28 October 2016
The theology of conversion: how the Church has lost the language
These lyrics have been sung in churches of multiple traditions up and down the UK for hundreds of years. It captures the saving work of Christ that is at the heart of the gospel. In Jesus' words: "He came to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:10).
And yet, as Gavin Wakefield in his book Conversion Today points out: "Conversion suffers bad press, with connotations for many people of compulsion in religion, colonialism, intolerance and even brainwashing." Consequently, given that one of the key tenets of evangelicalism is the belief in conversionism – the view that human beings need to be converted to follow Jesus Christ - it's important, in view of the bad press conversion has received, that we briefly assess how we understand conversion in the light of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
Conversion as a concept is central to the New Testament witness. The writers use the Greek words epistrephein (to turn back, to return to the source of the way of life) and metanoia (to think again, to change mentality, to repent) alongside other terms such as new birth (1 Peter 1:3) and new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). All of this communicated that, in differing contexts, people were experiencing the phenomenon of turning from "former attitudes and loyalties to a new allegiance to God's saving activity in Jesus Christ". It seems fair to argue that this formed the basic story line of the early Church.
In the Christian tradition, people's experience of conversion has differed. Yet conversion can still be understood to be a consistent thread throughout the history of the Church. Whether it be Augustine's 'light of confidence' flooding into his heart, the more lengthy conversion process of a calling into the monastic life, Martin Luther's sudden conversion after his own inner struggle or John Wesley's heart being strangely warmed, the hundreds of thousands who responded at Billy Graham crusades in the last century or more recently the success of courses like Alpha and Christianity Explored – the Church has consistently sought and seen people turning from their old life to new life in Christ Jesus.
In more recent times, there has been greater levels of study into the nature of conversion. James Engel created the Engel Scale as he sought to demonstrate that many people are on a process to a decision, helpfully re-orientating some of our understanding around conversion. Furthermore, in the 1990s Lewis Rambo's work Understanding Religious Conversion highlighted seven dimensions of conversion: context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment and consequences. In this work, Rambo isn't trying to take away the work of God's Spirit in bringing someone to faith in Christ – he wants to help us understand the human dimensions at work in any conversion process. Works such as these have helped to enhance approaches to evangelism in the post-Christendom context of the UK.
There has been a positive move often summed up in language such as: "We're called to make disciples not converts." This experience of the Church in recent decades has developed a growing discipleship culture and an emphasis on the importance of church communities becoming full of disciple- aking-disciples. Growing awareness of the necessity to equip Christians to be disciples in all areas of their life is incredibly positive, as evangelism continues to become a natural overflow of your relationship with Jesus in all areas of your life, rather than an added extra.
And yet, this helpful development of a growing understanding of the process of conversion and the centrality of discipleship to the life of the Church, could mean conversion gets pushed out. We can lose the language of making converts, but in Matthew 28 Jesus does command us to go and make disciples. Yet we must not lose the language and practice of seeing people making a decision to follow Jesus Christ, to take up their cross and become his disciple, converting from their old ways to new life in Christ. This decision may happen over time or in an instant. Either way, our very brief tour of how the Church has understood conversion has re-affirmed the centrality of conversion in the Christian message, and specifically within the evangelical tradition.
So what does this mean for evangelism in the UK today? While the language of conversion may be out-of-fashion, the principle of turning to Jesus Christ and away from your old life is still central to the Christian faith. The centrality of this in the witness of the New Testament and in the tradition of evangelicalism, needs to continue to inform our evangelistic practice.
As we see people decide to become disciples of Jesus, these decisions may be made in an instant or as part of a process. Yet to borrow an analogy from my old lecturer professor Tony Lane – in our world the sun takes longer to rise near the poles compared to tropical regions – yet in both cases, it is evident that the sun has risen. Why? Because you can see its effects.