Dethroning Conversion: Correcting Evangelicalism’s Longstanding, Misplaced Priority

Kneeling

In any institution, behavior follows values. By “values”, I don’t necessarily mean morally praiseworthy values, but simply “whatever is valued” in that context. In addition, “values” do not necessarily correspond with the random posters hung around the office, nor the official company emails sent to the list serve.

Behavior follows actual values. If the senior leadership of a company values profit above all else, then employees will scramble to make the most money in whatever way possible and be noticed while doing so. If senior leadership values promptness and professionalism, then meetings will start on time, and everyone will be well dressed.

Of course there will be exceptions and momentary misfits, but over time, those misfits will opt out, be removed, or at least stagnate in their advancement. This makes sense, because what leaders value is celebrated, communicated, and promoted.

As someone involved in evangelical churches and communities, I’ve seen this dynamic play out repeatedly with regards to one key, unifying value.

To understand this value, you have to understand the verbiage that goes with it. Words create culture, and evangelicalism has created nothing less than a canon of idioms to support, re-enforce, and constantly emphasize the movement’s single core value.

What is that value? If you’re a good evangelical, you already know it:

Leading people to Christ.

Or, as I’ll call it here: Conversion.

For those outside the evangelical fold, allow me to explain.

The word “evangelical” consists of two Greek words smashed together: “Good” (eu); and “message”, or “messenger” (angel).

In this way, the word appropriately reflects the Christian movement it’s come to represent. For within “evangelicalism” the focus has always been on sharing the “good message” about Jesus of Nazareth, specifically his life, death, burial, and resurrection.

Of course, like any large movement, there are distortions and corrupted versions of the message that come about along the way. But all in all, the emphasis of the evangelical world has remained remarkably consistent for more than a century.

Anyone who identifies themselves as part of the movement longs to be an “evangel”—a bringer of good news; a good messenger. In this way, the highest achievement in the life of any evangelical has always been to facilitate the conversion of an individual from outside the church into the Christian faith. Or, in popular parlance, to “lead someone to Christ”.

Common phrases that re-enforced this emphasis include:

You were put on this earth for one purpose: to tell other people about Jesus.

People’s eternity is at stake, and you could be the one who makes the difference.

Go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

The greatest privilege we have is to witness to someone about Christ.

You can’t lead people to Christ in heaven, so you’d better get busy now.

There are only three things that last forever: God, the Word of God, and the souls of men.

This is the world of conversion-focused evangelicalism.

While conversion is a positive, Biblically supported value for a church community, I would argue we’ve taken it too far. Our problem is not that we’ve chosen what’s wrong instead of right, but that we’ve emphasized what’s secondary instead of primary.

And any time you get priorities out of order, damage is certain to follow.

Of the many negative effects this misplaced emphasis has created, the most obvious is found in the failure of Christians to apply their faith in the workplace. Many readers might think, by that statement, I mean simply that Christians need to do a better job of talking about Jesus at work. But again, this is a conversion-focused perspective. Is there no other God-given purpose for your work beyond blabbing about Jesus during break time?

The faith and work conversation is a big one happening in evangelical circles today. I’ve benefited enormously from the discussion and plethora of quality literature on the topic.

But there is one key component I haven’t seen discussed, and that’s the underlying mindsets and convictions that led the evangelical world to the sacred-secular divide in first place—the same divide that has tragically damaged our public engagement, causing Christians to approach their jobs in ways that are indistinguishable from their secularly minded peers.

Most of the books and blogs I’ve read on Faith & Work have been practical in nature. They paint a broad theological picture of work from the scriptures, and then help people apply it to their daily lives. This is important work, and I’m grateful for the contribution.

But I fear this approach is like trying to build a new house on an old, failing foundation. We can design a home, making it cozy and convenient, but eventually it’s going to slant and collapse if the foundation isn’t fixed.

In a similar way, we can train people to better approach their daily work as followers of Jesus, but we shouldn’t expect lasting change unless we change something deeply engrained in their psyche. There must be a reason churches, pastors, and laypeople failed to meaningfully connect their faith to their work for at least a generation.

So what is the reason?

I would suggest it’s the enthronement of conversion as the highest aim of Christian life.

If telling people about Jesus is the most important priority (and our churches have made crystal clear it is), then it makes sense people would mentally partition public vocations that don’t involve a verbal discussion of Jesus. If talking about Jesus is the highlight of Christian existence, then surely balancing a budget sheet for a corporate firm is a lowlight. If leading my friend to Christ is the climax of my week, then bagging groceries is an anti-climax at best, and a necessary evil at worst.

