m reverting to the perceived spirituality of my youth. Or maybe I’m just weary of “clever” sermons and happy, clappy music. Or maybe I’m just getting old and cranky. It’s time for that 2nd cup of coffee.

  • Context is a fundamental part of this discussion. Our Western Christian context is dramatically different than our brothers and sisters in, for instance, the Congo. “The gospel is like a multi-faceted diamond, with different aspects that appeal to a different people in different cultures. It has depths we have not fathomed. It defies every attempt to reduce it to a neat formulation”
    Following Jesus is a process. And because truth is much bigger than our feeble ability to fully grasp it, we must remember that we are in process, our process is not absolute and must not be superimposed upon contexts outside of our understanding.

  • Scot knows my wife, Julie. Imagine if this happened the first time I introduced Julie to Scot. I say, “Scot, you don’t know Julie. You are separated from her. She longs to be your friend, but there is a wide gulf of ignorance in you regarding Julie. But, I have ‘good news,’ Scot, I know Julie. Julie is 5’8″ tall and she has blonde hair and green eyes. She is a gifted thinker and writer, a loyal wife and mother, but she is also somewhat shy in public. Would you like to know Julie, too?”
    Scot: “Oh, John, I want to know Julie, too.”
    John: “Scot, you MUST say this prayer with me. Then you can know Julie.”
    All the while Julie is standing right there. Wouldn’t I be an idiot?
    Jesus is a Person, not a product. We don’t decide to have him. We meet him and enter into a relationship or we don’t enter into a relationship.
    We meet Jesus and continue in a relationship that has the loving, transformative energy to continually convert me.

  • John W Frye,
    The weakness of that metaphor is, of course, that if Scot would like to meet or even get to know Julie he must talk to her. If we believe prayer is talking with God then a prayer is a helpful place to start in getting to know God. I’m not advocating a one time prayer as a means to salvation, only pointing out that prayer is not the weakness in and of itself.

  • After scanning through some of the comments I think that there needs to be a definition of conversion. I, being a good ol’ Baptist, see it as something that happens at a specific time. There is a moment when a person passes from death to life, from being in adam to being in Christ. It is NOT a process for a person to be in Christ. Yes, there are events that lead up to that moment and events that follow nut there is a moment nevertheless. If a person confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in their heart that God raised him from the dead they will be saved. It is that confession and belief ‘moment’ when a person is saved. Yes a person may read books or they undergo convincing but there comes a decisive time when, whether aware of it or not, they pass from death to life.
    A person may be intrigued by Christ but never acknowledge that he is the one true Lord of the world. A person needs to enter into the Kingdom of God. They enter in through Christ. This happens through repentance and belief (or pledge of allegiance) in the one true Lord and Savior that this world is ever going to know.

  • BeckyR

    We talked about this in our small house church, starting by bringing up children’s confession of faith and how credible that is. We concluded that we have steps of maturing that feel just as much as crossing over that line as the time of conversion did. It is not a re-conversion but having a big ah-ha. We decided children’s confession of faith is real, immature as per the age, but real and will grow just as we keep growing in the understanding the of applications of our faith. To succinctly answer the question – I think conversion is a one time thing, but I think there’s steps of maturation that feel as monumental as the choice of faith. At some point there needs to be an understanding of my sin and Christ covering for it and my need for Christ.

