CONVERSION & How and When Does Conversion Occur?

by Bob Whitesel D.Min, Ph.D., excerpted from Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Others Navigate the Journey (2010), pp. 138-139.

Does conversion occur in a flash, with miraculous transformations and heavenly encounters? Does conversion take place over time? Or perhaps conversion is a stumbling process, where the conversionary experience takes place in what Richard Peace calls “fits and starts.”[i] Richard Peace, Scot McKnight and others have looked at the New Testament record and conclude that the answer is “all of the above.”[ii] Let us look at three basic categories.

Sudden Conversion. Sometimes conversion takes place “in a flash … a sudden point-in-time transformation based on an encounter with Jesus.”[iii] This is the experience of Saul/Paul in Acts 9, and has became the standard way the evangelical church looks at conversion.[iv] At the altar sudden and dramatic responses are often expected, door-to-door visits lead to a “prayer of commitment,” and mass rallies end with an appeal to come forward for conversion.[v] While this may be required to facilitate a person on the verge of a sudden conversionary experience, not all conversions happen in this manner. Psychologist Lewis Rambo, in an exhaustive look at religious conversion, concludes that “for the most part it (religious conversion) takes place over a period of time.”[vi] Thus, the evangelical church may be limiting the number of wayfarers she can help by focusing too exclusively on sudden conversion.

Progressive Conversion.[vii] A closer look at the Gospel of Mark reveals that Mark was describing a different, more gradual paradigm of conversion. As Peace notes:

“What Mark sought to communicate in his Gospel was the process by which these twelve men gradually turned, over time, from their culturally derived understanding of Jesus as a great teacher to the amazing discovery that he was actually the Messiah who was the Son of God. In showing how the Twelve turned to Jesus, step-by-step, Mark was inviting his readers to undergo the same journey of conversion.”[viii]

Peace concludes that “what happened to Paul, and what happened to the Twelve was identical in terms of theological understanding, though quite different experientially.”[ix]

Scot McKnight describes how progressive conversion can take place in churches that practice infant baptism. McKnight states, “for many Christians conversion is a process of socialization,”[x] meaning that nurture is confirmed later by personal affirmation. For example, an infant baptism or an infant dedication can be seen as a public affirmation that the church community and parents will nurture that child (i.e. via spiritual socialization). After growing up in this environment of spiritual socialization and religious community, the grown child will be expected to ratify this effort via further instruction (i.e. catechism) and confirmation.

Liturgical Acts and Conversion. McKnight also notes that in some liturgical traditions, such as the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, while conversion is experienced, the sacraments are more involved. Thus, baptism, the Eucharist and “official rites of passage” are where conversionary experiences often take place for “liturgical converts.”[xi] There is nothing to preclude that God can use such spiritual rites as touchstone experiences where metanoia (repentance) is combined with pistis (faith) in order to bring about epistophe (conversion).

[i] Charles Kraft, Christian Conversion As A Dynamic Process,” International Christian Broadcasters Bulletin, [Colorado Springs, Colo.: International Christian Broadcasters, 1974], Second Quarter; Scot McKnight, Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels; Richard Peace, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve, 6; Peace, “Conflicting Understandings of Christian Conversion;” Lewis R. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993).

[ii] Scot McKnight, Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels.

[iii] Richard Peace, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve, 6.

[iv] Peace, “Conflicting Understandings of Christian Conversion,” 8-9.

[v] Donald Miller’s analysis of the results of crusade evangelism in the Harvest Crusades with evangelist Greg Laurie discovered that only about 10 percent of the decisions for Christ resulted in long-term changes in personal behavior (Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the new Millennium, Berkley: University of Calif. Press, 1997), 171-172. However, Sterling Huston’s earlier research on the Billy Graham Crusades suggested the results were six times this (Sterling W. Huston, Crusade Evangelism and the Local Church [Minneapolis, Minn.: World Wide Publishing, 1984]). Whether these discrepancies were the result of tactics, cultures, samples or eras remains to be researched. The answer may lie somewhere in between. The ambiguity of these results begs further analysis by researchers.

[vi] Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, 165.

[vii] Charles Kraft introduced terminology to distinguish the different types of people that experience sudden conversion or progressive conversion. On the on hand, Kraft saw people who undergo radical and sudden conversion as usually “first generation Christians” who previously had only been moderately influenced by Christian principles. On the other hand, Kraft saw “second-generation Christians” as those who were raised in Christian homes and in which “there may be little or no behavioral change evident as a result of the conscious decision to personally affirm one’s commitment to the Christian community in which one has been practicing since birth” (Charles Kraft, Christian Conversion As A Dynamic Process,” International Christian Broadcasters Bulletin, 8.) While the terms “first” and “second generation Christians” have been widely used, these terms cause some problems. First, Paul’s conversion was certainly radical and sudden (Acts 9), yet he had been practicing a devout lifestyle (Acts 23:6), so in Kraft’s paradigm he should have had a more progressive experience. In addition, McKnight’s story does not fit with Kraft’s paradigm, for in the interview that concludes this chapter McKnight states that he underwent a radical behavioral change in a progressive sequence. Thus, the value of Kraft’s insights may be that there are numerous ways that conversion is encountered and that whether a person is a first- or second-generation Christian has some, though limited, affect. Instead, the emphasis should be upon the fluid role of the Holy Spirit in individualizing conversion to each traveler, for as John 3:7 states, “So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God” (The Message).

