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Conversion and Contextualization by Jonathan Dodson

According to Andrew Walls, the word “conversion” has been used in two main ways throughout Christian history.[1]

The
first meaning of conversion denotes “an external act of religious
change.” This act reflects a movement towards Christian faith,
individually or collectively. The other meaning of conversion refers to
“critical internal religious change” within the Christian community.
This meaning of conversion gets at what we might call “gospel change.”

Not All Gospel Change is Identical


Missionaries of the 19th and 20th

centuries exported their understanding and experience of Western
“gospel change” to non-Western peoples. This often included a
conversion that issued “in a holy life typically marked by a period
of deep consciousness of personal sin followed by a sense of joyous
liberation dawning with the realization of personal forgiveness through
Christ

.” In other words, missionaries
expected Non-Western peoples to undergo a pattern of gospel change
similar to their own. However, while the gospel certainly changed the
peoples of Africa, India, and Asia, not all change produced by the
gospel was identical.


Gospel
change in some cultures is more gradual than instantaneous. The
American Evangelical tradition of “deep consciousness of personal sin
followed by a sense of joyous liberation” is not common to all
cultures. Missionaries labored for years before they saw a single
conversion, and even then, the conversions were sometimes very
different than what they expected. Cultures that are more communal
experience conversion differently that cultures that are highly
individualistic. In many African and Asian cultures, conversions come
in pairs or families instead of by single individuals. Not all gospel
change happens identically, especially across cultures.


The Emerging Post-Christian Context



What
these missionaries encountered “on the field” is beginning to occur in
the U.S. Many church planters have a pre-Christian past that is very
“Christian.” We inherited the evangelical, pietistic conversion
experience of our forefathers. Like the conversions of our missionary
forefathers, our personal conversion relied heavily upon a prevailing
Christianized culture, common basic knowledge of God, sin, faith and
Christ. But America has changed. We cannot assume our listeners possess
the same knowledge and experience that we did, which is precisely why
it is so crucial that we exercise pastoral wisdom through
contextualization.


In
regions such as the Pacific Northwest, New England and spiritually
similar cities of the U.S, we are now encountering a post-Christian
cultural climate. No longer can we assume a basic level of evangelical
capital upon which the Spirit of God may act. Instead, we are engaging
un-churched and resistant peoples who have forgotten, redefined, or
never known the Gospel. As a result, the conditions of conversion have
changed, as should our methods for sharing, telling, speaking,
teaching, and preaching the Gospel. Our idioms, illustrations and
language must change if we are going to reach the unreached, the

unchurched, and the resistant peoples of America.


Like
the former missionaries, we must reconfigure our understanding and
expectation of how people undergo gospel change and how disciples are
made. We must be more open to “process conversions” while also guiding
that process toward full commitment to Jesus as Lord. Our goal should
not be to replicate our personal conversion experience, but to preach
the gospel effectively so that we can make disciples in the emerging
post-Christian context. We must heed the failures of the past and call
people, not to our experience of conversion, but to the experience of
the Spirit’s converting, whatever that process may entail.



[1]

Quotations taken from Andrew Walls, “Converts or Proselytes? The Crisis over Conversion in the Early Church,” IBMR, Vol. 28, No.1.