CONVERSION & Types With An Analysis of Organic Churches and Their Current Views on It

An Analysis of Organic Churches and Their Current Views on Conversion

By Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., Professor of Missional Leadership, Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, The Journal of Evangelism and Mission, Midwest Baptist Theological Seminary, Vol. 10, Spring 2011, pp. 13-25, downloadable here: whitesel-jounral-article-changing-views-on-conversion.

A Follow-up to a Previous Study

In 2004-2005 I visited and analyzed several dozen churches which where primarily growing with young people under the age of 35. From this sample I chose twelve churches to profile in a book published by Abingdon Press. This book chronicled my impressions of these congregations and sought to identify recurring patterns among these churches as well as transferable lessons for similar congregations.

The sample contained churches of varying attendance sizes.[i] For simplicity I primarily followed McIntosh’s size differentiations (401+ large, 201-400 medium),[ii] but added to this Schaller’s delineations of 50-100 as a small church and 100-225 as a middle-sized/awkward congregation.[iii] While creating a small degree of overlap, the following church attendance demarcations were utilized for straightforwardness: 401+ large, 225-400 medium, 100-225 awkward, less than 100 small.[iv]

In the sample two were large churches (10,000+ Mars Hill in Grandville, MI and 1,700+ St. Thomas/Philadelphia Church in Sheffield, UK), and the reminder were divided between medium congregations (355+, Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA; 350-400, Scum of the Earth in Denver, CO; 250+, Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, MN), awkward-sized churches (155+, The Bridge in Phoenix, AZ; 125+, Bluer in Minneapolis, MN) and smaller churches (30-55 the sole café in Edmonton, AB; 65+ Freeway in Baton Rouge, LA; 40-55, Church of the Apostles, Seattle, WA; 50-75, One Place, Phoenix, AZ; 25-55, Tribe of LA, Los Angeles, CA).

Organic Organizations

I chose to describe these congregations as organic in character. I appropriated the organic appellation, not because of the trendiness with which some authors apply the term today,[v] but because of an antecedent history in which organic describes a holistic, interconnected and symbiotic organization.  A brief overview of the term’s etymology with regard to organizational, and especially ecclesial, application may be helpful.

James F. Engel was one of the first to offer a holistic definition, stating that the “organic church model” has five attributes: 1) one body with one leadership, 2) equipped by God with supernatural giftings, 3) led by God through disciplined planning, 4) ministering to one another in community, 5) and ministering to the world.[vi] Howard Snyder emphasized the supernatural aspect stating that a healthy church was a “charismatic organism,” which he defined as a congregation that is empowered by God (charismatic) and where “all of its people are ministers” (organic).[vii] Alan Roxburgh, while describing the Free Churches of the Reformation states that their healthy leadership structures were due to a “recovery of an organic, lay lead church seeking to restore pre-Constantinian images of church and leadership.”[viii] And, Charles Singletary described organic church growth as “… all sorts of sub-groups, small groups and networks so vital to the assimilation, nurture and mobilization of the membership. Organic growth involves the leadership and shepherding network of a church.”[ix]

In similar vein, political theory uses the terminology of an organic intellectual to describe a leader connected to her or his hearers and gifted in explaining grand and pervasive concepts in simple terms.[x] Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who popularized the term, believed organic intellectuals were not only academicians, but playwrights, novelists, journalists and media professionals. He stressed that organic intellectuals analyze a culture, experience it, and even travel along with it to better understand it. Leaders who might be considered organic intellectuals include: Martin Luther, John Milton, John Wesley, Vladimir Lenin, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Martin Luther King Jr. among others. I have noted elsewhere that “the organic intellectual contextualizes grand truths in terminology that a modern culture can understand, so as to not obliterate the modern culture. This idea of an organic intellectual that does not emasculate a culture, but sojourns along with it to translate grand understandings to it, mirrors the missional attitude of the organic church.”[xi]

In today’s business world an organic organization has become a prevalent aim of organizational leadership. Mary Jo Hatch, a leading management thinker and scholar, is a proponent of the idea of organic organizations. She describes “four conditions” that comprise an organic organization. These conditions can provide us with a fitting summation of the characteristics motioned above. Studying hundreds of organizations Hatch sees four root metaphors that delineate organic organizations and organic leadership.[xii]

Condition 1: “Organic dependency upon its environment… An organic organization is dependent upon its environment for the resources that support life.” This means an organic organization is not a closed society, but is engaged with its environment. I will discuss shortly how this was an attribute I observed in the youthful congregations under study.

Condition 2: “Organic harmony among the parts” indicates all parts are needed and must work together seamlessly.

Condition 3: “Organic adaption to the surroundings,” stresses that organic organizations must adaption to new and changing environments, which thus expect ongoing change.

Condition 4: “Organic uniqueness from other organisms” means that different species live in different environments and respond differently.[xiii] The implication is that what works in one organic organization may not work in another, due to varying organizational contexts.

Not surprisingly organic also provides a fitting metaphor for churches because of Scriptural antecedents and validity, e.g. as 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 1, Col. 1 and Rom. 12. In 1 Corinthians. Although a thorough discussion of the nature and validity of the organic appellation is beyond (and not necessarily germane to) this present discussion, I have offered the above overview to introduce the reader to my thinking and to explain the term when it does appear.

Missional Impressions and Melodies

As a result of my research I found four broad attitudes that despite denominational affiliation and geographic location, persisted among the 12 youthful congregations I studied. I described these over-arching themes as “melodies,” using the musical metaphor because these melodies reoccurred with different cadences, in different keys and even with different personal interpretation. Still, these four melodies occurred in all 12 case studies.