[viii] Richard Peace, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve, 4.

[ix] Ibid., 10. Some may argue that progressive conversion as described in Mark was necessitated because the Holy spirit had not yet been given at the Day of Pentecost. While this is a valid critique, Lewis Rambo’s research suggesting that most conversion is progressive (Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, 165) may indicate that both examples are valid.

[x] Scot McKnight, Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels, 5.

[xi] Ibid., 7.

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MEASUREMENT & The Goal of the Great Commission: To Make Disciples

x-in-organix“Chapter 8: MEASURE” is excerpted with permission from ORGANIX: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011), pp. 139-156 (copyright by Bob Whitesel).

Let’s break through to the real reasons for growth or non-growth… Let’s put diagnostic tools into the hands of pastors, people … so they will see, clearly and scientifically the real situation. – Donald McGavran, Fuller Seminary Dean Emeritus[i]

Modern Leadership Millennial Leadership
Measure 1. Measure a church’s growth in conversion & attendance. 1. Measure a church’s growth in maturity.
2. Measure a church’s growth in unity.
3. Measure a church’s growth in favor among non-churchgoers.

When Things Add Up

Jerry was preparing to hire two staff members. And, though he looked forward to adding new staff at First Church, he always felt uncomfortable with these interviews. Thus, he was taken back when he heard the sounds of merriment and laughter coming from the waiting room. “This is some way to start an interview,” Jerry thought as he opened the door.

In the waiting room Jerry found an older gentleman, a thirty-ish young man and a middle-aged woman laughing, conversing and chatting with such excitement that he could scarcely interject a word. Finally, Jerry blurted out, “Who is here for the job interview for Pastor to Senior Adults?” to which the young man and the older gentleman both raised their hands. “Well who is here for the position of Young Adults Pastor?” to which all three raised their hands. Spontaneously, they all broke into laughter again. “You see,” said Joan. “We’ve known each other for years, but we had no idea we were applying for the same two jobs. I haven’t seen Gordon and Joel for years, and I guess we just got carried away by the reunion.”

To Jerry there was something comforting in their camaraderie. “Well, we can start this interview together and then break out separately,” Jerry suggested, which they all thought was a good idea. Sitting down in Jerry’s office, he began to read their résumés. “Joan, it says here you pastored at Aldersgate Church. I pastored there years ago.” “I followed you, I think,” came Joan’s reply. “Aldersgate, that was a hard nut to crack,” continued Jerry. “But eventually, when they let me start counting spiritual progress and stop tracking attendance so closely we began to grow.” “What do you mean?” interjected Joel, who had always been a bit impolite when his interest was pricked. “You see,” Jerry continued, “after a few years at Aldersgate Church things weren’t adding up. Positive things were happening but it wasn’t reflected in our attendance numbers. The congregants were more unified than they’d been in a decade. And, a growing ministry to the Hispanic community had been positive, with a nearby Hispanic church growing because of their generosity. I thought to myself, ‘there’s got to be a better way to measure a church’s growth.’ One night I sat down at my computer and sent an e-mail to a young pastor friend in Atlanta. I described Aldersgate’s situation and waited for an e-mail reply. Before I turned in for the night, I found this reply from Aaron: ‘Before you go to bed tonight read Acts 2:42-47. I’ll call you in the morning’.”

For the next hour Jerry recounted how Aaron’s suggestion had led him to measure a church’s health by spiritual metrics, and not attendance numbers. Jerry had inherited a badly divided church at Aldersgate. But, his hard work had brought about an improvement in unity. Jerry recalled, “One lady said, ‘we’re much more united than we were before Jerry came. If that is all we got out of his leadership … well maybe that’s enough’.” To track the growing unity Jerry would regularly ask people if they sensed the church was more or less unified than last year. Jerry also tracked the number of congregants in small groups such as Sunday School classes, Bible-study groups and even committees. “I wanted to see if people were growing in their devotion to Bible-study, fellowship, meals together and prayer gatherings, as it says in Acts 2:42. These things seemed more important to measure than how many I could get to show up on Sunday morning.” As Jerry continued Joan, Gordon and Joel peppered him with questions and impressions. And, before long all had lost track of the time. Finally, a knock at the door interrupted their lively discussion.