In response to the divide, our churches have tried to come up with various work-a-rounds to solve the tension. We’ve said things like, “There is no A Team and B Team. It’s not as if missionaries and pastors are really doing God’s work, while all the rest of you are not. All work is important work.” That’s a nice sentiment, and some church-goers are probably comforted by this reassurance. But a careful listener can see the logical gymnastics necessary to support this kind of statement.

After all, you can’t have it both ways. If conversion is the highest good, then whatever jobs primarily contribute to bringing about more conversions are the best jobs. And those that don’t, aren’t. Don’t try to tell me that trading stocks is just as meaningful as leading a Bible Study, only to have us weekly celebrate, applaud, and literally enthrone (via bringing up onto the platform) those who accomplish strictly spiritual goals.

You’re not fooling anyone. Your highest value is crystal clear. And like all organizations, the rest of the church has shifted to align with your value.

Our options in response, then, are as follows: (1) We can confess the truth about public vocations, which is that they are, in fact, inferior endeavors from God’s perspective; or (2) We can change our highest stated value to something besides conversion.

For many readers, both options sound awful. The first sounds terrible because we’d be alienating the vast majority of our congregations from the purposes of God. The second sounds terrible because we can’t change a core value that comes from God himself, communicated to us through scripture.

Thankfully, God’s purposes for work don’t conflict as much as our perception indicates. As it turns out, scripture actually gives us a different, higher priority than conversion.

That is the priority of conformity to Christ.

Paul communicates this priority in Colossians 1:28, when he states his goal of “presenting everyone mature in Christ”. Notice, his goal is not just to convert people, but to see them molded to the image of Christ. Paul also presents conformity as his own life purpose in Philippians 3:8, when he says he considers everything else in his life inferior (which must include sharing Christ with others) next to the “surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord”. Knowing Jesus is primary, sharing him with others is secondary.

Jesus communicates conformity in the Great Commission (though we often overlook it), when he invites us to make disciples, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” (Matthew 18:19). Everything. That’s fairly comprehensive. It certainly includes more than Bible reading and telling people about Jesus.

Peter follows suit when he commands the church to, “be holy in all you do”, because the one who called you is holy (1 Peter 1:15). And, in 1 Peter 3:15, a famous passage on how to go about evangelism, we can make an important observation: the opportunity to share the hope we have in Christ comes about as a result of living publicly in a way that is qualitatively distinct. In other words, evangelism follows sanctification.

Instructed by Jesus and the apostles, we can understand the priorities of the Christian life, and of the church, as conformity over conversion. We should value people and communities becoming like Jesus more than talking about Jesus.

Undoubtedly, both should be present in a mature church. But again, our problem is one of emphasis. When we persistently enthrone evangelism over sanctification, we set ourselves up for failure and frustration. On the other hand, if we champion Christlikeness as the primary goal, we will get evangelism thrown in.

Embracing conformity over conversion is a seismic shift in mindset. If you allow this perspective to sink into your soul, the effect will be an entirely new outlook on life and ministry.

In the evangelical world, this change of mindset opens the door for re-discovering the purpose of daily work. So long as “leading people to Christ” remains our focus, daily work will continue to be viewed as a distraction from the Christian life. But if “becoming like Christ” is our focus, then daily work becomes integral. For every vocation presents the opportunity to lay down your life for others, not as a verbal witness to Christ, but as a self-sacrificing, other-centered, service-oriented, empathy-saturated embodiment of Christ. If becoming like Jesus is the goal, then each and every moment of existence provides an opportunity to do so. Through this lens, life no longer has to be experienced as episodic spurts of spiritual activity interrupted by long periods of irreverent monotony. Instead, every breath is an invitation to experience Jesus and progress toward your goal of becoming like him.

Answering an Objection

With any new perspective, there are bound to be objections. For the mindset of conformity over conversion, I anticipate one key objection:

Isn’t this perspective suggesting our churches become “holier than thou”? If we focus on conformity to Christ, won’t we eventually become isolated places of church-focused activity instead of missionary outposts for the Kingdom?

The spirit behind this objection is understandable, especially in light of how many churches we’ve seen take an inward-focused approach. In time, these churches become little more than country clubs for Christian hobbyists.

The problem with this objection, however, is it assumes an incomplete view of what it means to “conform to the image of Christ”. In raising this objection, one is probably thinking about conformity to Christ only in moral terms—as if becoming like Jesus is limited to such activities as reading your Bible, praying, and opting out of activities like drinking, smoking, and cursing.

But this is a woefully inadequate view of Christlikeness. Jesus was other-centered (Philippians 2). Jesus was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton because he spent so much time relating with people outside the religious establishment (Matthew 11:19). Jesus was known for genuine love and authentic concern for the poor, the marginalized, and the immigrant (Luke 6:20-26).

