Jesus Creed

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Church Orientations to Conversion

posted by xscot mcknight

Each local church, whether radically independent or associated with a larger denomination, institutionalizes a conversion orientation. A church does this by the way it presents the gospel, by the way it teaches Sunday School, by the way it preaches from the pulpit, by the way it shapes the programs and platforms.

As I point out in Turning to Jesus, the Church institutionalizes this process in three orientations. And we each come to faith in one of these orientations or as a result of a combination of them. I will not be able in these blogs to tell all those stories I have in the book, but the guts are here for some discussion.

Perhaps the oldest form is socialization. In the history of the Church this orientation has acquired all kinds of names — catechism and nuture being the two most prominent, but the essence of it is this: children are “reared into” the faith by their family and community of faith. This is as old as Israel’s principle of teaching kids the Shema (Deut 6:4-9) and it has proven to be an effective means of leading generation after generation into the faith. Charles Spurgeon longed for his boys to come to faith the way the sun emerges from the horizon, and I have myself seen plenty of students and known many pastors who have told me that they never had a time in their life that they didn’t believe.

A second orientation is a a more structured form of the first: I call it liturgical process but I’m not sure there isn’t a better term. At any rate, the socialization orientation here gets a more official, ecclesiastical, and liturgical/sacramental shape. Children are nurtured into the faith through a Church-directed process like infant baptism, catechism, confirmation, and the like. The difference between the socialization and liturgical process is the emphasis given to family context or to ecclesiastical context. Many examples could be given, but one thinks of folks like Saint Macrina or Gregory of Nyssa or Thomas Aquinas or many Anglican divines.

A third orientation is called personal decision, which of course is the hallmark emphasis of Evangelicalism. Here the emphasis is given to each person making a personal decision to believe in Jesus Christ. It is not that this is a complete “alternative” to either the socialization process or the liturgical process, but the emphasis here is notable.

The first two emphasize process; the third emphasizes a moment (though many today would say the moment is a moment in a bigger process).

Now a few points:

The first one is this: each orientation is nervous about the others. If you tell a socialized convert that personal decision is necessary, they get nervous; personal decision folks can’t comprehend the conversion story of those who say “I was baptized as a baby and been a Christian ever since” even if that person is as much (or more) a follower of Jesus.

Second, human beings come to faith in different ways and it is a tragedy that churches institutionalize one and only one orientation. Those who grow up in personal decision churches who actually grow into the faith pretty easily struggle with their lack of conversion story, and liturgical sorts who one day had it all “click” and start blabbing about it make others fell uncomfortable. Why not have more churches just admit that humans come to faith in different ways?

Third, there are as many gradual conversions as there are sudden ones. There are as many Peters as there are Pauls — in fact, probably more like Peter than Paul. (I often ask the question here that gets lots of folks thinking: When was Peter converted? John 1, Luke 5, Mark 8, John 21, Acts 2, or Acts 10–11?

What would our evangelism practices and discipleship programs look like if we adopted an adaptable orientation mindset?

One of my former students, Ron Martoia (who never returns my e-mails or phone calls), “institutionalized” this thinking at Westwinds — so I’ve been told (but he doesn’t answer back for me to find out if this is true). (Which, if you know him, you might tell him I’m waiting.)



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shellbell

posted July 14, 2005 at 9:14 am


This is a great discussion. I was raised in the church and thus in a sense was socialized into the faith. However, since I spent many impressionable years in the baptist church (SBC), I was also heavily influenced by the personal decision orientation. It definitely caused me distress at times, especially when my high school Sunday School teacher, who was in her late 30’s, “got saved” at a revival. (Ironically, now I’m in a church of the second orientation.) It wasn’t until college that I came to terms with the fact that not everyone has the same conversion story, and I realized this because I saw it happen on my campus.So, how would our church programs look if we validated multiple ways people come to Christ (i.e. assuming they all culminate in Christ)? Well, we can begin by pointing people to different passages of Scripture that tell the stories of conversion, allowing people to discover that faith is a journey and that conversion stories look different for different people. We would also be open to teaching more than one way to help people share their faith with others and more than one way to help people come to maturity in their faith.If we regonize the different ways people are converted, we are also less likely to be judgmental of the conversions of other Christians. If we are loving our brothers and sisters, then we are proclaiming the gospel. We are also more likely to be concerned with the fruit of conversion and walking in the Spirit when we are less concerned with an exclusive method for converting people.