  • mick

    I believe all of these are conversion experiences and there are probably many other ways. But it made me wonder how God sees this process? Are we “in” because he already knew we were going to become in? (I’m less reformed – not that there is anything wrong with that :). Regardless of each of the ways conversion take place described above, whether it is in an instant or a process, with or without the centrality of sacraments, etc, does it still come down to a moment in time where God says “that’s it! you’re in!”, or, “close but not yet” (similar to the lawyer’s conversation with Jesus of “not being far from the KOG”), or, because of Christ you’re already in – unless you decide to be “out”. Or, God in his infinite mercy and wisdom knows the subtle turning of the inward voice of our heart that is saying “yes” to Christ, even when we may not consciously know our “in” decision. Without this referring to a question of eternal security, if our conversion is also a deeply relational process, would this not be an ongoing “yes” to promise love, fidelity and obedience to the person of Christ and not just to his saving “work” for us?
    I think I’ve been converted several ways, and in some ways, I’m still converting. I believe by God’s grace I’m “in” but am no longer sure of when that took place. Some people can remember the exact day they fell in love with their wife, most don’t remember the day she stole your heart, only that it certainly happened. As I look back I can see ups and downs in my believing in Jesus (looking back may also be a way we recognize our conversion over time) and even though Jesus has grown so big to me, I’m still learning to trust him with what I only see and know “in part”. And tho I could certainly write a solid evangelical paper on the theology of my conversion with many biblical references, I will confess it’s still a seeing “in part”.

  • BeckyR

    I would agree tha coming to Christ, coming to conversion is a process and that varies from person to person. Some just kind of non-monumental slide in, for others it’s a specific moment they can point to.
    For me it was a specific monumental moment. We have our child, raised in the church who is now calling herself an agnostic. She made a confession of faith (“Jesus in my heart”) when young and my husband and I think that was true and is still there, she’s just running away for now. But then we’re the parents and we have much invested to hope she does come back to her faith some day, that her confession of faith as a child is still there and true. She’s a wonderful daughter, proud of who she is, just this one thing about believing in Christ that hurts our hearts. Ok, God is a better parent than we and he’s got her in his hands. I need to be reminded of that.

  • John W Frye

    Good observation. I am not really trying to write a parable or anything, but to point out the awkward human intrusion we make in the salvation process of others. God wants to be known. We are witnesses. God in Jesus is a living, breathing Person, not a product or a doctrine.
    I should say, “Scot, here’s Julie. Talk to *her.*”
    Rejoiner: “But Jesus *isn’t* right here.”
    Retort: “Oh, really? What is the church, if not the continuing incarnation of Jesus the Christ?”

  • Your Name

    “Break out in a rash” is an understatement! I have found that people who grew up in a particular situation and did not find God there are prone to believing that no one can be converted in that church environment: “It didn’t happen for me; therefore, it can’t happen for you!” Having grown up in a holiness denomination, I was taught that the only way to salvation was to confess sin. In reading the book of Acts and Romans 10:9, however, I have concluded that confession of belief in Christ is the way in which people convert and it can happen in any of Scot’s categories. Confession of sin is the act of a believing Christian, not the doorway to Christian faith itself. Yet in many conservative churches, the Four Spiritual Laws trump the New Testament any day. I now work in a fundamentalist Christian setting where missionaries sent out to Europe or Latin America seek to actively “convert” people from Catholicism or Orthodoxy–the assumption being that no true conversion or relationship with God can be found in a litugical church. Over the years, I have been able to open peoples eyes to the fact that yes, Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox can be “real” Christians, too. But it’s an uphill battle fueled by the conviction that a “personal” conversion experience is the only valid experience.

  • T

    Great comments so far. Is there a moment in which we switch for the first time from not trusting Jesus to trusting Jesus enough to follow? For most of us, absolutely yes, though clearly for those who grow up trusting Jesus, there may never be a “switch.” And clearly there is a process for most of us, both before and after that switch, of learning to trust him more and learning what that will require and mean in life.
    That said, this discussion reminded me of a Dallas Willard question: Does the gospel you preach naturally lead those who accept it to [the intentional and communal process of] discipleship? “Follow me,” or, more specifically, “Learn to trust me and do as I do and as I teach” obviously calls for an immediate decision but simultaneously invites the hearer into a helpful and appropriate process towards transformation into and cooperation with a certain person. By contrast, I don’t think the invitation I most often heard in altar calls growing up, namely “Pray this prayer, saying you’re sorry and believing Jesus died for your sins and rose again so that you can go to heaven whenever you die” necessarily leads to any process after the prayer. I see how it could be presented that way, but it often was not in my circles. In fact, it was often presented in such a way that one could “receive” the gift of eternal life regardless of what is done or not done in the past or future. That’s what many mean when they talk about a ‘transactional’ gospel, that I think is at issue here. It’s a gospel that leads to a transaction, usually a prayer, often by its very terms separated from any process in the past or future. I think we evangelicals need to make our invitations and goals more about the process of learning to really trust and follow Jesus—-functionally entering and receiving God’s reign on the earth through Jesus’ leadership–and less about accepting a justified status for the afterlife through a prayer that is somehow independent of a process of becoming functionally cooperative with this leader. If people are invited into a process of learning to trust Jesus as the rightful leader of the world, we’ll probably get more out of our ‘conversions’, and become more attentive to the processes that necessarily precede and follow such a serious change of leadership.