“I’m leaving now, it’s the end of the work day,” came the voice of Jerry’s assistant. “Do you want me to schedule more interviews next week?” Suddenly Joan, Gordon and Joel were brought back to reality. There were three of them, and only two jobs. “No, don’t schedule any more for next week. I think I’ve found our staff members.” With that the assistant departed, but for Joan, Gordon and Joel anxiety took his place. Neither wanted to take the other’s position, but all relished the idea of working with a creative pastor like Jerry. After some uncomfortable minutes of silence, Jerry spoke again. “I’ve made my decision, if the church board agrees. I think Joel would make an excellent Young Adult Pastor.” Gordon and Joan both smiled, and Joan winked at Joel. After all, Joan and Gordon had only suggested themselves for the job because of what they had learned through Joel’s friendship. “And for the Senior Adult Pastor I will suggest Gordon to the board,” Jerry continued. Now elation was tempered. Both Joel and Gordon felt that Joan had been their pastor, and she had been in the ministry longer. Spontaneously they hugged and tears of joy and sorrow began to flow down Gordon’s face. After a minute they composed themselves and congratulated the two men. “I don’t know what you are getting all weepy about,” came Jerry’s reply after an awkward silence. “I don’t know where we’ll find the money, but I think we should create a new position of Pastor to Adults for Joan. I’ve needed help for some time, and I think your experiences and your spirits are right for this church. Welcome home.”

And with that four circular routes reconnected and resulted in fruitful years of ministry. Here at First Church lessons learned in so many diverse congregations and locales had come together to spread ever increasingly the good news of God’s mission.

X is for “Measurement”

This chapter will discuss measurement. Yet, not just any kind of measurement, but ways to measure spiritual growth and its relationship to effective leadership. However, when the words spiritual and measurement are linked together, church leaders often cringe. Such phrases give the impression of either excessive scrutiny or over simplification. Thus, let’s begin with a short investigation into the rationale for measuring spiritual growth.

Is Measurement Spiritual?

The Scriptures are replete with examples of appraisal and assessment, especially when describing how spiritual seekers mature along their spiritual journey. The numberings in Numbers 1:2 and 26:2 reminded a Jewish nation that a lack of pre-exodus faith had resulted in many of them forfeiting the blessings of the promised land. And Luke’s numberings in Acts 1:15, 2:41 and 4:4 reminded the Christian church that even amid persecution, the Christian community matured and spread from the imperial backwaters of Jerusalem to the Roman capital.

Still, some argue against counting, claiming that David was punished for ordering a census of Israel in 1 Chron. 21:1-30. But, a closer look reveals that David was punished by God because in the face of an overwhelming opponent, David sought to count his men to bolster his faith rather than trust in God’s assistance. David’s err was not his counting, but because he counted for inappropriate reasons. And yet, this story of David’s inappropriate counting can be a warning for all who would count today. If you are counting because you need to bolster your faith, then your err is the same as David’s. Measurement should not be a substitution for faith, but an indication of God’s moving among his people.

Let’s look at how modern leadership and millennial leadership differ in their approaches to measurement. This comparison can help tomorrow’s leaders see what should be counted and what should not.

A Peril of Modern Leadership Regarding: – Measurement

Modern Leadership Millennial Leadership
Measure 1. Measure a church’s growth in conversion & attendance. 1. Measure a church’s growth in maturity.
2. Measure a church’s growth in unity.
3. Measure a church’s growth in favor among non-churchgoers.

Modern Miscue 1. Grow a church’s growth in conversion and attendance.

Just one modern miscue will be investigated in this chapter, because it contrasts significantly with three more organic measurements. The modern miscue is to put too much reliance in measuring conversion and attendance as an indicator of leadership effectiveness.

1.a. Counting Conversion. First let me say that conversion is a critically important experience for every spiritual traveler.[ii] Let’s define what we are talking about using an accepted definition by psychologist and philosopher William James:

(conversion is) “…the process, gradual or sudden, by which the self hitherto divided and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy becomes united and consciously right, superior and happy in consequence to its firmer hold upon religions realities.”[iii]

Such conversion is an important response to God’s mission (the missio Dei) for it describes a second birth where a person begins a new life reunited with her or his heavenly Father. The Bible states, “What we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life begins! Look at it!” (2 Cor. 5:17, Msg.).

Such changes are countable, but there are two caveats to counting conversion.

  • Conversion can happen gradually or suddenly, thus counting is difficult. A sudden conversion to Christianity is easily noted, while a more gradual conversionary experience is harder to count. Let’s look at how the Bible describes both types of conversion and therefore how effectively counting all conversions becomes difficult.
    • Sudden Conversion. Today when people think of conversion they usually think of a sudden conversion like that of Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19). Many people, including this author, have experienced conversion in this abrupt and unmistakable way.
    • Progressive Conversion. But, if we look at how most of Jesus’ disciples were converted, we see a more gradual progression. Fuller Seminary’s Richard Peace emphasizes that:

“What Mark sought to communicate in his Gospel was the process by which these twelve men gradually turned, over time, from their culturally derived understanding of Jesus as a great teacher to the amazing discovery that he was actually the Messiah who was the Son of God.”[iv]

Scot McKnight adds that “for many Christians conversion is a process of socialization,”[v] meaning that it is in the company and companionship of other Christians that many people gradually convert to Christ.

  • Counting conversion is difficult because it is a supernatural work of God’s Spirit, occurring on God’s timetable. Conversion involves a God who declares, “My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” ( 55:9). Thus, as Jesus pointed out, trying to tally up conversions is like trying to count the wind:

“So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God” (John 3:8, Msg.).