If this is the case, then becoming like Jesus necessitates developing a concern for those outside the church. Any church conformed to the image of Christ will be known as a compassionate, outward-oriented community.

On a practical level, this means a church focused on conformity to Christ will still seek to equip it’s people for mission. The difference is that evangelistic activity will be viewed as a byproduct of conformity to Christ, instead of an end in itself. This was the phenomenon we observed in 1 Peter 3:15. When God’s people pursue Christ wholeheartedly, Peter indicates, others will take note. In addition, their wholehearted pursuit will mean they’ve been thoughtful and engaged enough to know the basics of how to converse with someone about Jesus.

Another difference the conformity mindset brings is viewing evangelistic activity as one facet of the Christian life, instead of the whole. After all, evangelism isn’t the essence of Christianity; conformity to Christ is. So while our churches will continue to have programming and teaching designed to equip people for mission, we’ll also have programming and teaching designed for the many other aspects of the Christian life.

Going Forward

Practically minded readers will want to jump into action with an idea like this. But I would caution you not to act too soon. If we return to the importance of actual values (rather than stated values), we see the importance of letting a new mindset simmer for a while before implementing changes. You can alter programs, purchase curriculum, and design a new sermon series. But if, at the end of the day, your underlying mindset about the purpose of the Christian life and the purpose of your church remains unchanged, then your community will also remain unchanged.

We must get to a point where we believe in our guts that becoming like Jesus is the essence of the Christian life.

For those of us leading ministries or churches, we must view our job primarily in terms of helping others become like Jesus. For some in our communities, that may mean healing foundational family relationships. For others, it may mean getting out of debt. And for some, yes, becoming Christlike may mean training in how to articulate their faith to skeptical and irreligious friends.

A Heart Issue: Trusting God for Growth

As I consider the ramifications of a conformity over conversion mindset for myself, I realize at the root, I have a problem trusting God. In particular, I have trouble trusting him for growth—numerical growth, financial growth.

Perhaps, if we’re honest, much pastoral emphasis on evangelism is driven by a combination of insecurity and necessity. We don’t want our churches to stay small. We’re fearful of declining budget numbers. We’re depressed when we stand up on a Sunday morning before what feels like a measly crowd of half-interested people.

So, we slam evangelism. We guilt-trip people into inviting others to church. On that rare occasion when we do get a good turn out, we post it to social media and publicly document the evidence from every angle.   When someone does, by the grace of God, trust Jesus for the first time, we usher them on stage and applaud ferociously, as if to say to our people, see, we need more of this you bunch of slouches. Get after it.

We’ve indoctrinated our people with alarming success. They’ve assimilated to our culture. They share our values.

But if we can trust God for growth, we are free to focus on the scriptural priority of holiness. Only when we embrace the value of conformity over conversion will we release followers of Jesus to meaningful vocation in every sphere. Only then will our people fulfill the calling not only to make disciples, but also to obey Jesus in everything he commanded us to do.

Toward this new mindset, God invites us to come.  It’s time to dethrone conversion.  May we value Christlikeness instead.

3 thoughts on “Dethroning Conversion: Correcting Evangelicalism’s Longstanding, Misplaced Priority

  1. Erik, thanks for the write-up. You’ve been thinking about this for a while and it shows in your writing.
    You say this is still a big issue in the church. Why?
    I remember hearing your common phrases (or others of their ilk) growing up in the late 90s/early 2000s but not much since then. Maybe that has to do more with changing communities than changing times, but I’m not sure.
    Conversion-focused growth is emphasized at the youth/college level, but that seems to be more practical than theological. For instance, you hear sanctification-focused messages. Big crowds, high energy, big baptisms are what get people excited. You can quantify conversions easier than discipleship.

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    1. Good thought, Ben, thanks for the interaction! I agree a lot of these types of phrases are on their way out. I think the “lightbulb” for me here, or the new thought i felt compelled to share, was simply the articulation of it (enthronement of conversion vs conformity to Christ), and the idea that it is a necessary underlying mindset shift in order to minister to the whole person for the good of a whole society. Undoubtedly, the shift I’m highlighting here is already taking place in the evangelical world, I’m just one of many trying to put words to the transition.

      Like

  2. I remember hearing your common phrases (or others of their ilk) growing up in the late 90s/early 2000s but not much since then. Maybe that has to do more with changing communities than changing times, but I’m not sure.
    Conversion-focused growth is emphasized at the youth/college level, but that seems to be more practical than theological. For instance, you hear sanctification-focused messages. Big crowds, high energy, big baptisms are what get people excited. You can quantify conversions easier than discipleship.

    Liked by 1 person

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