For the first melody, I found that these case study churches embraced a theology that was consistent with their denominational theology. For example, Karen Ward’s church (Church of the Apostles, Seattle, WA) embraced theology (as evident in their liturgy, published statements and the worship/sermons I observed) that was consistent with their Evangelical Lutheran Church of American and Episcopal Church USA affiliations. And, I found Aaron Norwood’s theology in word and practice consistent with his Southern Baptist Church affiliation (even though part of this church meets in the very un-Baptist location of a college bar). A induction, discussed at length in my earlier work, was that these emerging churches were more the product of new aesthetic expressions than divergent theological expressions (since they did not mirror denominational methodology, but they did so in theology). An investigative article in The New York Times concurred, stating, “Many emerging churches preach the same message as their sponsoring (evangelical) churches, but use different methods.”[xiv]

The second melody I noted was that these congregations embraced a sense of honesty and openness, that they often referred to as “authenticity.” For example, their church worship expressions were more concerned about helping attendees encounter God, rather than attaining excellence and/or creating an attractional event. This authenticity was reflected in their congregational discussions in small groups (e.g. Sunday schools, etc.) and sermons where openness about faults and doubts were encouraged. One church held their weekly services in an Internet café, preferring to conduct their communal life in public. The churches seemed to value putting down their masks of perfection for the sake of honesty and growth.

A third melody I observed was that these churches worked hard to minister to people across the spectrum of the evangelistic journey, i.e. before and after the conversionary experience. Since evangelism is a process of unfolding Good News whereby a person becomes reconnected with their Creator (the missio Dei), then meeting the physical needs of a needy individual can be Good News to that individual. In a parallel fashion, helping a Christian discover their spiritual gifts can be good news to a growing Christian. Thus, both meeting physical needs pre-conversion as well as fostering spiritual formation post-conversion are both part of an unfolding Good News to spiritual travelers. Subsequently, I found these churches rejecting a false dichotomy between social ministry and spiritual discipleship. Instead they see both of these actions as part of the Good News process, and hence part of evangelism. Lewis Drummond expresses their perspective, stating “in postmodern terms, we might say that Jesus came to bring equal access and opportunity to those in substandard living conditions, to give voice and identity to those other than the dominant social elite, and to alleviate the ravages of capitalistic imperialism and colonialist economic aggression.”[xv] John Stott, writing for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism described the need to balance social ministry with spiritual ministry as “the relationship between two wings on a bird or two oars in a boat … being inseparable.”[xvi] Such a perspective was, in the minds of these youthful congregations, a reaction against their parent’s churches, who in Donald Kraybill words, had created an “upside down kingdom” uncoupling economic freedom from spiritual freedom.[xvii] Subsequently, these youthful congregations tried to minister across as much of the spiritual journey as feasible, offering intentional and robust ministry before conversion and afterwards. Figure 1 depicts the stages of evangelism that these churches typically cover (which were more palatable when called “waypoints”). These waypoints were created by merging James Engel’s Scale of Spiritual Decision[xviii] with Robert Clinton’s Phases of Leadership.[xix]

Figure 1: Waypoints of Spiritual Decision

 

Whitesel’s WAYPOINTS

16 No awareness of supreme being

15 Awareness of supreme being, no knowledge of the Good News

14 Initial awareness of the Good News

13 Awareness of the fundamentals of the Good News

12 Grasp of the implications of the Good News

11 Positive attitude towards the Good News

10 Personal problem recognition

9 Decision to act

8 Repentance and faith in Christ

7 NEW BIRTH

6 Post-decision evaluation

5 Incorporation into the Body

4 Spiritual foundations (conceptual and behavioral growth)

3 Inner-life growth (deepening communion with God)

2 Ministry emergence (spiritual gifts emerge)

1 Impact emergence (life influences others)

0 Convergence (experience, gifts and influence converge into a life of integrity and inspiration)

The final melody I observed was a linking of classic Church Growth Movement principles with the terminology and ideology of the missional church. I have described this as “missional church growth,” for these congregations often reframed Church Growth Movement principles in missional terminology. For example they emphasized classic Church Growth principles such as the importance of cultural groups/contexts, discipleship in small groups, people movements, presence-proclamation-persuasion, social-webs, planting internal-external churches-venues, and every Christian’s responsibility to participate in the missio Dei.[xx] I was even surprised how often the pastors of these churches cited the classic Church Growth Movement writers such as Donald A. McGavran, George G. Hunter III, John Eddie Gibbs, etc..

In addition to these overarching melodies, I observed 16 reoccurring patterns that expanded lists by Van Gelder[xxi] and Gibbs.[xxii] However, in this initial survey I did not specifically query the leaders, nor track patterns of conversion. Therefore, one topic which might be germane for this present discussion would be to resurvey the leaders of these churches and ask about their views on conversion. Such an exercise can give the reader insight into the thinking of these leaders of youthful churches regarding salvation and conversion. However, this article is not written to be the last word (or even the definitive first word) on the topic of youth-orientated churches and their views on conversion. Rather, this is an initial exercise (one of many I hope) that will explore emerging leaders and their thoughts about evangelism and conversion.

Varying Types of Conversion

I asked each leader the same questions about conversion and evangelism.   Because churches from varying denominational backgrounds were utilized, I tried to employ a holistic perspective of conversion, using general categories from the writings of Scot McKnight, Richard Peace, Charles Kraft and others. To compare these different kinds of conversion, the following chart is adapted from my earlier book Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Others Navigate the Journey and is used here with permission.

