Conversion. The relationship between conversion and mission is foundational to missiology, because the conversion of sinners is central to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In one sense, the goal of the mission—conversion—is simple. But understanding the process of conversion is a complex missiological subject. We must analyze the concept of conversion from three perspectives: the biblical, the psychological, and the sociological.
The Biblical Dimension of Conversion. Biblically, the term “conversion” centers around a number of words. Epistrephō (turn) and metanoia (repentance) are two of the most frequently used terms to describe conversion. The Bible speaks about conversion as turning away from wickedness (2 Tim. 2:19) turning to God from idols (1 Thess. 1:9), or turning from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God (Acts 26:18).
This call to conversion is an important part of gospel proclamation. We not only preach the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection, but we must also persuade persons to repent and believe in the gospel. Evangelicals have rightfully stressed the importance of faith as a key component of conversion but have generally minimized the importance of Repentance.
The call to repentance, however, echoes throughout the New Testament. John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul all include repentance in their preaching (Mark 1:4, 15; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 20:21; 26:20). Moreover, the church is commissioned to preach “repentance for forgiveness of sins … to all nations” (Luke 24:47; cf. Acts 17:30). Consequently, repentance is a crucial dimension of good missions practice. Perhaps one reason many ministries struggle with ongoing sin in the church is because repentance is not an important element in the original proclamation of the gospel. An initial, watered-down presentation of the Good News will ultimately lead to bad news—unhealthy churches and unholy people.
Therefore, we must call sinners to repentance. Conversion is thus both the duty of the evangelist and the demand of the sinner. This is the humanward aspect of conversion.
But there is also a deeper, more fundamental aspect of conversion. While we call men and women to repentance, only God can bring about conversion. We preach the gospel to people who are dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1–3). Because of this, God’s Spirit must bring people to life. This is the Godward dimension of conversion, known as “regeneration” (Titus 3:5) or more popularly known as being “born again” (John 3:1–8). Hence, conversion is not just a duty or a demand. It is a gift—a supernatural and instantaneous work of God.
The Godward and humanward dimensions of conversion are both taught in the New Testament. But the Godward work of God’s grace in the human heart through the Holy Spirit is primary. As Peter says in his report to the church in Jerusalem, “God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). Luke’s description of Lydia’s conversion also underscores the priority of God’s gracious initiative in conversion: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14).
The Psychological Dimension of Conversion. The psychological dimensions of conversion must be understood if we are to communicate Christ effectively. The Engel Scale describes a step-by-step process whereby a person who knows nothing about God is led to a true knowledge of God. Engel highlights the fact that conversion is a process, not simply a crisis. While it leads to an event, a climactic turning to Christ, it also usually involves a gradual change in the thinking of the person being converted.
While not a major theme, the psychological dimension of conversion is nevertheless implicit in the Gospels. The conversion of the apostles takes place gradually as they live and interact with Jesus. First they understand him as an authoritative teacher, one who casts out demons with a mere command (Mark 1:27). Next, they see him as a healer, as one who has authority over sickness (Mark 2:1–12). Then, they wrestle with the fact that he has authority over creation. “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41). Finally, after considerable time, Peter makes his famous confession: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29).
People repent and believe in the gospel after hearing and understanding crucial truths about God, sin, and salvation. While the essence of the gospel is unchanging, we proclaim Christ in radically different contexts (see Contextualization). Because of this, certain dimensions of the gospel are more relevant in particular contexts and the process of conversion varies with the people being converted. Muslims must know different things about God than Hindus. A secular American needs to understand different aspects of truth than an African animist. Because of this, we must study the people we are called to reach, so that we can speak to their unique needs and address their particular problems.
The Sociological Dimension of Conversion. The sociological (or cultural) components of conversion must be addressed. Western culture and evangelicals in general have viewed conversion in individual terms. But the Bible describes both individual and group conversions. The baptisms of extended households in the New Testament highlight the more community-oriented nature of Greco-Roman culture (Acts 10:44–48; 16:15, 34; 18:8). Similar to Greco-Roman culture, people in many cultures today do not make decisions as individuals; they make decisions as groups.
Therefore, as Harvie Conn wisely concludes, we “must continue to stress the necessity for a personal relationship to Christ as an essential part of conversion. But it must also be recognized that in the world’s cultures such personal relationships are entered into not always by isolated ‘individual’ decisions in abstraction from the group but more frequently, in multi-personal, infra-group judgments. ‘Personal’ cannot be equated with ‘individual’ ” (Conn, 1979, 103–4).
Missiologically this means that it is often wise to evangelize people in groups, in their natural social networks rather than as individuals. We should target families and friends in our evangelism. Whenever possible, our goal should be on reaching groups, that will lead ultimately to the establishment of new churches.
This is especially important among unreached peoples where the conversion of an isolated individual can lead to severe social ostracizing or even death in some cases. Understanding this sociological (or cultural) dimension of conversion will make us more sensitive to culture and more fruitful in ministry.
Richard D. Love
Moreau, A. S., Netland, H., & Engen, C. van. (2000). In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions (pp. 231–232). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Baker Books; A. Scott Moreau.