Understanding Conversion

Understanding Conversion January 31, 2013

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 and Finding Faith, Losing Faith.

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.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • J.L. Schafer

    It seems to me that “conversion” is a multi-dimensional construct. At the most basic level, it is a shifting of your orientation and identity toward Jesus Christ. It may or may not be a dramatic spiritual experience. It may or may not be accompanied by significant changes in attitudes and behaviors that are easily identified. It may or may not be accompanied by a leaving of one faith community or an entry into another. There are so many dimensions to it.

    “Does your church tend to favor one of these models?” Yes. Unfortunately. And when people are expected to follow a certain course, when the community tries to force-fit diverse conversion experiences into one type of narrative, it can be damaging.

    Isn’t one of the main themes of the New Testament the struggle, on the part of the apostles and early Christians, of the need to embrace alternative conversion narratives?

  • If we go by Kingdom models in the gospels, we see no resolution with Nichodemus in John 3. But we see him hanging around and reckoned as righteous later. We see no resolution with the Woman at the well. But she is the courier that brings many new Followers to Jesus. The praying (re)Publican near the temple goes “home justified…”
    I would say that salvation is embedded somewhere in the transformation process (like yeast in a batch of dough). The close the deal, event approach is difficult to eisegete from any NT resource.

  • Jag

    If the person undergoing conversion lived, say, in India, would they become Buddhist? If religion is geography-based, then so must conversion.

  • scotmcknight

    Jag, the six dimensions of conversion apply across religions.

  • J.L. Schafer

    I think the six dimensions listed in this post would more accurately be described as common characteristics or elements.

    When I hear “dimensions” I think of how the term is used in social and behavioral science. As in, for example, the Big Five personality dimensions. Each dimension is a scale (either a yes/no attribute or a continuous sliding scale) and each subject is located somewhere along each scale.

  • scotmcknight

    JL Schafer,

    History of the term for me. Lew Rambo’s famous book, Understanding Conversion (Yale), saw seven “stages” of conversion. He did not mean to suggest that they were an assembly line but that is the implication at times of using “stages.” So when I wrote my book on conversion I wanted to say they were overlapping in temporality but separable elements. So I called them “dimensions,” and Lew told me he liked my term.

  • J.L. Schafer

    OK. My background is statistics and quantitative behavioral science, where the term is often used interchangeably with “factor” or “trait.”

  • J.L. Schafer

    Perhaps my discomfort with the term also stems from my experiences in the church where, depending on which community you are talking about, members may assume that true conversion also entails other things that are not on the list of six.

  • JustforQuix

    The Theory still presses buttons with me re: the Evangelical “Moment of Decision”. I think there is some truth to it: There was a crisis in my life that prompted me to take a more intentional direction to faith in Christ — and looking back the experiences were infused with a sense of divine intervention — but it also was a decade’s long journey for me to warm back up to the idea of faith in Jesus after having a crisis of faith with the religion of my upbringing. Many factors came to play into that warming up process. Furthermore, it seems the process of conversion is still ongoing in me. Not just in the idea of progressing personal transformation/sanctification, but in actually trying to find my “home” within the faith. Non-d evangelicalism has had some healthy aspects but there is a restlessness that I am still seeking to solve.

  • Saul appears to have had an “instant onset,” which began a lifelong period of conversion (being changed from glory to glory…). Others, such as the disciples, made a decision to follow Jesus without any initial belief he was the Messiah. I question whether the term “conversion” is of any use at all, except as a sociological concept dealing with religious affiliation. “Saved,” perhaps, but it is a term misunderstood by most. “Redeemed,” certainly.

  • Scott Gay

    I am not going all mystical on you all, but there is an aspect of via negativa or via positiva that does not belie the six realities posited. They do relate to a church nurture and personal decision.
    Wesley has two sermons that I will use as analogies:
    “The Almost Christian” (which was his last before the university because of its reaction) lists the following process as followed- owing no man, being honest, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, in doing all with all his might, using all the means of grace, frequenting the house of God, sincere in a real desire to serve God. I didn’t do the sermon justice, but it is an ode to the positive way.
    “The Cure of Evil Speaking” is different. It takes you on a process that is a negative way. Do you know the depth of evil speaking( speaking negatively of others behind their back)? Do you notice others doing it? Where do you notice it the most? Do you do it? Can you stop? Do you want to know how to stop using the steps Jesus proposed for its cure?

    Both the via positiva and negativa are ways mystical people have described as methods to perception of the divine. It is true Christian people are suspect of it. Hey, many are suspect of divinity. Many are suspect of other’s conversion( they’ll get over it like they did long hair). People have differing views as to realization of the “Gabe” and also its “Aufgabe”.

    I am personally drawn to via negativa. It is hard to put in words. But turning off the noise of culture( in the USA- TV, radio, the water cooler gossip), your haunts from winery to even church). I think Foster has alluded to it in simplicity. It’s an open invitation to let the divine have more room to work. It is a method that you personally resign the throne in your life and let Jesus have it. I’m not the one to describe it, I should leave it up to Evelyn Underhill or the desert mothers and fathers.

  • DanO

    Alden @10, good point. I also was thinking about Saul’s “conversion.” I also wonder what Jesus talked about in John 3. While “born again” sounds like it might be a process, I wonder how Jesus would respond if Nicodemus said he was on a “trajectory of belief.” Paul uses the imagery of moving from death to life in Eph. I also wonder what the verse means that says “today is the day of salvation” (“Someone tell God to be patient, I’m getting there”).

    I guess I’m full of wonder today. The discussion ought to be interesting.