Figure 2: A Comparative Look at Conversion[xxiii]

Types of Conversion
Personal Decision Socialization Liturgical Acts
Customary Denominational

Context

 

Evangelicals, c e

Pentecostals c e

 

Mainline

Protestants c e

 

Roman Catholics, c e

Orthodox Church c e

Strengths Radical departure from the past. Point of conversion does not require a sordid past. Mystery and encounter with the supernatural.
Weaknesses In some studies only 10 percent of these decisions “resulted in long-term changes in personal behavior.d

Mechanical tools can replace community. e

The work of conversion can “drift from the center of one’s ecclesiastical vision.”e

Faith can become a matter of duty and obligation. e

Liturgy has to be learned, as well as how to participate in it before conversion.e

 

Adage “Conversion is                   an individual experience that can be dated exactly.” e “Belonging before believing.” e “To arouse the sleeping faith in the nominal Christian.”e
Customary participants. Raised in a secular environment. e

First generation Christiansa

Raised in a Christian home.b

Second generation Christiansa

Second generation Christiansa

 

a. Charles Kraft, “Christian Conversion As A Dynamic Process,” International Christian Broadcasters Bulletin (Colorado Springs, Colo.: International Christian Broadcasters, 19740, Second Quarter.

b. Scot McKnight, Personal Interview, June 2, 2009.

c. Scot McKnight, Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels.

d. Donald Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the new Millennium (Berkley: University of Calif. Press, 1997), 171-172.

e. Richard Peace, “Conflicting Understandings of Christian Conversion: A Missiological Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 8.

To take advantage of these categories, I asked the following questions of all church leaders from the previous study who were available and open to answer my queries.[xxiv] I will list their responses and then give my observations based upon my knowledge of the individual and their churches.

Questions on Evangelism and Conversion

Instructions: Thank you for letting me write about your congregation in Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations.[xxv] I am writing an article for a scholarly journal. For this next part of my research, it will be helpful if I can obtain from all previous interviewees their experiences and views on evangelism. Would you please answer the following questions in one paragraph or less per question (except where a number or circled item is required)? Thank you.

Question 1: Please state you name and current occupation.

Question 2: How do you define evangelism and how does evangelism take place in your congregation?

Question 3: How do you define conversion and how does conversion take place in the congregation?

Question 4: Circle all of the statements below that described what you have experienced:

  • My conversion was a experience that I can date exactly.
  • I was converted from a sordid past.
  • My conversion took place over a period of time and dating the exact date is difficult.
  • I was connected to a Christian community before I was converted.
  • My conversion occurred in conjunction with a liturgical or sacramental experience.
  • I was a nominal Christian but a worship experience awakened my sleeping faith.
  • I was raised in a non-churchgoing home.
  • I was raised in a Christian home.

Questions 5 – 8: On a Likert Scale with

1 = strongly negative,

2 = negative

3 = no opinion

4 = positive

5 = strongly positive

What are your feelings about the following terms?

Question 5: Salvation

Question 6: Born-again

Question 7: Conversion

Question 8: Sudden conversion

Question 9: Progressive conversion

Question 10: What is your denominational affiliation? If none, please designate a denomination that might be similar.

Responses:

Steve Wallace

Former pastor of Freeway, Baton Rouge, LA

Background:[xxvi] This church averaged 65+ attendees and met in the sanctuary of a Presbyterian Church in Prairieville, LA (a suburb of Baton Rouge). They employed many of the artifacts of an emerging church culture, including interactive worship stations and multi-media sermons. The church has since ended, and Steve Wallace is the associate pastor at a nearby planted church affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Question 1: Please state your name and current occupation.

Steve Wallace, Associate Pastor, River Church South (new church plant), Gonzales LA

Question 2: How do you define evangelism and how does evangelism take place in your congregation?

Defined by the terms used in the New Testament, ‘evangelism’ means ‘to share or announce the good news.’ In our young church plant, we encourage our members and regular attenders to evangelize (to share the story of Jesus) everywhere—at work, in their neighborhoods, at school and in their families. We structure our small group ministries and instructional classes, then, to assist our members to do that and do it purposefully and well. To that end, our worship services include evangelistic messages too.

Question 3:  How do you define conversion and how does conversion take place in the congregation?

As conversion is “the act of turning from sin and self toward God through Jesus Christ,” a certain sense of awareness of one’s spiritual condition is present. That level of understanding is obviously possible through preaching and teaching, but in our congregation has taken place more often in intimate settings like a small group, an Alpha class, or in conversations over coffee. In answering Questions 2 and 3, I found the New Dictionary of Theology—IVP, 1988—helpful in expressing my thoughts.

Question 4: Circle all of the statements below that described what you have experienced:

  • My conversion was an experience that I can date exactly.
  • I was connected to a Christian community before I was converted.
  • My conversion occurred in conjunction with a liturgical or sacramental experience.
  • I was raised in a Christian home.

My conversion took place during a Sunday evening worship service at the United Methodist church my family had attended since I was two. I was seven at the time.

Question 5:  Salvation = 5
Question 6:  Born-again = 5
Question 7:  Conversion = 5
Question 8:  Sudden conversion = 5
Question 9:  Progressive conversion = 5

Note from Wallace: My conversion experience is just that—my experience, and yet I do not believe it to be an all-inclusive standard for all followers of Jesus Christ. That is why I have ‘strongly positive’ feelings about each of the five terms listed.

Question 10: What is your denominational affiliation?  If none, please designate a denomination that might be similar.

Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)

Notes by Bob Whitesel: Steve Wallace notes that conversionary processes at his church seem to be the most active in small group environments and inner-personal dialogue. As a church leader, he also expects what Lois Barrett calls the “missional vocation” pattern of counting on congregants to “evangelize (to share the story of Jesus) everywhere—at work, in their neighborhoods, at school and in their families.” And, Wallace notes that church programs support congregants in this mission. He appears to have experienced a conversionary experience that is datable. And, he holds in high regard the terms associated with evangelism, including sudden conversion which he has experienced but which appears to be somewhat foreign to the congregation’s experience.

Questions for further research.

  • Does a sudden conversionary experience lead pastors to emphasize evangelism and/or conversion in their churches more so than those pastors who have experienced progressive conversion?
  • What is the exact relationship between small groups and conversion both historically (e.g. Wesleyan movement, Vineyard Churches, etc.) and in contemporary practice?

 

Aaron Norwood

Pastor of The Bridge and Rio Vista in Phoenix, AZ

Background:[xxvii] This is a church plant of 155+ with Southern Baptist affiliation that formerly met in two nightclubs/bars and also in a homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix. The church grew in the nightclubs/bars, but when it had enough money to purchase a building chose to purchase a homeless shelter (the Rio Vista Center) in downtown Phoenix. They chose this location to restore a formerly struggling ministry to the homeless. I observed Aaron stating to congregants at the nightclubs/bars that the Sunday morning brunch with service to the homeless in the Rio Vista Center was their “real” weekly service (and not the worship and preaching services in the nightclubs/bars). Norwood’s strategy was to motivate young people who might come out to the familiar environment of a bar to get involved in “real service” at a Sunday brunch for hundreds of homeless people. It is refreshing to see youthful congregations eschewing a retreat to the suburbs, and instead purchasing facilities in the inner city to grow ministry to the urban poor.

Question 1: Please state you name and current occupation.

Aaron Norwood,

Lead Pastor, the Bridge church and Commercial Real Estate Broker

Question 2: How do you define evangelism and how does evangelism take place in your congregation?

We define evangelism as sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed. this takes place as we serve our community’s needs: food, clothing, job resources, navigating government issues, pregnancy resources, Biblical teaching, and worship.

Question 3:  How do you define conversion and how does conversion take place in the congregation?

Conversion is the process of a person deciding that they want to change their life and follow Jesus. This happens slowly for some, and instantly for others.

Question 4: Circle all of the statements below that described what you have experienced:

  • My conversion took place over a period of time and dating the exact date is difficult.
  • I was raised in a Christian home.

Question 5:  Salvation = 4
Question 6:  Born-again = 2
Question 7:  Conversion = 3
Question 8:  Sudden conversion = 3
Question 9:  Progressive conversion = 3

Question 10: What is your denominational affiliation?  If none, please designate a denomination that might be similar.

Southern Baptist

Notes by Bob Whitesel: Outreach in “word and deed” is a phrase I often hear in these congregations. There is a network of parishioners and academicians that fosters this, lead by a colleague Al Tizon and called “The Word and Deed Network.” A part of the Evangelicals for Social Action their goal is “…to see every Christian congregation to be engaged actively in holistic ministry – leading people to faith in Christ, restoring community, and working for social transformation.”[xxviii] This would be a good depiction of the ministry I observed at The Bridge and their Rio Vista Center. In addition, in his responses Norwood embraces both sudden and progressive conversion though he has experienced the latter, and finds ‘salvation” a more attractive term than conversion (either sudden or progressive).

Questions for further research.

  • To what degree does denominational affiliation (e.g. SBC) influence preference for the term salvation (perhaps more self-centered) or conversion (perhaps more altruistic)?
  • To what degree does one’s belief in sudden or progressive conversion influence their ministry to the poor?

Dan Kimball

Vintage Faith Church, Santa Cruz, CA

Background:[xxix] I’ve visited this church three times, with my initial visit forming the basis for the description in an earlier book. At that time Vintage Faith Church had been planted by Santa Cruz Bible Church but was meeting in the mother church’s gymnasium. This venue better accommodated the many artistic stations, prayer grottos and mood walls than the location into which they have subsequently moved. The present location is a former Presbyterian church which seats approximately 250 and which barely accommodates the Vintage Faith congregation. With multiple worship encounters the church still runs about 375-400 in attendance. But, though the venue limits their creativity and worship expressions, I found the church on my two recent visits still embracing an innovative and experimental style of worship. Of interest to me was if these changes in venues, partnerships and their ongoing experimental competency have bearing upon Kimball’s views on evangelism. Though not addressed directly, the following responses from Kimball indicate that they might.

Question 1: Please state you name and current occupation.

Dan Kimball, staff member at Vintage Faith Church leading the teaching and mission of the church.

Question 2: How do you define evangelism and how does evangelism take place in your congregation?

Evangelism is the proclamation and explanation of the good news of Jesus – His teachings, His life, His death and resurrection and what was accomplished on the cross and how putting faith in Him is salvation. And then salvation needs definition. Bottom line, evangelism is about how Jesus has saved us and the good news of salvation that we can be forgiven, saved, go to heaven and join in His mission here on the earth etc.

Evangelism takes place all the time. But it happens in both discreet and very bold ways. Primarily it is through the lives of the people of the church who are ambassadors for Jesus and represent Him in the world. Through trust gained in relationships they share about their faith with people they know. They pray for people and it seems that through time some may be interested in knowing more. It may eventually lead to them coming to our church’s worship gatherings or small groups or events. And over time they learn more about Jesus and if the Spirit moves them they put faith in Jesus and make a decision to trust Him and follow Him.

