Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Conversion – What is the Turning Process in Your Context?”

"You turned to God from idols" (1 Thess. 1:9). Conversion is a significant life change, either from non-belief to faith or from one major faith to another. Sociologists of religion don't use the term for a change in religious affiliation within a major religion. Church planters know that theologically conversion is the turning point in the conversion process of coming to Christ. The Holy Spirit, the internal agent, uses many external forces – primarily the good news about Jesus. It is point zero on the Engel Scale – often the most difficult step in becoming Jesus' disciple. In many cultures seekers approach Christ but stop short when they get to baptism because it signals a point of conversion from which there is no return and a step that could lead to total rejection and persecution. In Western democracies conversion is just as important but it is rarely talked about. Church planters will do well to understand
patterns of conversion and identify obstacles to it in their context.

Patterns of Conversion in Individualistic Societies

In Quebec among French Canadians a study of conversion was done among people in Evangelical churches. Although I no longer have the details of the study, I remember three conclusions:

1) They found that about 80% said the primary influence in their coming to Christ was a friend or family member who had recently come to Christ.

2) The new believer had, on average, heard the Gospel eight times in some shape or form before making a decision; and finally;

3) over fifty percent made their commitment to follow Christ in a group context after they had observed Christian community (i.e. seen the kind of group they would be part of if they converted).

Someone joked "Let's share the Gospel eight times in a hurry so this person can decide!" All jokes aside, this study shaped our evangelistic efforts. We realized we had to sow the Gospel frequently, sometimes in a group setting, and at appropriate times call for a response. We also started preparing the new believers to share their faith as early as possible.

This Quebec pattern is pretty typical of individualistic societies. In collectivistic societies, gospel penetration often hinges on the response of the family patriarch, tribal leader or other group gatekeepers. In individualistic societies relational evangelism is the most reliable gospel conduit. A relationship of trust and friendship functions like that tribal gatekeeper! "The effectiveness of any evangelistic method is in direct proportion to its personal (relational) context." The following applications are suggested to develop an effective ministry of evangelism in individualistic cultures - not only Western ones, but most democracies and cities with urban professionals on any continent.


1. We must see evangelism as a process.

We want people to come into relationship with a credible Christian; but that is just the starting point. They must come into relationship with a credible community of believers, with the Word of God and with the reality of prayer. No friendship ever saved anyone. The gospel saves but often the process goes like this:

    – Relationship to credible witness

    – Experience of change through prayer

    – Discovery of truth in the Word

    – Exposure to compelling Christian community

    - Discovery of the One behind it all - Jesus the Messiah


2.     We must establish credibility with the people we are seeking to reach. (I Corinthians 4:1)

When we try to share the gospel with someone the first two questions that come to his or her mind are: "Who is he/she?" and "Who or what does he/she represent?" Until these questions find a satisfactory answer, the person will filter out the message we are trying to share. The right to share the gospel is not earned by friendship as much as by authenticity. If the friendship is not built on authentic identity, the hearer will feel he/she has been deceived. We must establish credibility as someone who represents the Jesus' message, as well as trust as an honest, well-intentioned person. This is of the first tasks of the cross-cultural missionary upon arriving in a new culture. Here are some things that may help:

  • Demonstrating an understanding of their religion or belief system
  • Showing a sincere interest in people.
  • Praying for people's needs and asking them how God answered.
  • Quoting Jesus appropriately and accurately.
  • Introducing them to other credible believers.
  • Using methods of communication indigenous to that people group.


3.    We must learn conversion indicators of the people we are trying to reach.

When we begin to identify our main target group we need to understand conversion factors, including ages and types of people that more often turn to the Lord. The best way to do this is to question people of that group who are already Christians. These factors fall into two categories:

•     Interior: These are the factors that push people to a decision, and are usually related to felt needs. The needs that people feel do not necessarily represent their basic needs, which are related to sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). Felt needs are related to the sinful heart just as fever is related to infection. Though sin is universal and repentance is necessary to conversion, sin is felt in different ways by people of differing cultures.

•    Exterior: These are the factors that draw people to the Lord. Exterior factors of conversion are usually related to people. Most people are drawn to the Lord through relationships with other people.

In Quebec people were searching for meaning and hope. They were moving from a religion of laws and restrictions, looking for something that set them free. They wanted to know what a life as a Christian would look like and what life within a Christian faith community would be like. They valued family.


4.    We must create relationships that have value from the perspective of the local person.

Rodney Clack affirms: "By now dozens of close-up studies of conversion have been conducted. All of them confirm that social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place (Clark 2006:13)." In secular and post-modern cultures people usually come to Christ through three steps:

a.    Developing a personal relationship with authentic Christians.

b.    Seeing God work in a group situation,

c.    Seeking a personal relationship with God.