And when Luke describes the growth of the early church, he stresses God’s involvement, writing, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The scriptural emphasis is that being saved from the penalty of one’s sin happens when the Holy Spirit and a human’s free will intersect. Subsequently, counting conversations is not a good indicator of leadership, for it happens at different paces and as the result of a divine intersection.[vi]

1.b Counting attendance. Perhaps because conversion is such an inscrutable intersection, counting church attendance has become the common alternative. Yet attendance at an event, worship celebration, etc. can be artificially skewed by many factors. Figure 8.1 includes just a few temporary factors that can artificially skew attendance growth, making it an inconsistent measurement.

Figure 8.1 Temporary Types of Attendance Growth

Temporary Types of Attendance Growth
Forces affecting

temporary attendance growth:

Actions that can

create temporary growth:

 

Curiosity:

·       New facility is built

·       New pastor is hired

·       New program initiated

 

 

 

Entertainment:

 

·       Special musical guest(s)

·       Special speaker(s)

·       Church becomes the “it” church, meaning it is inordinately popular and thus people want to associate with it.[vii]

 

 

Population changes:

 

 

·       Growing neighborhood surrounding the church

·       Church attracts an emerging culture (ethnic, age group, etc.) from the neighborhood.

In the examples above, temporary and artificial reasons, not leadership, may be driving attendance growth.

Therefore, if modern ways of measuring leadership by counting conversion and attendance are difficult to decipher at best, perhaps Luke has given hints of better indicators. Let’s look at the verses preceding Acts 2:47 and see if more relevant measurement tools emerge.

3 Attitudes of Millennial Leadership Regarding: – Measurement

Modern Leadership Millennial Leadership
Measure 1. Measure a church’s growth in conversion & attendance. 1. Measure a church’s growth in maturity.
2. Measure a church’s growth in unity.
3. Measure a church’s growth in favor among non-churchgoers.

 Millennial Attitude 1. Measure a church’s growth in maturity.

In Acts 2:42-47 Luke describes Jerusalem’s reaction to Peter’s first sermon.[viii] A fresh Spirit-infused community has come into being, and thus measuring it (as Luke always likes to do) requires new metrics.[ix] In Acts 2:42 Luke writes that as a result of Peter’s sermon,

“They devoted themselves….

  • to the apostles’ teaching
  • and to fellowship,
  • to the breaking of bread
  • and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

Let’s start with the word “devoted,” which comes from two Greek words: pros- meaning “a goal striven toward”[x] and karterountes meaning “steadfast, to hold out, to endure.”[xi] The New International Version translates this “devoted,” but the New American Standard Bible translates it more accurately as “continuing steadfastly.” A compromise might be to say that they “steadfastly strove for the goals of …”

The subsequent phrases indicate four goals of this steadfast striving: learning, fellowship, communal dinners and prayer. What a refreshing metric. Luke is not measuring bodies, but hunger for knowledge, unity, community and prayer. In the new millennium measurement is not about how many warm bodies show up at an event, but how much committed community emerges.

Growth in maturity is one way to label this growth. But, we shall see shortly that growth in maturity is not easily measured. Yet, if we calculate it in the same way year after year (for instance count the number of people involved in Bible studies and prayer groups) we can catch a glimpse of Luke’s intent: to measure how God grows within and through his followers. Before we look at tools that can measure growth in maturity, let’s investigate three more measurements Luke describes in Acts 2:42-47.

Millennial Attitude 2. Measure a church’s growth in unity.

Acts 2:44-45 describes a growing trust within the fledgling church. This resulted in their selling of their possessions to help on another. Some throughout history have taken this passage to suggest that true discipleship is only to be found by living a communal lifestyle where all possessions are shared.[xii] However, if communal living was to be the norm for the Christian church, then Paul, Peter, James and others would have admonished churches in Corinth, Antioch, Philippi, Jerusalem and elsewhere to adopt a communal lifestyle. Scholar Everett Harrison adds an interesting insight, “this was not the forsaking of the principle of private ownership, since the disposal and distribution of their possessions was occasioned ‘as anyone might have need.’ When the need became known, action was taken based on loving concern.”[xiii] What Luke is emphasizing is a heightened trust and unity that is growing in the church. Followers are becoming confident they could rely on one another, even with which they formerly valued most: their money and assets.

Such actions describe a deeper unity and trust among believers than they had known before. This is a second type of church growth and makes more sense to track than conversions or attendance. Growth in unity is one way to label this emerging inter-reliance. Again, measuring this will be subjective and require some effort to calculate. But, we will see that a simple congregational questionnaire administered yearly and anonymously can glean congregational perceptions of whether unity is growing or waning.

Degree of unity is an important measurement that is often overlooked by denominational measurement methods too. For instance, in the story that began this chapter (and based upon an true account) Pastor Jerry had inherited a badly divided congregation. His hard work had brought about an improvement in unity, as exemplified in a congregant’s comment that “we’re much more united than we were before Jerry came. If that is all we got out of his leadership … well maybe that’s enough.” However, because the church was experiencing a plateau in attendance and the denomination was not tracking growth in unity, Jerry’s progress was not evident to the denomination. We might ask ourselves, “was Pastor Jerry growing the church?” Yes. “Was he growing it in a way that was helpful and valuable?” Yes. “But, was this growth evident to the denomination?” No. Herein lies the problem. We are measuring things like conversion and attendance, which human leadership has only limited ability to influence, and we are overlooking important metrics of church growth, such as a church growing in unity. In the next section we will look at tools that can measure growth in unity as well.