But it is something we have to ALL the time be talking about as it is very easy to slip into our own worlds and busy lives and get consumed with church activities and our Christian friends. And the church also has to strategically be thinking about this in what we do in teaching, in events etc. IN our church instead of first investing in the sanctuary and sound systems and all when we moved into our building, we instead spent the money on opening a coffeehouse and art gallery that is open 7 days a week. It is in our building and it’s purpose is building trust in our community and evangelism (but we don’t proselytize people) it is all relational and subtle. But the coffee house is to break stereotypes of what Christians and churches are and also provide a service to the community and local college students. We don’t kick them out if they don’t buy coffee and provide a place for them to study.

Question 3:  How do you define conversion and how does conversion take place in the congregation?

I think the process leading to conversion is so varied. But I do believe there is a distinct time when the Holy Spirit regenerates and become part of a person’s life upon their faith in Jesus. Conversions in our church happen more as a process of learning and trusting that happens. But eventually whether  it is in a worship gathering when we occasionally explain the gospel (that happens often) but when we ask directly if you have never prayed to trust Jesus – and we lead them in a prayer. But it seems more often it happens when someone learns enough and is then praying on their own and makes a decision of faith and believes. And then they tell us or when we have a baptism class they then tell us their story and we learn about the decision they made.

Question 4: Circle all of the statements below that described what you have experienced:

  • My conversion took place over a period of time and dating the exact date is difficult.
  • I was raised in a non-churchgoing home.

Question 5:  Salvation = 5

Question 6:  Born-again = 4

Question 7:  Conversion = 4

Question 8:  Sudden conversion = 4

Question 9:  Progressive conversion = 4

Question 10: What is your denominational affiliation?  If none, please designate a denomination that might be similar.

We started as an independent church which was pretty much Baptist in our theology with progressive forms of methodology as we are on mission. We have partnered with an aging PCUSA (Presbyterian Church USA) church, so learning all about that now.

Notes by Bob Whitesel: It is interesting that Kimball begins his definition of evangelism on a more soteriological tone, rather than a missio Dei one (note too his response to Question 5 in relationship to Questions 6-9). This may be because of Kimball’s salvationist history in the Baptist stream. Regardless of genesis, his perspective demonstrates a strong commitment to evangelism. For example, I personally observed Kimball talking in an amicable yet straightforward manner about conversion with a college professor who attended Vintage Faith Church but by her own admission had yet experienced conversion. Kimball, along with Norwood, may be the most forthright in discussing conversion with spiritual travelers approaching the point of conversion (and both have Baptist backgrounds). Still, it seems that Kimball’s experience with the populace of the somewhat libertine community of Santa Cruz, California has expanded his appreciation for the progression that takes place before conversion. Thus, in Kimball we see a quest for equilibrium between sudden and progressive aspects of conversion. Note that even though we noted in Figure 1 a caveat with progressive conversion is that conversion can “drift from the center of one’s ecclesiastical vision,”[xxx] Kimball seems aware of this. Kimball addresses this, stating that “it is something we have to ALL the time be talking about as it is very easy to slip into our own worlds and busy lives and get consumed with church activities and our Christian friends. And the church also has to strategically be thinking about this (conversion) in what we do in teaching, in events etc (caps for emphasis by Kimball).” Therefore, Kimball may be one of the best examples of an leader who recognizes the importance of sudden conversion, but does not try to hurry up the process that leads up to it. Kimball balances his openness to the slow cycles of human maturation, with an expectation that a point-action experience will cement in the spiritual traveler’s mind their supernatural encounter.

Questions for further research.

  • Does an experimental approach to worship and/or the arts influence one’s perspective on conversion?
  • How much does an emerging leader’s theological heritage affect their view of conversion?
  • To what degree is an enthusiasm for long-term discipleship associated with the church leader’s views on progressive conversion, sudden conversion or a balance between the two?
  • To what degree does a church’s context (i.e. community culture) affect a leader’s viewpoints on progressive and/or sudden conversion?
  • To what degree does a church’s partnerships (e.g. Bible Church or PCUSA) affect a leader’s viewpoints on progressive and/or sudden conversion?

Winston Pei

the sol café, Edmonton, AB

Background:[xxxi] This congregation utilizes an Internet café as their site for a new church plant of the Christian and Missionary Alliance of Canada. With a motto, “Come for a coffee and let God feed your soul,” this congregation runs a full feature Internet café during the week while hosting worship encounters on Sunday evenings. The Internet café was leased from previous proprietors and provides a gathering place for people in the community. The church leaders are customarily the baristas and as such connect with community residents all week long and not just on Sundays. Located on Whyte Ave., an urban neighborhood in Edmonton Alberta, the congregation of the sol café attracts college students, metropolitan residents, urban artists, immigrant families and blue-collar families. The use of an Internet café for their plant also provides a degree of fiscal support to the planted church.

Question 1: Please state you name and current occupation.

Winston Pei, Graphic Design, Communications/Technology Consultant and a leader of the sol café.

Question 2: How do you define evangelism and how does evangelism take place in your congregation?

If I had to define it, and without giving it nearly the thought it needs, I would say evangelism is the act of communicating and nurturing an understanding of the Christian faith in people who do not consider themselves Christian. I think it has taken place within our group through personal relationships, through the writing and content of our website, and through the personal exploration and practice of our faith in public spaces, spaces that are less threatening to people who may otherwise have reason to ignore, resist or protest the possibilities that the Christian faith offers, spaces where people who otherwise have no overt or explicit exposure to the Christian faith might overhear or witness an active exploration of same.

