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Emergence and Conversion

posted by xscot mcknight

One of the more interesting features of the Emerging movement (I’m not keen on calling this a “church” until we see some world-wide church structures that encompass the whole) is how it intersects with a fascinating aspect of conversion theory.

Conversion theory has concluded that people convert to the Christian faith as a result of an advocate. An advocate is anyone or anything that somehow communicates the gospel to a person at a sufficient depth to lead that person to convert. I’ve known some who have converted as a result of seeing a cross while most folks convert with an advocate who is a human being — like mom and dad, or brother and sister, best friend, pastor, youth worker, roommate, etc..

Here are some features of advocates: they must correlate with the world of the non-Christian; and their “strategy” involves one or more of the following five elements: (1) a cognitive appeal, (2) an affective appeal, (3) a pragmatic appeal, (4) a charismatic appeal, and (5) a power appeal. You might think of how your “advocate” appealed to you to believe.

Now it gets interesting: in most conversions there is an encapsulation phase, which means the person who is thinking of becoming a Christian is “sealed” away (1) physically, (2) socially, and/or (3) ideologically.

I know there is a lot of categorization here, but please bear with me because when we are done it should make sense.

Here’s where the emerging movement has got something figured out. For a conversion to take place, in most cases there will be (1) new relationships, (2) a new ritual, (3) a new rhetoric, and (4) a new role for the convert in the Church.

It can be said, without generating all that much debate, that in the vast majority of non-Christian conversions in the Evangelical movement, apart from those occuring within families of Christians, the focus is what can be called a modernistic cognitive appeal through the use of a new rhetoric. That is, classical apologetics is the most normal form of evangelism. Simplified: “you should believe and here are the reasons why.” Now it goes without saying that one who converts for these reasons becomes an educational type of Christians where truth is understood propositionally and can be proven, more or less, by appeal to reason. There is a metanarrative here and it is called Science. The major form of encapsulation will be ideological. (This may be over-simplified, but let’s begin there.) [I happen to think there is a lot more relational dimension to this, but it is not talked about enough and that is why I am simplifying.]

The Emerging movement contends that the preferred way is through a postmodernist affective/coherentist appeal through the offering of new relationships. That is, community performance of the gospel and the offering of a story that can “make better sense” of life. The major form of encapsulation is social. The cognitive dimension is more coherentist than it is scientific/inductive, etc..

Thus, to put this together: the Emerging movement sees the advocate to be a community living out the gospel and offering relationships, while what it is reacting to had too much of an advocate that was reason and logic and offering a more cognitive map to this world. I hear many of them say this, perhaps not in these terms, but still close: for the Emerging movement truth is relational while for the former it is propositional. Conversion theory helps explain some of what is going on here.

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posted July 17, 2005 at 5:02 pm

I agree! We should understand how this works if we were born into a Christian family–conversion is being brought into the Body of Christ, not assenting to certain facts.The only disagreement I have is with the Emergent insistence on being non-propositional. Everything in our minds is propositional, even emotions. Emotions have propositional content about facts in their world and our value judgements about those facts. Narratives are propositional.Perhaps this has been addressed somewhere else?

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Ted Gossard

posted July 18, 2005 at 3:14 am

“while what it is reacting to had too much of an advocate that was reason and logic and offering a more cognitive map to this world. I hear many of them say this, perhaps not in these terms, but still close: for the Emerging movement truth is relational while for the former it is propositional.”I agree with Ryan. Aren’t emergents propositioning story? And I agree and attempt to do the same. I have to say that the Spirit of God is not confined to helping God’s people see and live what is so clear to emergents. “(1) new relationships, (2) a new ritual, (3) a new rhetoric, and (4) a new role for the convert in the Church” is hardly anything new. And orthopraxis is a struggle for us all, but God is there to help us, because this is what God is all about. I work at a conservative evangelical work: RBC ministries (formerly Radio Bible Class). I can tell you that especially in the younger generation but to a real extent- more or less in the older- I see many of the same concerns especially in regard to relationship having priority over everything else (not just in word, but in practice).

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Scot McKnight

posted July 18, 2005 at 4:22 am

Ted,No one claims that those four are new to Emerging folk; indeed, they are a part of all conversions.But, I think the point is your last one: the younger generation is given more to relationships than the former generation.On propositional truth: it is not that ideas can’t be turned into propositions but that truth is (1) only partly articulated by that proposition and (2) that a genuine articulation of truth is “articulated” only in relationships. As you are aware, this is very big debate.Furthermore, I think we’ve seen that some Emergent folk have overemphasized this, and made some mistakes along the way. What they are saying is that the Bible wasn’t given so we could reduce it to timeless propositions in systematic theology that virtually lead the person away from the need to let the Bible speak. What they are also saying is that propositions contrast with story or narrative, of which the Bible has plenty.

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posted July 18, 2005 at 6:47 am

Mr.Mcknight,It is important to me as I continue to participate in conversation with you that I share my response concerning a recent post of yours.In a post a few days ago you defined your use of the terms Emergent and emerging. Am I now to assume you are taking mindful care in the express use of each of those as you defined them?I felt the post was more confusing, not to myself, as I understood what you desired to convey, but perhaps confusing to dialogue and conversation. In defining the terms Emergent, and emerging, it in a sense subltly requires those in conversation, specifically on this blog to identify with one or the other. Even if only in the reading of your thoughts.Emergent can in no way speak for what may be a movement of God, and at this point cannot possibly represent but only a segment of what is ocurring.At this point, as in any investigation, the answers one gets, will be depend on they questions ask.The sheer volume of questions being asked, at this time overwhelming and difficult to grasp.With all of that said. I appreciate your continued use of the term Emerging Movement in this your last post.Lovingly,Jean

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Scot McKnight

posted July 18, 2005 at 7:05 am

Jean,I’m sorry if the note was confusing. But, we are all trying to come to terms with what is an “emerging” thing itself.Let me put it this way: I will do my best to use “Emergent” for those officially connected to Emergent-US and Emergent-UK. Like Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Jason Clark, Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay and the like.I will use “Emerging movement” (as I said, I don’t like to call this a Church) for the wider and encompassing movement, including Emergent.So, when I use “Emergent” it is a narrowed down term referring to a specific movement.Jason Clark made this clear on his website the other day, and I must admit that I fall into the same trap of using the terms confusingly at times.I’ll try to do better.

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posted July 18, 2005 at 9:39 am

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, and respectfully, there was no need for an apology.Lovingly,Jean

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Ted Gossard

posted July 18, 2005 at 12:15 pm

thanks Scot, I follow you.Propositions, I take it, must be seen in story and not hanging on their own. I think I end up wanting to emphasize story in thinking through God’s inscripturated revelation yet holding to a kind of modest foundationalism. But my foundation is found within the story, not outside of it. And that foundation coheres with my story and other’s story one way or another (even if it means for some’s story living as those who were not in step with God- in scripture).I find this stance helpful for myself and hopefully others. I live in God’s ongoing story yet within that story base my life on God and his revelation to me. But yes, inscripturated revelation must continue to be living and from God now as it was then.

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Ted Gossard

posted July 18, 2005 at 3:48 pm

“inscripturated revelation must continue to be living and from God now as it was then.”Because inscripturated revelation IS that way.

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+ Alan

posted July 18, 2005 at 6:42 pm

Well, sounds quite a bit PRE-modern to me. Perhaps it’s both.

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