Millennial Attitude 3. Measure a church’s growth in favor among non-churchgoers.

The Acts 2:47 phrase, “and enjoying the favor of all the people” describes in concise terms a growing appreciation for the church among community residents. Here we see that manifold connections and service to the community result in favor, esteem and a good opinion from those outside of the congregation. The community does not regard the church as mongers, dogmatists or self-absorbed elitists. Instead, the church seems to have been serving the community with such joyful enthusiasm, that people genuinely respected and valued their presence. Here is another refreshing metric which Luke choose to describe.

Therefore, measuring growth in favor among non-churchgoers can ascertain if community favor is increasing or declining. But, there is a caveat. Growing in favor does not mean catering to immoral elements in a community in hopes of currying their favor. Rather this verse describes what happens when a church applies biblical principles of love, fairness, truth-telling and compassion in a non-churchgoing community. This results in the community returning to them favor and respect. Such regard can be seen in an observation of the early church leader Tertullian, who wrote that non-Christians often commented, “Behold, how they love one another.”[xiv] We shall now see how measuring a church’s impact and esteem in a community be an effective tool to measure leadership.

Nurturing the 3 Attitudes Regarding: – Measurement

Growth in favor is similar to maturity growth and unity growth, in that all three are must rely upon subjective assessment. As noted, this may be why modern leaders often take the easy route of counting physical attributes of attendance and conversion. But subjective measurement is a reliable tool if consistent and commonsense questionnaires are employed. After years of applying the following tools among client churches and students, I have found that the following assessment tools are a helpful starting place.

Nurturing Millennial Attitude 1. Measure a church’s growth in maturity.

This is one of the easier types of growth to measure. Acts 2:42 describes how the young church steadfastly strove for goals of “…the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Every church has groups that center around these purposes. Thus, by counting the percentage of people involved in small groups where teaching takes place, fellowship takes place, shared meals take place and prayer takes place, a church can begin to get a general picture of spiritual progress (or regress).

1.a Count up all of your small groups. Figure 8.2 suggests typical small groups and how they might correlate to the categories mentioned Acts 2:42. When counting groups, limit yourself to small groups as defined in Chapter 3 as “less than 20 people meeting 1+ times a month.”[xv] Measuring changes in participation in these small groups can be a general indicator of changes in how many congregants are actively striving for learning, fellowship, communal dinners and prayer.

Figure 8.2 Groups Who Might Exemplify Growth in Maturity

“They devoted themselves to … Small groups in a church that might exemplify this:
 

 

 

…the apostles’ teaching…

1.     Bible studies

2.     Sunday school classes

3.     Newcomer classes

4.     Membership classes

5.     Confirmation classes

6.     Baptism classes

7.     Any regular gathering or class encouraging Christian education

 

 

…to fellowship…

1.     Hobby groups

2.     Sport teams

3.     Any regular gathering or class primarily fostering Christian fellowship

 

 

… to the breaking of bread…

1.     Lunches together

2.     Dinners together

3.     Any gathering promoting Christian community with a meal

 

 

…and to prayer…

1.     Prayer meetings

2.     Participation in prayer programs such as prayer triplets, prayer covenants, etc.[xvi]

3.     Participation at prayer times (at the altar, in the prayer room, etc.)

Still, measuring all groups in Figure 8.2 could be cumbersome for many churches due to the large number of groups involved. Therefore, let’s limit ourselves to those small groups that are easier to detect, i.e. those orientated around biblical teaching or engaged in prayer.[xvii]

1.b Tracking your church’s growth in maturity (Figure 8.3). A church’s emerging spiritual maturity could be estimated and changes tracked by counting up the number of participants in groups that are focused on Bible study or prayer. Figure 8.3 shows how to tally up the number of participants in these groups and track changes from year to year.

Figure 8.3: Tracking Growth in Maturity (example in grey)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Years

Number of people involved  

Total

Involvement

 

 

 

 

 

Church Attend-ance[xviii]

Composite Maturation Number
Bible study groups (adult)

·  Sunday Schools

·  Any small group w/ a Bible focus

Prayer groups (adult)

·  Prayer meetings & events

·  Prayer programs

Total Involvement divided by

Church Attendance

 

% of Change

 

2008 34 16 50 200 25 %
2009 45 18 63 203 31 % + 6 %
2010 49 23 72 199 36 % + 6 %

The goal of Figure 8.3 is to see movement toward a higher percentage of congregants involved in Bible study groups and prayer groups. In the example above (in grey), the church has been plateaued for three years. But, by computing the “Composite Maturation Number” we find that involvement in prayer and Bible study groups has actually grown 5% and then 6% per year (for a total of 11%). This growth in maturity demonstrates that something good is happening, but unless the Composite Maturation Number is tracked a denomination will usually not notice this.