Question 3: How do you define conversion and how does conversion take place in the congregation?

As above, if I had to define it, and with even less than the necessary amount of consideration required, I would say conversion is the act of choosing to pursue the Christian faith as one’s primary path for spiritual growth and development, of accepting the idea of God’s gift of redemption through the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ as a foundational premise, and taking that leap of faith as a basis for moving forward with your life. And this next statement is in no way meant to be trite or clichéd, but I believe conversion takes place in our midst simply by an act of God. Our denomination has an annual survey that our group has had great difficulty filling out in the past, in part because of questions along the lines of “how many people have been converted” etc. Our answer has tended to be “none” for all such questions. We have converted no one, ever, in my opinion. But perhaps we will one day discover that, by our existence and persistence as a church and the actions we have taken over the years, some number of people have become more open to God acting in their lives. So conversion takes place within our group miraculously? Differently for each person? If it has happened at all?

Question 4: Circle all of the statements below that described what you have experienced:

  • My conversion took place over a period of time and dating the exact date is difficult.  [Definitely]
  • I was connected to a Christian community before I was converted.  [Yes, although I don’t know that that connection was really much of a contribution to my actual conversion. May in fact have been an impediment.]
  • I was raised in a non-churchgoing home.  [ Yes and no. Depends on the particular snapshot in time.]
  • I was raised in a Christian home.  [ Yes. ]

Questions 5 to 9:

Question 5:  Salvation = 2.5

Question 6:  Born-again = 2.5

Question 7:  Conversion = 2.5

Question 8:  Sudden conversion = 2.5

Question 9:  Progressive conversion = 2.5

Note by Winton Pei: I would rank all of them between 1 and 3, depending on my mood. For statistical purposes, you can put me down for 2 on all of them. But speaking outside of that context, I don’t find any of those terms particularly useful. So really, 3 for all?

Question 10: What is your denominational affiliation?  If none, please designate a denomination that might be similar.

The sol cafe is nominally part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, but my personal “affiliation” to the Alliance is peripheral at best, antagonistic in many instances. Raised in the Baptist tradition, but really liked the last Anglican service I attended? I guess the problem is that I don’t know enough about one denomination over another to really say. And nor do I really want to when it comes right down to it. As you well know, what we do at the sol cafe is kind of like what other little pockets of people are doing in many denominations, but for me the sol cafe has been the only church for which I will comfortably claim an affiliation, and even then with some reservations, and it is unlike anything else within the denomination. So truly, I prefer to say no denominational affiliation, and none wanted, thank you.

Notes by Bob Whitesel: The relational nature of an Internet café lends itself to conversation by socialization. But, Pei also adds that this process is enhanced when lived out in publicly, noting conversion results from “the personal exploration and practice of our faith in public spaces.” The use of an Internet café that is open to everyone all week long fosters a public community of faith and not an insolated society. This also makes their gathering space less threatening to people who may have had unpleasant experiences in typical church facilities. Pei notes they use “spaces that are less threatening to people who may otherwise have reason to ignore, resist or protest the possibilities that the Christian faith offers…” On a more disquieting note, Pei observes that the progressive conversion they are experiencing (and which their denomination seems not to be measuring) tends to lead to less certainly about to whom and when conversion happens. Here we are seeing what Richard Peace describes as the work of conversion undergoing a “drift from the center of one’s ecclesiastical vision.”[xxxii] Pei experienced conversion by socialization and now he is drawn to a faith community that meets in a public place and which largely experiences progressive conversion. The relationship between personal conversionary history and one’s chosen involvement in the conversion of others begs further study. Regarding terms, Pei is equally uncomfortable with all of those offered saying, “I don’t find any of those terms particularly useful.” According to his explanation, Pei seems to find the mysterious and inexpressible move of the Holy Spirit as more useful in describing what takes place in the community. As such it is experience, and not terminology, that validates his partnership in the missio Dei. Thus, Pei appears comfortable with this community (rather than with a broader denomination) and finds his ministry through kinship.

Questions for further research.

  • To what degree and/or at what pace does the work of conversion drift from the center of one’s ecclesial vision if the community is primarily experiencing conversion by socialization?
  • What role does public acknowledgement play in conversion by socialization?
  • Are congregations that embrace a view of conversion at odds with their denominational perspective, more or less likely to distance themselves from the denominational network?

Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran

Founder and former pastor of Tribe of LA

Background:[xxxiii] This church plant began in the living room of pastor Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran, a former associate pastor at a United Church of Christ and director of the L.A. Film Studies Center. It has maintained roughly 25-55 in attendance, but this church’s use of drumming circles for worship has led to an influence that belies it’s size. Christian choruses, set to drumming music, fashioned a church that was attractive to people from the Two-thirds World (most of which is rhythmic orientated). Sunday evening gatherings began with a “love feast” (free communal meal) followed by communion administered by Ver Straten-McSparran to participants as they sat around tables. A drumming circle then gathered with participation from almost all attendees for 25 minutes of worship choruses accompanied primarily by drums. As mentioned earlier, this has led to a multi-national congregation. Ver Straten-McSparran concluded with a 25 minute sermon with questions from the audience. The unique World-beat style music and the communal experience led this church to become as a model for churches reaching out in multi-ethnic urban areas.

Question 1: Please state you name and current occupation.

Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran, director of the L.A. Film Studies Center and professor. (Note from Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran) Although I am not currently pastoring a church, I am the director of a program for Christian college students in film and do much pastoring with them.  I left my church, Tribe, not at all due to any conflict but because God clearly was leading me in a different direction.  I worked seven days a week for seven years in order to be able to serve my church and I was very exhausted.  I also felt it was time for the church to go to a new level with new leadership, and recommended the pastor, Deb Hirsch (husband is writer/speaker Alan Hirsch) who is now there.  The church has indeed taken a slightly different direction but it is healthy and good, and I am very proud of it.  It has grown.  My own children are still involved in leadership there, although my husband and I thought it best that we not attend so that they could gain their own wings.

Question 2: How do you define evangelism and how does evangelism take place in your congregation?

Evangelism is simply the sharing of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.  There are as many ways that our congregation enacts evangelism as there are people.  There is not one way.  Most, however, are not comfortable with a forthright or programmatic evangelism so there is not a planned method or group that has that as their verbal objective.  They are more comfortable to share their life with people and if it arises specifically then they share who they are.  However, a couple of the lay leaders definitely have the gift of evangelism and pursue it through relationships within our setting, context and friends in the Burning Man community.  They are well respected in the church for their gift.  I can think of a couple of others who share this in different contexts.

Question 3:  How do you define conversion and how does conversion take place in the congregation?

I have seen conversion (rather dramatic) occur through the taking of the Lord’s Supper (once) or just participation within the community and the recognition that the individual is missing something in their life and that they need Jesus and this community.  This has occurred for a wide variety of people from Burning Man people who were not at all inclined toward the gospel to intellectuals with many questions to some Muslims.  The greatest gift of this group has been to lovingly receive people who would never attend a regular church as well as misfits and to draw them in, creating a long lasting circle of love around them.  It is the most beautiful thing to see them grow strong and give back with whole hearts.  Quite a few have found healing, had their perspective of church dramatically changed, and felt called to move back into a more typical church setting.

Question 4: Circle all of the statements below that described what you have experienced:

  • My conversion was a experience that I can date exactly.
  • I was connected to a Christian community before I was converted.
  • I was raised in a Christian home.

Questions 5 to 9:

Question 5:  Salvation = 5

Question 6:  Born-again = 2

Question 7:  Conversion = 4

Question 8:  Sudden conversion = 4

Question 9:  Progressive conversion = 4

Question 10: What is your denominational affiliation?  If none, please designate a denomination that might be similar.

Ordained – National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC); present attendance – PCUSA

Notes by Bob Whitesel: Though Ver Straten-McSparran comes from a background in mainline denominationalism, her theology appears to be largely evangelical. She embraces a non-confrontational and spontaneous (i.e. in her terms not “forthright or programmatic”) evangelism. Subsequently, she observes that this youthful church embraces a more progressive experience with evangelism. Still, she notes that a couple lay leaders possess the “gift of evangelism,” with resultant fruit as well as respect within their church fellowship. Of all the emerging churches studied, Ver Straten-McSparran is the only one to note what in Figure 1 Scot McKnight and Richard Peace call conversion by “liturgical acts.”[xxxiv] It is interesting that this church has an evangelistic outreach to the libertine Burning Man celebrations in the desert. The gathering is of people who in her words, “were not at all inclined toward the gospel to intellectuals.” It was the socialization of evangelism that connected with these libertine participants, which was articulated by Ver Straten-McSparran as “creating a long lasting circle of love around them.” She notes that as a result “quite a few have …. felt called to move back into a more typical church setting.” Ver Straten-McSparran’s own conversion experience seems to be a combination of socialization (i.e. she was raised in a Christian home and connected to a Christian community before conversion) and sudden conversion (which she personally can date). Finally, when beginning this research it was the assumption of the author that emerging leaders might prefer the word “conversion” (as a turning toward a more altruistic direction) over the term “salvation” (which emphasizes the more self-centered goal of rescue from punishment). However, many of the respondents in this survey continue to prefer “salvation” over the term “conversion” (though slightly so), which begs further study.

Questions for further research.

  • To what degree does the religious mixture of a community bear on a church’s view of evangelism? Are culturally pluralistic communities more likely to embrace progressive evangelism due to a syncretistic approach in other areas of life? Or is the pluralistic milieu more likely to result in sudden conversion with a visual and vigorous break from past religious history?
  • Why does the potentially less altruistic term “salvation” continue to rank higher than the feasibly more selfless idiom “conversion?” Is this a product of being raised in a Christian milieu (e.g. a Christian home), a product of community (external or internal) preferences, or the remnants of No. America’s evangelical awakenings?

 Summation

Conclusions for each case study along with questions for further study were included earlier in this article, and thus are superfluous here. However, a few final thoughts are in order.

First, this survey was conducted over a six week period and perhaps because of time constraints some churches did not respond. The non-respondents tended to be the larger churches. Increasing response occurred as the churches were smaller in size. This may indicate a growing administrative focus, rather than a theological reflection among its leaders. Respondents are noted below in italics.

Large churches 401+

10,000+ Mars Hill in Grandville, MI – no response.

1,700+ St. Thomas/Philadelphia Church in Sheffield, UK), – no response.

Medium congregations 225-400

355+, Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA – response.

350-400, Scum of the Earth in Denver, CO – no response.

250+, Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, MN – no response.

Awkward-sized churches 100-225

155+, The Bridge in Phoenix, AZ – response

125+, Bluer in Minneapolis, MN, – no response.