  • eleanor

    A difficulty comes, I think, in certain churches that only accept the personal decision model.
    Case in point. I grew up in the mainline church, and like #6 and #10 did not ever have a big conversion experience. I had always felt close to the persons of the Trinity, had not strayed, and as I got older simply wanted that relationship to continue. At confirmation I gladly affirmed my commitment to Christ.
    Fast forward 30 years and I find myself in an evangelical church. There’s much to recommend this congregation. Its heart is in the right place, it has many good opportunities for ministry, the people are genuinely seeking God and doing their best to live true Christian lives. However, there is a re-baptism requirement for those who had “only” infant baptisms. This is also seen as the time when you “commit your life to Christ,” or in other words, make your personal decision public.
    I was in seminary at the time and seeking ordination. I was a known quantity, and my background, commitment to Christ and life story were well known. The pastor and I went round and round about the necessity of this requirement for me. I adamantly did not want to do it; he insisted upon it. Finally I said I would go through with the ritual if he understood that from my point of view:
    –I saw this as something I would do only in the context of Romans 15. I disagreed with it but realized I was among people who for whatever reason could not accept my commitment to Christ and the validity of the sacraments and rituals of other parts of the Church and needed to add theirs to them. For the sake of people who could not get past this, I would undergo the procedure.
    –I personally did not view this as my baptism nor as my conversion point; I felt my infant baptism was valid and that I had affirmed my loyalty to Christ at my confirmation at age 12.
    To my great surprise, he was OK with this.
    I have met many people since then with personal-decision only backgrounds. I continue to be stunned by how they consider Christians who lack personal-decision conversions not to be Christians. Just this week I had a typical conversation with a woman from this camp. She told me all about her witnessing days in college when she spent time evangelizing “Catholics and athiests.”

  • Your Name

    I think it depends on a number of factors some of which are listed in the OP. Another factor to considere is culture. Here in America Evangelicals such as Billy Graham insisted on the momentary decision/personaly relationship aspect, where as with others its different.
    If one goes to the Far East – its a different ballgame altogether – there conversion is significantly more of a process over a long period of time – the momontary conversion is exceptionally rare – in fact one can be in relationship with a person whom one thinks one is discipling for years only to hear them say they think they are starting to believe in God!
    All that said, for some conversion may be momentary or over time but keeping them going depends on consistent discipleship over the long term.

  • Michael

    My experience is that conversion happens many ways – point in time for some, process for some, and a combination for some.
    Ironically, as pastor of a smaller church, I don’t call for point-in-time “decisions” on a Sunday morning while many (most)people in my church would be of the opinion that point in time matters. SO, while we (as a church of about 175) were baptizing 6-12 adults every year, I was having people question whether I was “preaching the Gospel”. Basically, because I didn’t call people to a formula salvation, the baptism stories of life change and results were irrelevant.
    At first it was frustrating, now I just don’t care. As long as lives are still being changed, that’s what matters.
    what I do find interesting is that you seem to have discovered some patterns of conversion.

  • Liz

    I think it depends on what “gospel” people are converting to. If the gospel is “the good news is that Jesus died for your sins and you will go to heaven, instead of hell, after you die if you believe in him” then I think it is a one time event. If the gospel is more than that…”the good news is that Jesus is Lord and is calling you to follow his way” then I think it is more of a process. I personally have a problem with the word “conversion”. Like Derek already stated, it carries the idea of changing from one religion or belief system to another instead of about “learning to follow a particular way”. For me the decision to follow Christ is a daily event- sometimes hourly or even minute to minute. I guess that would mean it is a process for me.