  • Dana Ames

    St Paul had a definite “moment,” but he recognized the Lord in that moment because of his context as a 1st century Jew, and all that came before that moment in his upbringing and personal history.

    Scot’s dimensions are well thought out. Sometimes there’s not a lot of time between the dimensions, and from the outside it seems like a focused conversion happens in a “moment.” But there is always context.


  • Vince

    I really found John Pipers book “Finally Alive” very good on this subject.

    I think there are many different ways people experience regeneration which could be articulated in the different experiences you mention however I think one thing is consistent, there is a point in time where one who is spiritually dead is made alive in Christ.

    This is a free link to the book… http://dwynrhh6bluza.cloudfront.net/resources/documents/5222/books_bfa.pdf?1340645611

  • Merv Olsen

    Thanks Vince (14) for that link … I have now downloaded Piper’s free book.

    Another useful Biblical study book from yesteryear about CONVERSION is “Turning to God” by William Barclay (1978)

  • Merv Olsen

    Another great study of the idea of CONVERSION is in chapter 6 of “Evangelism in the Early Church by Michael Green” (1970).

    Green has been one of the UK’s greatest evangelist/theologians of the past 50 years.

  • John Mark

    Very interesting post and comments. I was raised with the view one might call
    conversionism. In the last month I have read two biographies of John Wesley, Wood and Collins, and it was interesting to me that Wesley’s belief in ‘instantaneous’ conversion was widely challenged by his friends in the Anglican church. One might argue that Wesley went through a long process before the Aldersgate experience, as did Paul before his Damascus road experience, but Wesley saw many instances of instantaneous conversions in the book of Acts. I would agree with the comment above that there needs to be a moment of regeneration by the Holy Spirit before one can really be spoken of as a Christian.

  • Craig Wright

    What did Osama Bin Laden and the apostle Paul have in common? How did they differ?

  • Tim Amstutz

    Nearly 30 years ago I was introduced to Paul Hiebert’s analysis of conversion “theory” in which he described the common evangelical understanding of conversion as a “bounded set”. He advocated instead for a “centered set” understanding of conversion. I’ve found Hiebert’s to be very helpful in my own faith journey and have found it to be true in the various cross-cultural contexts (primarily Asian) I’ve been a part of. The “bounded set” understanding of conversion defines one’s membership in the “set” by focusing on the boundary: stepping from darkness into light, you’re either in or out, you’re either a believer or you’re not. The problem with the “bounded set” approach is that there is little attention to or interest in what happens with the believer after he’s on the inside, and as a result ongoing discipleship is either not a priority or is given only lip service. The “centered set” on the other hand is much more dynamic and membership is more difficult to define. It is a “centered set” because one’s membership in it is defined by whether they are moving towards or away from the center — Jesus. The “centered set” understanding of conversion is clearly defined as a process. But it is much more than a process of moving from point A to point B, as implied in the understanding of conversion being discussed here. The “centered set” approach takes on a much fuller, richer understanding of conversion not as a process in itself, but rather as a small part of a broader discipleship movement or process of drawing into closer relationship to (or away from) Jesus. That is a life-long, never ending process. … Now, if I could just track down that old Hiebert article… It was life-transforming for me. Anyone have it?

  • scotmcknight
  • EricW

    The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, though not strictly focused on Christianity, has long been considered a classic in the field:

  • So what sort of conversion experience will it be when Israel as a nation will finally. “Mourn for Him whom they peirced?” (Zech.12:10 cf John 19:37. Rev.!:7) It will be the result of God pouring out His Spirit “upon the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The Spirit of Grace and of supplications.”
    This is further explained in Ezekiel 36. God there says: “I will take you form among the nationos. And gather you out of all countries. And will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you and uou shall be clean from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” (vv24-28)
    We see this explained as to be fulfilld for individuals as now in this present age by means of the same process of new birth which is yet to happenm to Israel. (See John 3:3,5.)
    The Lord Jesus also spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit as convivting of sin and ‘testify’ of Him. (Jn15:26. 16:8)
    So whatever the Psychological or Sociological phenomena experienced they are but epi-phenomena. The real work is in the soul and in the spirit of the individual. There may be changes of mind where someone tries a different religion bu real conversion is by God when a person is ready for it. As some would have it there is no necessity for wild ecstatic carryings on. The real move is from death to life, (Jn.5:24) not a change of meeting place.

  • cleat

    i found the 6 dimensions to conversion very interesting and exactly what i experienced with the exception turning my life over to Jesus. i was a drunkard and a drug abuser and was led thru this process as i became a member of AA. i was unable to be a sober person at any time, even as i attended church, taught sunday school and became a deacon, none of which i did very well. but today i have a strong belief in God and i pray to do his will, which for me is love God,and love my neighbor as i love myself. this is working for me, i have peace and contentment in my life like i have never known and i haven’t attended a church in a very long time. i do sometimes hope for a religious experience to go along with the spiritual experience i am having now.

  • Robert

    Greetings Scot,

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts here-if I’m not mistaken, in “Turning to Jesus” you suggest that the best available popular study of this topic within the bounds of the New Testament is Ronald D. Witherup’s “Conversion in the New Testament”-would you still offer that particular volume in this regard, or has another replaced it in your opinion?



  • Robert

    Greetings Scot,

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts here-if I’m not
    mistaken, in “Turning to Jesus” you suggest that the best available
    popular study of this topic within the bounds of the New Testament is Ronald D.
    Witherup’s “Conversion in the New Testament”-would you still offer
    that particular volume in this regard, or has another replaced it in your