Smaller churches less than 100

30-55 the sole café in Edmonton, AB, – response

65+ Freeway in Baton Rouge, LA, – response

40-55, Church of the Apostles, Seattle, WA;

50-75, One Place, Phoenix, AZ;– no response.[xxxv]

25-55, Tribe of LA, Los Angeles, CA – response

Secondly, it appears that congregations from my previous research continue to embrace conversion as a spiritual waypoint. Though many leaders had sudden conversion experiences, most found their churches experienced a more progressive conversion process. Another follow-up study in five years might throw light on whether conversion is trending downward in importance, if balance between progressive/sudden conversion is being maintained, and/or if conversion is increasingly important in these emerging congregations.

 

 

About the author: Bob Whitesel holds M.Div., D.Min. and Ph.D. degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary, where he was awarded the Donald A. McGavran Award for outstanding scholarship in Church Growth. He is the author of nine books, including the award-winning Preparing for Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change In Your Church (2008), and the series on evangelism: Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Other Navigate the Journey (2010) and Waypoint: Navigating Your Spiritual Journey (2010). His upcoming book (Nov. 2011) describes tomorrow’s leadership patterns and is titled ORGANIX: The Signs of Millennial Leadership (Abingdon Press). He serves as Professor of Missional Leadership at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University and is a sought-after speaker and consultant. http://www.wesley.indwes.edu BobWhitesel.com

 

Endnotes:

[i] For the sake of consistency, I differentiated churches by their self-reported Sunday attendance.

[ii] Gary L. McIntosh, One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1999), pp. 17 – 19.

[iii] Lyle E. Schaller, The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1980), pp. 27-35.

[iv] See the figure 1.7 comparing Schaller and McIntosh’s designations for congregational style in Bob Whitesel and Kent R. Hunter, A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church (Abingdon Press, 2000), -. 29

[v] A more popular, yet narrow and thus I to me less satisfying, definition has been tendered by Neil Cole who defines an organic church in more communal terms and as a reaction to an over-organized church. Cole says an organic organization is “not defined by a meeting … (but) when we do have meetings, we do not presume to have an agenda, but to gather, listen to God and one another” (Neil Cole, response to the question by Keith Giles, “What is your definition of Organic Church?” What is Organic Church? An Interview with Neil Cole and Frank Viola (Signal Hill, CA: Church Multiplication Resources, Sept. 20, 2010). Following this communal and reactionary track, Frank Viola states he “takes his cue from (T. Austin) Sparks” who reacted strongly against the over-organized church of his day avowing, “God’s way and law of fullness is that of organic life.… This means that everything comes from the inside. Function, order, and fruit issue from this law of life within… Organized Christianity has entirely reversed this order” Frank Viola, “Why Organic Church is Not Exactly a Movement,” Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL: January 13, 2010).

[vi] James Engel, Contemporary Christian Communication: Its Theory And Practice, (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1979), pp. 93-95.

[vii] Howard Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 157.

[viii] Alan Roxburgh, “Missional Leadership: Equipping God’s People for Mission,” Missional Church, p. 193.

[ix] Charles B. Singletary, “Organic Growth: A Critical Dimension for the Church,” Church Growth State of the Art, ed. C. Peter Wagner, with Win Arn and Elmer Towns (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1988), p. 114.

[x] Alistair Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: Toward an Intellectual Biography (London: Merlin Press, 1987).

[xi] Bob Whitesel, Inside the Organic Church : Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Abingdon Press, 2006), p. xxvi.

[xii] Mary Jo Hatch, Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic and Postmodern Perspectives (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 53-54.

[xiii] Mary Jo Hatch, Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic and Postmodern Perspectives (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 54

[xiv] John Leland, “Hip New Churches Pray to a Different Drummer,” The New York Times, February 18, 2004. Leland states, “The congregations vary in denomination, but most are from the evangelical side of Protestantism….”

[xv] Lewis A. Drummond, Reaching Generation Next: Effective Evangelism in Today’s Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 179.

[xvi] John Stott, ed., Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment (Lausanne Committee for Evangelism and the World Evangelical Fellowship, 1982), 23.

[xvii] Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978, 2003).

[xviii] James F. Engel, The Church Growth Bulletin (Fuller Institute of Church Growth, Pasadena, CA: 1973).

[xix] Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988), 30.

[xx] Examples are given in each chapter of Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006).

[xxi] Craig Van Gelder, “Understanding North America Culture,” Missional Church, p. 37.

[xxii] Eddie Gibbs, Church Next: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVaristy Press, 2000), p. 25

[xxiii] “Figure 7.1 Types of Conversion” used with permission from Bob Whitesel, Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Others Navigate the Journey (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2010), pp. 142-143.

[xxiv] These questions were not extensively vetted but were intended to foster a baseline understanding of interviewees’ perspectives on evangelism and conversion.

[xxv] Bob Whitesel, Inside the Organic Church : Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Abingdon Press, 2006).

[xxvi] “Freeway,” Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), pp. 51-75.

[xxvii] “The Bridge,” Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), pp. 31-41.

[xxviii] Welcome to the Word & Deed Network, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/page.aspx?pid=308

[xxix] “Vintage Faith Church,” Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), pp. 42-50.

[xxx] Richard Peace, “Conflicting Understandings of Christian Conversion: A Missiological Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 8

[xxxi] “the sol cafe,” Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), pp. 13-20.

[xxxii] Richard Peace, “Conflicting Understandings of Christian Conversion: A Missiological Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 8

[xxxiii] “Tribe of Los Angeles,” Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), pp. 98-107.

[xxxiv] C.f. Scot McKnight, Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels and Richard Peace, “Conflicting Understandings of Christian Conversion: A Missiological Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 8.

[xxxv] This is the only case study church from the original sample that appears to have been closed since the initial study.