  • Your Name

    I really think there are several different ideas floating around as to what conversion is. In my tradition ‘conversion’ is virtually the same thing as being ‘born-again’. I know there are some that disagree with the traditional idea of what it means to be born again. However, I think that Jesus meant something along the line of passiong from death to life. If we are thinking of conversion in this sense then being born again is not a process. Great men and women have struggled with these issues before us. I, nor anyone else, is more born again than they used to be. No one is more converted than they were when they first repented and believed on Christ. So the words that the Baptist tradition would generally use would be 1) call – when the spirit is drawing someone to Christ using a variety of circumstances; 2) coversion – a person finds that they belive the message of the gospel (i.e. that Jesus rose from the dead, is the true Lord of the world, and in him there is forgiveness of sins). Some may not know precisely when this happened. and; 3)Sanctification – I know that not all biblical uses of this word refer to what it is traditionally understood to mean but, nevertheless, the idea will do. When a person becomes a Christian they are indwelt by the spirit and grow in Christ. Most people will complain that this is too systematic. But that is not a good arguement. Although these ideas can never be separated and there is a good deal of mystery in salvation, these beliefs can be found in Scripture. However, one is not bound to express it precisely this way. However, if you think you can be ‘more’ born-again than you were, you are wrong.

  • Ken

    I went forward in a Bill Rice revival meeting at the age of eight. I was in a fundamentalist Baptist Church and in a family of similar beliefs. It was a significant experience for me. A wise person told me once that he thought the aspect of “decision” was the dynamic of evangelicalism. Note the Billy Graham “Hour of Decision”. I currently attend a church which, in my view, is top heavy with evangelism of a transactional decision-making sort as it’s philosophy of ministry. People don’t go forward now, though, they complete a card indicating their decision or concern. I don’t completely denigrate that because I think it is good that an opportunity to make a decision is offered. It does, however, seem shortsighted (impossible?) not to offer the sacraments in a significant way and opportunities to honor the process by probing pre-conversion questions as part of the overall ministry. There is not enough emphasis on spiritual formation and probing the nature of Christian faith. It seems that many children and people in crisis come to Jesus by definite decisions, but others must think and meditate. Since conversions are of all sorts, can we be broad in our openness to non-believers?

  • Personally, I think that sometimes conversion is an event and sometimes it is a process. I like to think of it (and I’ve explained it to others) this way. Becoming a follower of Jesus basically means entering into a relationship with him. When I think of all of the relationships I have in my life, there are some where I can point to a single event and say “there, that was the moment we really became friends.” With other people, we once were just acquaintances and are now friends, and I can’t tell you exactly where the line from one to the other was crossed. I think a relationship with Jesus is similar. Some people will be able to point to a single event and say “that is when I converted.” Others will find that they know that they didn’t used to have a relationship with Jesus and do know, but they will have a difficult time saying exactly where that transition was.

  • John Gale

    It’s nice to find some thoughtful work on evangelical matters. I basically deserted the formal identification as evangelical many years ago, partly because so much of it was so doctrinaire and propositional. Your blog on conversion and the interview with Ann Rice reminds me of some of the Myers Briggs personality categories.
    It seems most of us are sensing types, while a lot of non Catholic evangelism has a strong intellect orientation. I’ve come to admire the integration of sensing stimulus in the Catholic culture of worship and practice. An Anglican bishop once told me that when sitting with a dying person in their last hours they might take hold of his pectoral cross and hang on. In suffering some are past much thinking, but the sensual helps them to focus their heart and spirit.
    It has seemed to me that conversion occurs in different ways for different people, but that a “decision” at a point in time generally refers back to earlier experience or perceptions. It may be that the convert doesn’t see it that way until later when they reflect on what has happened in their life.
    Thank God for evangelists who ask us to decide, and for those whose advocacy for the Gospel assumes the probability that their work is only one of many factors which influence life-changing decisions.

