The Specifics of Conversion Experiences
“How are people actually coming to faith today?” That title of an article caught my eye. When I interviewed 40 recent converts, I learned a great deal about how people became Christians. I’m not talking about the spiritual realities of the salvation experience. We can’t think too highly of the images painted in scripture about conversion – “being delivered from darkness into light,” “being born again,” “getting set free,” etc. We would do well to meditate on how the reality of salvation is “like the wind.”
But I think we also need to hear practical specifics. Did people read books, visit websites, hear sermons, listen to a presentation, see visions, eat meals with Christians, etc.? At the risk of sounding terribly pragmatic, we should ask, “What worked?”
When I meet with pastors to discuss ways to weave evangelism into their discipleship, I urge them to interview recent converts to hear what drew them to the Savior. Of course, we know it was the Holy Spirit who worked to open their eyes, enlighten their understanding, and soften their hearts. But God works through “means” and we should learn what those are.
Not too long ago, I read a report about “how churches grow.” The authors identified dozens of churches that had grown and they set out to find out why. What struck me as humorous was who the researchers spoke to. They only interviewed the pastors – not the new members! (As far as I could tell, these researchers didn’t distinguish between conversion-growth and membership-transfer-growth. I found that frustrating. But that’s another matter).
Not all that surprisingly, the pastors said their churches had grown because 1) the preaching was relevant, 2) the programs met people where they are, and 3) the atmosphere was warm and inviting. This all may be true. But I wondered whether the new members would have identified those same factors.
All of this is to say two things:
• First, we should all do a better job of listening to people’s stories.
• Second, we should learn what others have found when they have listened to those stories.
A recent book, Growing God’s Church: How People Are Actually Coming to Faith Today, by Gary L. McIntosh, is a good first step in this important task. I say, “first step” because individual churches need to find out why people who come to faith through their churches and in their culture. While McIntosh interviewed nearly 1,100 Christians over nearly a 10-year period,” his audience probably differs from yours.
Here are three of McIntosh’s findings that I appreciated. The following quotes come from the article in Biola Magazine:
• “Family and friends are still the main reason people come to Christ, but it is lower than it used to be (from 90% in the 1970s to 60% today).”
• “People are coming to church before they come to Christ….A lot of people are coming to church today without a personal invitation. About a fourth of the people interviewed indicated ‘I found the church on my own.'”
And here’s the one I want to explore the most:
• “Historically [50 or 30 years ago], people would often say that they were led to Christ though a methodology like the Four Spiritual Laws or the Romans Road or Evangelism Explosion….[Today], people said that it was simply conversation….People don’t want to feel that they’re being led through some sort of a rote presentation. They want to feel that it’s more natural – that we’re just talking among friends, about life and sports and spiritual things. And through that conversation they come to understand what Christianity is and what commitment to Christ is, and some people just all of a sudden say, ‘I believe.'”
This makes me want to explore the art and skill of conversation. I hope to do so in some upcoming blogs.