Not all relationships are equal! The relationship must have value in the eyes of the local people. One missionary in a Muslim tribal context used friendship evangelism but discovered he could not live up to the local expectations of friendship. He was spread too thin and could not practice hospitality as well as locals did. There are two basic types of relationships that serve as conduits to the gospel:

•    Valued Individual relationships tend to establish credibility and may lead to relationships with the larger group. As credibility grows with the individual, it often can he transferred to the group.

•    Attractive Group Relationships, whether small and informal or organized, provide relational bridges between the individual and the church, and allow the unbeliever to see God in a community situation.

Both types are important because people are asking themselves: "Who will I become and what kind of group will I belong to if I make this decision?"


5. We must remember that conversion is a life change in response to an encounter with Jesus

We want to present the Person before we explain the Plan! The goal of evangelism is to lead men and women into a personal relationship with God as revealed though Jesus Christ. It is not merely achieving agreement on theological maxims. It is the process of coming to know a Person (John 4:10; Acts 4:12). One of the most common errors in modern evangelism is the emphasis on the mechanics of salvation (commonly known as the Plan of Salvation) without adequate time invested in revealing the Person of Salvation. We must avoid presenting "How to know Jesus Christ" until an adequate foundation has been laid concerning "Who is Jesus Christ."


6.    We must use home grown ways of presenting the true gospel

This message must be communicated in words and thought patterns that are meaningful to the hearer. The effective church-planter learns that language is used on three levels: the language of words, the language of meaning, and the language of feeling. Most of us have been trained in the second level, the language of meaning. However, to reach many people today we must become skilled in the language of feeling. Stark (2006) affirms that throughout history few have been converted through doctrine. Doctrine fills the decision they have made with meaning and structure so that they become stable and effective disciples.

Most effective ways of presenting Jesus are developed in context. Thus we are not speaking of a "canned presentation" but rather an adaptable way of presenting Jesus. That may be by telling a personal testimony, by asking existential questions, or demonstrating care and following up words of witness. The starting point varies but the climax is Jesus Himself. In secular and postmodern contexts the slow progressive approach is better than the "rapid release." One of these is Chronological Bible Narratives – the use of Bible stories to convey the key concepts necessary to making a decision for Jesus. Other methods involve reading the Gospels and following a prepared series of evangelistic studies. Finally for visual learners there are DVDs that stick to the text of the gospel word for word and are followed by a discovery study. Whatever the approach you choose, it is imperative that your plan:

  • Listen first! Seek to understand, then to be understood. (Prov. 18:13)
  • Take into account the level of spiritual understanding and misunderstanding of your contacts, beginning where they are and providing an adequate foundation for understanding of Biblical truth.
  • Provide systematic exposure to the Word in such a way as to create the expectation that God will reveal Himself through the Bible to the person who seeks Him.
  • Be simple enough so that the approach is reproducible. We must evangelize in such a way that new converts truly believe that they can successfully employ the same methods with others.
  • Be careful of the patterns you set! During the evangelism stage, patterns are being established that may affect the believer during his entire Christian life. Use the Bible in such a manner as to convey to people that if they are willing to seek God in it, He will speak to them. Avoid providing any answer that the person can find on his/her own. Pray with them in a simple, straightforward manner.

7. We must learn from each other.

The disciples worked together and learned together. When Jesus said "I will make you fishers of men," they practiced a type of fishing that required several people to prepare the net, cast it, drag it and pull it in. Jesus was addressing them together. "Personal evangelism" is less fruitful when it is too personal. We need each other to pray, to encourage, to hold one another accountable and to help each other in special projects. Evangelism is not a program but part of who we are as believers and as a church. One of the effective contexts for teamwork is the small group or cell group because they can use both relational networks and neighborhood outreach. When we know some of the same people, we can work together to reach them, attacking obstacles with corporate prayer.

I am no sociologist of conversion but Stark's (2006) book helped me reflect on my experience and pull some resources together. The most valuable lessons I have learned come from the pain of beating my head against a wall and thinking "there must be another way!" Would you answer the following questions?

  • What is the conversion pattern in your context – including unique bridges and obstacles to the gospel?
  • Could your approach best be called: "trial and error," "dogged determination," "reflective obedience?"
  • Do you have people to discuss the patterns of conversion with? Every planter should have a learning community and a coach. If I can help you with either, please let me know.
  • Would you consider helping other by sharing one of the following?
  1. An evangelistic tool and how you found it to be effective (give the context).
  2. A segment of the population you have found to me more responsive. Please tell us how you discovered this.
  3. A question or struggle you are having right now in evangelism. We can relate!

For more resources see Contextual Evangelism Tools


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Gene is serving as Church Planting Director for ReachGlobal and has been a church planter in Quebec and a church planting coach in Latin America.