In addition, because each church is unique, a church should not try to compare its scores with anyone but itself. This score will show you only if you are changing in the number of people who are participating in groups that focus primarily on Bible study or prayer. Therefore, compare them only with yourself to gauge year-by-year changes in congregational commitment to Bible study and prayer.

Nurturing Millennial Attitude 2. Measure a church’s growth in unity.

2.a Tracking a church’s growth in unity (Figure 8.4). Congregants usually have a good sense of whether unity in the congregation is improving or waning. A simple Likert-type scale with two questions (Figure 8.4) can be administered to congregants once a year, and improvement or deterioration in a church’s perceptions of unity can be tracked.[xix]

Figure 8.4: Tracking a Church’s Perceptions of Growth in Unity

Growth in Unity
 

Our church is more unified than last year.

1.                  2.                  3.                4.                          5.

strongly disagree       disagree              neither                 agree                   strongly agree
 

I trust our church leadership more than last year .

1.                       2.                 3.                 4.                       5.

strongly disagree       disagree              neither                 agree                   strongly agree
 Given: once per year  Given when: at each worship celebration  Results: Movement toward higher numbers is preferred

2.b Track unity of congregants with one another and with leadership. The purpose of tracking growth in unity is not necessarily to score high, but to be moving higher. And, each question measures a different attribute of unity that should be increasing.

Question 1: Assesses perceptions of unity among congregants.

Question 2: Assesses perceptions of unity of the congregation with church leadership.

Again these numbers should not be bantered around between congregations. These scales are not relevant to boasting or bravado. Rather these scales measure progress (or regress) in congregational unity. For example, a church that has a low self-esteem may initially score poorly on this scale. But, in subsequent years if the numbers move upward them the congregation’s perception of its unity is increasing. This does not mean unity has always increased, but it does indicate that something is going on that is increasing a congregational sense of unanimity.

Nurturing Millennial Attitude 3. Measure a church’s growth in favor among non-churchgoers.

3.a Measure opinion makers in the community that do not attend your church (Figure 8.5). A Likert-type questionnaire is helpful here too, for it measures changes in attitudes. Here we will not poll the congregation, but the non-churchgoing community. I use the term non-churchgoers in an attempt to be sensitive to labels, for these are people who may go to another church, synagogue, temple or mosque but who are not churchgoers at your place of worship. They include community leaders and opinion makers such as community officials, school principals/superintendents, business people, community leaders, etc.

3.b Poll the same people and/or positions each year for consistency. When possible, attempt to poll the same people every year to ensure that you are tracking changes in perception among the same local opinion makers. Figure 8.5, when given to community leaders, can help track changing perceptions of favor toward a local church.

Figure 8.5 Tracking the Perception of Growth in Church Favor Among Non-churchgoers.

Growth in Favor
 In your view (name of church) is more favorably regarded

within this community than last year

1.                       2.                 3.                 4.                       5.

strongly disagree       disagree              neither                 agree                   strongly agree
Given: once per year  Given to:

·  Community officials/leaders

·  School and business leaders

·  Local opinion makers

 

Results: Movement toward higher numbers is preferred.

 

Nurturing Millennial Attitude 4. Measure a church’s growth in conversions too.

For our fourth measurement we will measure conversions. Though we have seen that conversion is difficult to track, it can still be a helpful measurement when evaluated in light of the above metrics: growth in maturity, growth in unity and growth in favor among the community. In addition, Luke tracks conversion as we see from an abbreviated record from the book of Acts:[xx]

  • “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Acts 2:41
  • “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:47b
  • “But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.” Acts 4:4
  • “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” Acts 5:14
  • “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:7

In Luke’s narrative we see that conversion was taking place, and that he was tracking it. Thom Rainer summarizes, “Luke writes Acts in rapid-fire sequences, demonstrating that believers were persistently active in prayer, evangelism, and service.”[xxi] Punctuating this rapid-fire account is Luke’s repeated emphasis upon conversions taking place at the mystical intersection of God’s will and human choice. As we noted earlier, because of God’s involvement counting conversion is like counting the wind (John 3:8,). But, Luke still tracks it. Yet, because of God’s considerable involvement, outcomes of conversion may be less tied to the leader’s skill. Thus, we should count “growth in conversion” for it is a valid metric to signify God’s movement. And though conversion is the apex of one’s spiritual journey before eternity, we must always remind ourselves that this number is less indicative of effective leadership and more indicative of God’s sovereign workings in the mission Dei.

The cross in ORGANIX reminds us that conversion is the heart God’s missio Dei.

Though evaluating leadership by counting conversion is difficult because of the supernatural nature of conversion, it is also problematical to underemphasize conversion. Conversion is the penultimate experience that God wants all his offspring to experience. The Scriptures emphasize:

  • “And he (Jesus) said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 18:3
  • “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again… you must be born again.” John 3:3, 7
  • “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Acts 3:19
  • “What we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life begins! Look at it!” (2 Cor. 5:17, Msg.).