  • I’m surprised at the amount of comments that speak of Conversion as ‘coming into a relationship’. I don’t feel like going deep into this and I don’t really feel like whipping out my bible right now; nevertheless, the gospel has to do more with the declaration of Christ’s lordship than it does entering in a ‘personal’ relationship (although it certainly does include that). It is a royal announcement. We are to enter into the kingdom. We must pass from death to life. We must be born again. I think that N.T. Wright is correct to say, “you have been saved, are being saved, you will be saved.” However, there is an objective reality to conversion. There is a time when you enter into the kingdom. You cannot just stand with one foot in this present age and another in the Kingdom of God. No, you enter into the kingdom through Christ. You confess with your mouth that he is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead. You must be born again.

  • I have personally moved between several churches over the years and, as a teen, I found myself in a church that very much favored and emphasized the necessity of a single-moment conversion. I had already come to faith in more liturgical churches – and did my best to recast my experience in instanteneous conversion language, but wasn’t sure quite what to do. I was being told that we were saved when we believed in Christ. I already believed in him – I couldn’t very well go back and “unbelieve” in order that I might come to believe again in a very definite experience. Eventually, after studying the Book of The Acts of the Apostles very closely, as well as the call stories of the Apostles, I came to the conclusion that in the Bible, different people experienced conversion differently – some more quickly, some more slowly.

  • Travis Greene

    Ah, but even the language of being born again implies a process. No one is just born. We’re conceived, develop, and are human long before we actually pop out. And then after birth, we keep growing. There may be a crisis point conversion like Paul had. There may not.

  • mariam

    34, Travis
    If we follow your analogy then we are children of the Kingdom when we are conceived of by God, and although there might be a moment when we emerge from the womb and see the light of God’s countenance, we are still his children before that birth, even as the unborn are human beings before birth. Works for me.

  • Dianne P

    mariam, Nice….

  • Mariam @ 35,
    That’s part of my point, though like all analogies it breaks down if you scrutinize it too hard. I’m not sure what conception translates to. (One’s actual birth? One’s actual conception? When one first becomes attracted to Jesus even if one isn’t fully following him?)
    More important is that even Jesus own analogy implies a process which may have a climactic moment, but even that moment is but the beginning of another process. The new birth (conversion, salvation, coming to God, whatever) is one of those. Perhaps death is another. The Resurrection, certainly. Beyond that, who can possibly say?

  • Nick Mitchell

    When I think of it it seems to me that a person is converted when they confess Christ and believe in him. That is the moment a person enters the kingdom of God. You have to come to Christ. So I think I need clarification on your idea. Before a person is born again the spirit does work on that person’s heart to bring them to Christ. But they must come to Christ. Christ himself says that they will. But they must come to him. All that to ask, “Can a person be converted before they come to Christ in repentance and belief?”

  • Nick,
    Good thoughts, though I’d push back at your use of the word moment. What if a person is raised in a community where they’ve always confessed Christ and believed in him, and can point to no time during which they didn’t? People who, as you say, had the Spirit working on their heart for a long time before they fully (intellectually) believed, who can then look back and realize they were His in a real way long before they realized it?
    I think biblically, we see a variety of conversions. Some are instantaneous like Paul’s. Others have a variety of instants spread out over time. Jesus describes one person as being “not far from the kingdom”. At what point was Peter converted? When he put down his nets to follow Jesus? When he confessed Jesus as the Christ? When Jesus told him to feed his sheep after the resurrection? Then you can look at the folks in Acts who were apparently Christian without the Holy Spirit (?) or Apollos, who knew enough to love Jesus but was lacking in understanding about some matters. The Ethiopian eunuch converts when Philip tells him about Jesus, but before that he’s obviously studying the Scriptures and searching after God. Was he not already God’s? And of course we’ve all heard stories of isolated tribes who “convert” en masse when missionaries show up, because God has been communicating with them all along through dreams and myths and prophecies.
    If we are Christian, we are converted. We have passed from death to life. We’ve woken up from sleep. We’ve been born again. We’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb. We’re being transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is all important, but I think God works in different ways for different folks. To focus on one understanding of that mysterious process is to sometimes miss what God is up to.

