“How we conceive of conversion determines how we do evangelism.” –Richard Peace
This post is a summary of One Cross, One Way, Many Journeys: Thinking Again about Conversion by David Greenlee. Greenlee did his PhD Dissertation in the 90s on conversion from Islam. This concise book (152 pages) shares experiences of MBBs, but also includes examples from American, Asian, Latino, Hindu, Buddhist, Diaspora, and European contexts.
Below is a short summary of each chapter:
- Starting the Journey: People can “come to Christ” i.e. “get saved” i.e. … in an instant (Paul), or through a process (the Disciples). Conversion includes cultural, social, spiritual, and political complexities involved in a person’s turning from sin towards God’s saving activity in Christ. [I would add that conversion is different than regeneration. Regeneration is a work of the Holy Spirit, and conversion refers to man’s experience and interpretation of that act.]
- Inside Out or Heading Home?: “Bounded set” Christianity understands that people must accept a list of new doctrines and usually also a foreign culture before they are considered “Christians.” You’re either inside or you’re out. But in “centered set” Christianity, what matters most is that people are pointed and moving towards the center, Jesus. Bounded sets are very difficult for people on the “outside” because they are reluctant to jump inside- to become like one of “them.” By contrast, centered sets illustrate that we’re really just trying to meet people where they are and get them to turn (and move) toward the center, Jesus. “I am convinced that the key question is not how much we know but who we know. What counts is not being inside certain boundaries of knowledge and behavior [which could actually give false assurance to “insiders”], but - by faith - being pointed to Christ” (11). (Obviously also, it is better to be closer to Christ than further away.)
- Conversion at the Core: Beliefs are important, but you could have correct knowledge and still have repulsive feelings about Christ. Or perhaps you could have the right beliefs and feel love for Jesus, but not actually have a commitment to him. These are the the three levels that make up a worldview (from Hiebert); 1. Cognitive (beliefs, knowledge), 2. Affective (feelings, beauty), and 3. Evaluative (allegiance, commitment). We need to foster three-dimensional conversion; transformation (the goal of conversion) only happens when all three levels are impacted.
- Groups, Families, and Anyone who Believes: Conversion is an individual event, but can also happen simultaneously in groups. “Church planting movements almost always spread through webs of family relationships” (47). We need to foster conversion within and throughout social networks. Most cultures are not as individualistic as the postmodern West.
- Congruence, Conversion, and Christian Witness: The HUP (Homogeneous Unit Principle) famously coined by McGavran observes that people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers. The HUP claims that the call for ethnically heterogeneous churches actually inhibits the growth of the church and does not fully allow for fully indigenous expressions of faith. Although it has some value as a sociological principle and a communications tool, the HUP has been widely criticized as a strategy and a method that falls short of the biblical practice and teaching of community. “I suggest that… the Congruence of Cultural Values (CCV) principle gives a more adequate description of how God is at work than does the HUP” (55). The CCV says that “people are more likely to come to faith when their own cultural values are significantly congruent with the cultural values of the witnessing Christian community and the means of communicating the gospel” (55). You can foster similar cultural values without forcing ethnic homogeneity.
- Who’s to Judge? Looking in From the Outside: Doctrine is vital to spiritual health and faithfulness, but “outsiders” should be very careful to judge (but we should discuss and engage them) “insider movements,” i.e. fellow believers who are trying to remain in (not extract from) their socio-religious context. “Not all who are “in Christ” will express their faith in the same way that you or I do” (83). As for contextualization, “I suggest, then, that Paul’s self-identification and intercultural practice as here briefly summarized point to what should be our emphasis and our limits: missionary outsiders who identify with the people we serve while maintaining a clear identity in the One we serve” (82).
- Worthy Witness: There is a clear difference between proselytism and evangelism.
- Fathoming the Unfathomable: Conversion is mysterious work of God and can never be fully understood. But we can look at conversion through seven (dim) lenses to help us: psychology, behavior, sociology, culture, spiritual warfare, the human communicator, and God’s underlying role. “None of these aspects gives us the full picture, but each emphasizes characteristics that get overlooked when we examine conversion for other perspectives alone… Properly understood and grounded in Scripture, these lenses… can help us gain new insights into how God is at work in conversion. In turn, these insights can help us grow in faith and be more fruitful in ministry” (102-3).
- Conversion, Politics, Power, and Transformation: Conversion has undeniable political consequences (but we decry conversion for political reasons). “If society perceives itself to be under threat, it is likely to resist a religion identified with the threatening society” (115). But a new religion is likely to spread if it “offers a resource to leaders or to people as a whole in resisting threats to continued existence” (116, quoting Montgomery). [I would love to explore this further. Very interesting.]
- The Defeat of Darkness and Deception: “Conversion is a spiritual battle that involves a change in allegiance that may include the breaking of overt demonic power in our lives” (136). “We have a glorious eternal hope whether the battle is hidden or obvious, theological or physical, even in the face of overwhelming odds” (139).
- Becoming the People of God: We are not just converted to Christ, we are also converted to his body, the church. “Becoming this God-praising people, not just saved souls in isolation, I believe is central to the goal of conversion and the purpose of God as we come to, and grow in, faith in Jesus Christ” (150). [I would add à la Jonathan Dodson that we are also converted to mission. See The Three Conversions. This concept would have nicely rounded out the book.]
Greenlee has also edited From the Straight Path to the Narrow Way, which is a series of articles and studies that investigate the phenomenon of conversion of Muslims to Christ.