Thus, the X in ORGANIX has at its heart the icon of a cross. The numbers in each quadrant stand for four valid types of measurement derived from Acts 2:42-47. Yet, the X in the center[xxii] reminds us that Christ’s death and resurrection has offered humanity the prospect of conversion. And this conversion, as a turning from trust in self to trust in God,[xxiii] is central to God’s mission, the missio Dei. God wants his offspring to go in the opposite direction, reunite with him in his mission and lovingly join others on the way back to a relationship with him.

Moving Toward Millennial Leadership: Questions for Personal Reflection and/or Group Discussion

The following questions are for personal reflection but can also be utilized in a group setting.

  1. For personal & group reflection: Create an Organix Leadership Journal by …
  • Selecting two (2) items from each box,
  • Writing in it what you will begin to do over the next 30 days to move toward millennial leadership in these two areas.
 

Millennial Leadership

 

 

Measurement

1. Measure a church’s growth in maturity.

 

1.a. Count up all of your small groups.

 

 

1.b. Tracking your church’s growth in maturity (Figure 8.3).

 

 

2. Measure a church’s growth in unity.

 

2.a. Tracking a church’s growth in unity (Figure 8.4)

 

 

2.b. Track unity of congregants with one another and with leadership.

 

 

3. . Measure a church’s growth in favor among non-churchgoers.

 

3.a. Measure opinion makers in the community that do not attend your church (Figure 8.5).

 

 

3.b. Poll the same people and/or positions each year for consistency.

 

4 . Measure a church’s growth in conversations too.

 

 

 

  1. For group refection:
  • Share your responses to the chart above with your group (omitting answers/plans that are overly personal).
  • Take notes in your Organix Leadership Journal on the following:
    1. Does your group agree or disagree with your assessments and plans?
    2. What input did they give you regarding moving toward millennial leadership?
  • Then rewrite your plans in your journal utilizing their input.
  1. For Personal and Group Reflection:
  • Revisit your notes in your Organix Leadership Journal every month for six months. Ask yourself:
    1. Are there areas where I am making progress? If so, describe them.
    2. Are there areas where I am still weak? What will I do to address this?
  • At the end of six months reread the chapter and update your plans.

 

DOWNLOAD the article here:  organix-chpt-8-measurement-pg139-156 But remember, if you enjoy of benefit from this chapter, please consider supporting the publisher by purchasing a copy of the entire book.

Footnotes:

[i] Donald A. McGavran and Winfield C. Arn, Ten Steps for Church Growth (New York: Harper and Row., 1977), p. 3.

[ii] There are various types of conversion, such as secular conversion (e.g. when a drug addict is transformed to a drug-free lifestyle) or religious conversations (e.g. when a Sikh converts to Hinduism). Richard Peace gives a good overview of these kinds of conversion and the relevant literature in Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), pp. 7-11. We will limit our discussion to conversion to a Christian worldview as defined by Peace.

[iii] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Longmans, 1902), 114.

[iv] Richard Peace, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 4.

[v] Scot McKnight, Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press 2002), p. 5.

[vi] The modern inclination to count conversions, while insightful to the wind of the Spirit, may include too many divine and unperceived factors, making measuring it as an indicator of leadership is deficient.

[vii] This is not to say there is not something, like a supernatural and indescribable “it,” that people seek to encounter in a church. Craig Groechel in his book, It: How Churches and Leaders Can Get It and Keep It (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), describes “it” not as a trendiness but as a profound encounter with the supernatural.

[viii] Luke’s emphasis is jarring, for most secular writers at the time reveled in the scale of the followers, and not upon new passions for learning, fellowship, communal dinners and prayer.

[ix] The four types of church growth described by Luke may be divinely inspirited metrics or simply part of a biblical narrative. Yet, they suggest relevant and helpful measurement of tools.

[x] Walter Bauer, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 716-718.

[xi] Walter Bauer, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 406.

[xii] The most prevalent historical examples of communal living would be the monastic movements.

[xiii] Everett F. Harrison, ACTS: The Expanding Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 66.

[xiv] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John. New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 485

[xv] Some may wish to measure attendance in all-church worship celebrations in lieu of small groups. This may yield a less reliable result, since in a large worship gathering it is easier to attend without a steadfast striving for goals of the apostles’ teaching, etc. In addition, it is harder to attend a small group setting without this commitment since in a small group accountably is stronger.

[xvi] For examples of prayer triplets, neighborhood prayers centers, prayer covenants and prayer chapels see Bob Whitesel and Kent R. Hunter, A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), pp. 230-237.

[xvii] If your church has organized and regular fellowship groups (e.g. sport teams, hobby groups, etc.) and/or your church has regular times where congregants dine together (recurring evening dinners/lunches, a “dinners of eight” program, etc.) then these groups can be included in your assessments. The key is for each church to include groups that have as a goal the development of spiritual maturity.

[xviii] Church attendance is valid to track here, since the pivotal number is the percentage of church attendees who are involved in Bible study groups and prayer groups.