  • Pat

    In my experience, all conversion has to be tentative because the presentation of the nature of god in my church may change at any minute. All it takes is a change of pastors, and I may find myself being asked to worship a completely different god. So I’ve gone through repeated conversion and deconversion episodes. I suppose caring what pastors say is a sign of spiritual immaturity, and I will eventually reach the point where I am self-sufficient in my relationship with god and no longer troubled by these things.

  • Travis,
    Thanks for your response. And thanks for not trying to make me sound inferior to you. However, I am not denying that there is mystery in conversion. I myself was born into a Christian family and ‘believed’ all along. In my case, I wasn’t truly rescued until I was 17 when I realized that I wasn’t a Christian at all (with a little help of 1 John 3). My wife became a Christian when she was very young and was baptized at a young age. She has no idea when she became a Christian. With that said, the both of us know (that is, my wife and I) there was a time when we weren’t Christians and there was a time when we were Christians. Was I converted in the month of July or August? I dunno, the spirit is mysterious. What I’m getting at is there is a time when I was outside of Christ and there was a time whne I was in Christ. I can’t tell you when Christ delivered me but delivered me he did. Now this might sound harsh, but you can’t be ‘sort of’ in Christ. You can’t be ‘kind of’ in. I can’t pin point the time when people are saved but God does. That’s what is confusing me about your position. When you use the word ‘process’ it makes it sound like at one point you can be more in Christ than you were. The way I see it all Christians are in Christ. They do grow in Christ but they are not in him and more or any less. Thanks!

  • Travis Greene

    We have similar stories (me with a clear walk-down-the-aisle style decision, my wife from a more mainline background and a more gradual story). If the word “process” bugs you, throw it out, because I think we’re saying basically the same thing. “I can’t tell you when Christ delivered me but deliver me he did…I can’t pin point the time when people are saved but God does”…exactly. God knows where the line (whether it’s sharp and clear or fuzzy and gradual) between lost and found is for each person. So I let him sort it out and get on with my job, which is following him. I may not ever be more ‘in Christ’, but surely I can be more like him, which is the whole point of being in him.
    Which is why I’m glad we can have this discussion without making the other feel inferior–it doesn’t matter how right we are if we’re full of that kind of pride.

  • Nick Mitchell

    Hooray Travis,
    I think we agree!…..O the limitations of our english language! Thanks for clarifying your position. So yes, some have a Paul experience: “Wow Christ is Lord!”; others have a ‘I’ve grown up with this all my life conversion’ like my wife: “Hmmmmmm I don’t know the moment I was converted but God does… fact I have absolutely no idea when it happend”…

  • How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
    So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
    No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
    Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

  • Your Name

    I’ve often wondered if we Protestants, who tend to be conversion oriented except for those running in the most liberal circles, aren’t unduly influenced by the Englightenment and its grandchild, College Education in America. We *revere* cognition in this country and we all but lust to understand everything with our minds.
    We’ve come up with this thesis that you get a degree in your early twenties and then you are “educated.” It swarms over into the church as though you convert and then you are “there.” Most of my *real* education took place after my degree, and most of my real spirituality took place after conversion. I’m just pointing this out as I often notice how many Bible classes there are for new or young Christians and how I’ve never seen one, “For those who have been Christians for thirty years or more.” If I proposed to teach one, my church might scratch a hole in the side of its head (not due to moi–I teach college and also have a Masters now–but due to the concept).
    I get bored sometimes.

  • Elijah A.”NatureBoy” Alexander, Jr.