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Rob

posted July 14, 2005 at 9:54 am


Great stuff Scot. You sort of put some words to thoughts I had about altar calls. I think I now understand what bothers me about churches giving auctioneer style altar calls (“do I see one hand? how about another? raise your hand to accept Jesus”) at the end of every service. They are institutionalizing only one type of conversion. I believe, as you stated, this has the effect of causing those who didn’t have this kind of experience to question their own experience. I like the analogy of Peter’s and Paul’s differing “conversion” experiences. Looking forward to reading more of this.



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Rick

posted July 14, 2005 at 2:28 pm


This is good stuff. I am an Evangelical Covenant pastor serving on the staff of a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation (No really, I am – just ask Brad!) and one of the challenges is to create ways of doing evangelism that honor and respect the Lutheran disdain for “decision theology” and their preference for emphasizing grace apart from a decision – yet there is a recognition that when a person becomes aware of the initiating God calling them to faith, there needs to be a response – yet not a response that “feels” like a “decision”.I’m enjoying your site and have linked to you on my blog (http://blog.lindholtz.net) which is primarily focused on worship resources that are both contemporary and appreciative of tradition. -Rick



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Susan

posted July 14, 2005 at 3:14 pm


This is great- we were just discussing this somewhat yesterday in class. Someone came up to me at the break and expressed apprectiation for the fact that I brought up the significance of looking at all these perspectives for value because so often one “way” is exalted far over the others as “the best (or only!)” way.At a Seminary with Baptist roots, someone such as myself (and my classmate) can still receive those quizzical and disbelieving looks when I tell them I cannot remember a time when I did not know Jesus to be my Savior and my Lord, did not pray to Him, did not attend church…etc. You can imagine how I struggled with doubts as to whether they’d believe I was “really” saved as I filled out my application for admission to the program! Thankfully, it appears at least on the admissions level, those Baptist roots have become friendly to other biological forms! : )



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Scot McKnight

posted July 14, 2005 at 3:56 pm


Shellbell and Susan,I’m glad you’ve voiced these sentiments because I find lots of folks have the same experience. You’re not alone, and I think your stories are pretty typical.Rob and Rick, praying for you in those ministries.



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Miriam

posted July 14, 2005 at 6:17 pm


What is interesting about these different Orientations is the resultant differences in the emphasis on human decision. You mentioned Rob Bell in a previous post- which reminded me to show the Nooma about his view of Rabbis/Calls/Yokes/Education to my smart wheaton-prof. friend so she could tell me what you might find wrong with it. (This is rambling- I’ll get somewhere, really.)It sparked a discussion of whether God has faith *in us* or in what he has planned/ knows to be true for us. Too bad the prof’s not posting this…I’m trying to reconstitute her take on it here. It seems to me that the emphasis on personal decision and public, pastor-induced fanfare comes back to pride and our wanting more credit than is due. On the other hand, God obviously takes our ability to decide seriously. There is something impersonal in the belief that acceptance of grace has nothing to do with us. These distinctions are all more important to me when I’m talking to friends who don’t know God. I hate “unsaved” and “unchurched”- any useful suggestions- maybe Libertarians? Gradual or instantaneous, folks want to know what their part in the deal is and why they aren’t there yet. I’ve only recently discovered your blog and am looking forward to checking out your book. Thanks for allowing comments.



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meggan

posted July 14, 2005 at 6:56 pm


I am using my wife’s username, my name is Eric. When I was a student at Regetn College, Vancouver, B.C. I had a class called Conversion and Spiritual Autobiography with Bruce Hindmarsh. One key insight from that class is that conversion to Christianity is a very historically precise process/decision. For instance it was typical for people in pagan Europe in the middle of the first millenium to convert after what is know as a “power encounter” between a Christian and the local gods, for instance. Then they would be initiated into to chuch. Just another reminder that human experience is always situated and local and not generalized and universal.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 14, 2005 at 7:31 pm


Eric,Accepting that the Church has worked itself into three separable orientations does not deny the presence of any of them — only that different folks come to faith through different processes.



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weakbutaccepted

posted July 15, 2005 at 1:53 am


Excellent. Looking forward to this.



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Matt

posted July 17, 2005 at 9:15 pm


I’m glad to know I’m not the only Baptist-type who’s found incongruity between my own story of faith and the theology of my faith home.I’ve linked a couple of brief thoughts to this post at http://www.msquaredt.com/blog/2005/07/18/mcknight-on-conversion/. Basically, I’ve been finding it increasingly important to find ways of “playing ball” with other, non Baptistic expressions in ways that honor where we both come from.Peace in Christ -::Matt



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