[xix] Growth in unity and growth in community favor are based upon perceptions. Yet, subjective scales have been proven to be valid and reliable, see Rensis A. Likert, “A Technique for Measurement of Attitudes” in R. S. Woodworth, Archives of Psychology (New York: The Science Press , 1932), vol. 22, no. 140, p. 55.

[xx] Further examples include Acts 9:42; 11:24; 13:43, 48-49; 17:12; and 19:18-20.

[xxi] Thom S. Rainer, Church Growth and Evangelism in the Book of Acts, Criswell Theological Review 5.1 (Dallas, TX: Criswell College, 1990), p. 67.

[xxii] The cross at the center of these four measurements also reminds us that progress is God’s doing and that we only participate in his missio Dei.

[xxiii] Walter Bauer, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 301.

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.

CONVERSION & Sanctification is “the progressive, lifelong aspect of conversion” according to Willimon

wesley-willimon-quote-on-holistic-conversion-copy

William Willimon, Pastor: The theology and practice of ordained ministry (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002, p. 363.

CONVERSION & A Sociological Definition Compiled by ARDA: The Association of Religious Data Archives #PennStateUniv

bpc_icon_concept.jpg Conversion

Definition:

“Conversion refers to shifts across religious traditions” (Stark and Finke 2000:114). This would include changing from Judaism to Christianity or Hinduism to Islam. Religious reaffiliation, changing from one style of a specific religion to another, is commonly confused with conversion. An example of reaffiliation would be changing from Southern Baptist to Methodist within Christianity or from Sunni to Shiite within Islam.

Studies focusing on the growth of cults did the most to shed light on the nature of conversion and the way individuals change their religious beliefs. The popular belief before the studies of Lofland and Stark (1965) and Barker (1984) was that individuals joining religious cults were brainwashed by leaders. These studies disproved this conception of conversion showing that initiates into new religious groups converted due to changes in their social networks. Those who converted did so because they came to a point where they knew more people in the cult or religious group than individuals not a part of the group. It was only until after conversion took place that the actual beliefs of the group were cited as reasons for the conversion.

Some common ways of measuring the concept of conversion is to ask individuals if they have ever experienced what they would describe as a conversion experience. Another avenue for exploring conversion is to compare a respondent’s parent’s religious affiliation with the respondent’s current religious affiliation or stated religious identity. This method assumes that as a child the respondent shared her parent’s religious views. A third possible measure of conversion is religious intermarriage. Over time researchers might find that a spouse converts, not just reaffiliates, to their spouse’s religion.

Citations:

a.) Barker, Eileen. 1984. The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers
b.) Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective.” American Sociological Review 30: 862-875.
c.) Stark, R. and R. Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.
d.) Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. “Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects,” American Journal of Sociology 85: 1376-1395.

Related Measures
The following are possible measures of Conversion that can be created using data from theARDA.com

arrow.jpg Conversion Experience
Description:
Respondent identifies with undergoing a religious conversion experience of some kind.

Q13A: Variable 28 from Baylor Religion Survey, 2005 midline_dotted.jpg

arrow.jpg Parent’s Religious Affiliation
Description:
Asks respondents what religious tradition their parent’s ascribe to. Allows researchers to investigate why individuals maintain or change from the religious tradition they were exposed to when younger.

Q31A: Variable 121 from Baylor Religion Survey, 2005 Q31B: Variable 122 from Baylor Religion Survey, 2005 MARELIG: Variable 403 from General Social Survey, 1988 PARELIG: Variable 408 from General Social Survey, 1988 MOMS RELIG: Variable 637 from General Social Survey, 1998 POPS RELIG: Variable 639 from General Social Survey, 1998 PRELIGN: Variable 797 from National Study of Youth and Religion, Wave 1 (2003)

 

THEORIES & Religious Research Theories Listed & Defined by ARDA: Association of Religious Data Archives

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: The ARDA is the best place to find a compilation of theories and research on the church compiled by scholars. It is compiled by my colleague Roger Finke and his colleagues Penn. State University.

Religious Research Theories

Learn about other theories of religion:
arrow.jpgChurch/Sect Cycle
arrow.jpgCivilization Theory
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Theories bpc_icon_theory.jpg

In the social sciences generally, as well as in the social science of religion, the term theory is actually used in a multitude of applications. In a sense, every specific theory embodies a somewhat different idea of what theory means, so it is not surprising that this word tends to confuse people. For example, fully 93 articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy have “theory” in their titles, yet they approach it from almost as many different directions.

Citing the work of Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, we offer the following general definition of a theory:

A theory is a set of statements, or hypotheses, about relationships among a set of abstract concepts. These statements say how and why the concepts are interrelated. Furthermore, these statements must give rise to implications that potentially are falsifiable empirically.

Citations:

a) Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (New York: Toronto/Lang, 1987), p. 13.

Read more at … http://wiki.thearda.com/tcm/theories

WESLEYAN CHURCH & 10 Years of Church Growth in 3 Graphs

Conversions, Baptisms, and Attendance from ’05-’15. Church Fitness is a Missional Priority for The Welseyan Church as seen in 3 charts. #madenew

Retrieved from https://www.wesleyan.org/stories-and-stats
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