    It all depend on what one is being converted to. When being converted to religion, a national interest or other man made unions, it require one to become interested in what they have to offer. That usually happens over time.
    If one is converted to god, god being within ourselves (Luke 17:21), it requires one to be willing to hear from god independent of other man. It requires one to be able to complete all of their reapings and sowings in the lifetime they are living before being qualified for the “spiritual” conversion.
    In my situation it was almost instantaneous. I observed how I was reaping something I had sowed and felt I needed continue in it and find the answers to sowing and reapings. That led me to the organized church but only for 3 years.
    In less than a year I became a preacher [being raised a strict Baptist it could be expected] but didn’t preach Baptist doctrine. Usually I preached from scriptures I seldom or never heard preached which were more to me than to the people in attendance. Thusly, I felt a hypocrite telling others to “follow Jesus” and I had not taken on that way of life, so I felt the need to separate from the church after 3 years and follow the example of Yeshua (Jesus).
    In wondering north America, from Canada to Belize, I observed the other animals which led me to disbelieve in a god except within myself. It caused me to realize every man is to obtain the “dominion powers” Yeshua demonstrated so I have sought how I am to obtain them. In doing so, I realized there are 7 steps to complete the process from “new conception” to “new adulthood”.
    The steps are…
    1) conception — recognizing the law of karma at work in one’s own life,
    2) gestating — studying in some form of discipline [religion, science, math, and others],
    3) travail — recognize the need to go beyond the particular discipline,
    4) birth/babyhood — separating from job preparing to travel,
    5) childhood — wondering the earth while studying under many disciplines,
    6) adolescence — began to put the learning into a vision where one is able to explain it, and
    7) adulthood — when one has unified all of the attributes seen in man into their own parent self which qualifies them to obtain “dominion powers”.

  • Your Name

    If I am understanding the question right, your asking when is a person saved? Why not just go to the source of wisdom about this question? The Bible states that “if you will confess with your moutn the Lord Jesus Christ and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, thou wilt be saved”.The prosess of salvation is an instant thing. The process of christian growth is an everlearning,ongoing way of life. IT REQUIRES STUDY ,PRAYER, AND A WILLINGNOUS TO SEEK GOD IN HIS HOLY WORD. Finally, lest we ever forget, God’s word states that there is only one way to Him. and that is through Jesus Christ. The Way, the Truth, and the Life.

  • Conversion to anything, particularly to Christianity, requires a change of heart and mind. With Christianity, it requires a person to turn one’s life over to Him and accept Him as Lord and Savior. Like everything that is important in life, it is a choice, a choice that is eternal and given by grace…

  • Your Name

    This is amazing — I just had a long “car conversation” with my grown daughter about this very thing! As a pastor, I have the doctrinal answers and could give them to her — and I told her that. But I knew that was not what she was looking for.I also told her that my journey to belief in Jesus Christ, love of him, following him and finally claiming him Lord came much later. I told her that even now I had moments when my love of him, my desire to follow him, and my awareness that he is divine, vacillate in a lot of directions. I affirmed that while I assented to his lordship a long time ago,that it has been an on-going “yes” to him (and even sometimes a “I can’t do that that.”) She realizes the benefits of “church” — the community connection, “being in a place where you can feel loved” no matter who you are (her perspective, but she also added, if it’s the right church.
    She affirmed to me that she can easily understand a Creator God — Father. And I suggested that perhaps the Holy Spirit might be easy for her since she is creative and understands the creative spirit that moves us to new ideas and revoluationary thoughts. Yes, she understood this. But Jesus was harder. How, she asked, did I come to know him? From the stories of the Bible, I told her. I came to know him, wanted to follow him, felt his love, and proclaimed that desire because my heart was sure that this was what I needed to do. It’s a heart thing, I told her and no amount of intellectual gymnastics can make that happen. (But it’s also a necessary step.)
    Then, she said, it’s like me reading abook and becoming involved with the characters there? No,I said, much more than that.
    So, it seems that I can’t really put this “convesation” thing into words, after all describing God is describing the ineffable except for Jesus. We were silent for a while as we drove through the city traffic.
    Finally I spoke, you have to take your own journey. And I smiled to myself, because clearly she was on it. Like the love you feel for a baby — it grows slowly, surprisngly and one day you wake up and realize that you are passionately in love with this new-born thing. I think that’s what Christmas provides us.