by James Engel
A Christian researcher soon learns that the workings of God cannot be reduced to simple patterns, but there is general agreement that most instances of conversion fall into three broad categories.
In the past two decades there have been many studies of conversion, both published and unpublished. Most of these, however, have been undertaken in the academic context with an anti-supernatural bias and hence are of somewhat limited value. Others, however, have been designed to provide needed input for evangelistic strategies, and these are the main focus of this article.
HOW CONVERSION OCCURS
Because it generally is impractical to assess conversion as it happens, most researchers have been forced to rely on post hoc (after conversion) interviews which are designed to create the various stages and influences.1 While reliance on conscious recall has some inevitablle limitations, enough can be learned to provide a useful picture of what took place.
A Christian researcher soon learns that the workings of God cannot be reduced to simple patterns, but there is general agreement that most instances of conversion fall into three broad categories: (1) sudden; (2) unconscious, (3) gradual decision process.2
Sudden conversion. On occasion converts report no prior thought, recognition of personal needs or particular religious interest but nonetheless experience conversion, often in a mass evangelism setting. This apparently is what took place through the ministry of Hudson Taylor on his initial venture into the interior of China. Also, there are many reported instances of theophanies and other forms of miraculous intervention which appear to circumvent conscious reasoning. While conversion can occur in this manner, it is not commonplace or normative.
Unconscious conversion. So-called unconscious conversion takes place when an individual is raised under the influence of Christian beliefs and cannot document a clear turning point. This is very common in evangelical families when members are sure of salvation but cannot point to a crisis event or radical sudden change in outlook or behavior.
Gradual conversion. Gradual conversion is the most common manner in which those with little or no prior exposure or meaningful Christian background come to faith in Christ. It can extend over quite a period of time and encompass a progressive change from rejection of Christianity to acceptance. It may climax in what appears to be sudden conversion, but the act of turning or decision is secondary to the process itself. The widespread incidence of this type of conversion is thoroughly documented and has shaped the strategy of many Christian communicators and missiologists in recent years.3 As a result, the remainder of this article focuses on the gradual decision process.
A gradual conversion follows roughly the same steps in reasoning undertaken in any decision which is important and highly involving. So-called extended problem solving, usually proceeds in this fashion:4 need activation — search for new information — evaluation of alternatives — commitment — re-evaluation.
Or, as A.W. Tippet has put it in a Christian context:5 growing awareness — consideration — point of encounter — incorporation.
Following this perspective, it is valid to define a conversion as a dynamic process moving from one faith (allegiance) to another. Scripture afirms that a saving fatih in Christ does not require a sudden leap into the unknown (1 Cor. 15:3-5) without reasoning and evaluation. There generally is an ordo salutis as Berkhof affirms:
When we speak of an ordo salutis we…simply stress the fact that various elements can be distinguished in the process, that the work of application of redemption proceeds in a definite and reasonable order, and that God does not impart the fulness of His salvation to the sinner in a single act.6
When extended problem solving is observed a decisive action is preceeded by marked cognitive change in knowledge, attitude and intention to act.7 The so-called Engel-scale8 is a linear representation of this process which has shaped much of the strategic research on conversion among missiologists and Christian communicators. It has undergone systematic revision and modification over the years, and the current version is reproduced below.
It is based on the following rationale:
1. The process of making disciples proceeds through the point of conversion and is unending as a convert grows in faith and maturing.
2. A decision process does not commence until there is receptivity in the form of felt need for change in life and some willingness to consider another focus of life allegiance.
3. A valid conversion requires at least some knowledge of the gospel, and everyone can be placed at some stage on the scale in respect to knowledge, attitude, intention or commitment.
4. The starting point of saving knowledge lies in general revelation.
5. Even though spiritual truth cannot be grasped fully by natural man (1 Cor. 2:14-15), the Holy Spirit undertakes the ministry of conviction by providing insight into the nature of God, the sin nature and its implications, and the saving work of Christ.
6. People move toward salvation gradually as they become aware of the gospel message and its implications.
7. Gospel knowledge does not become efficacious until there is some grasp of the implications of this truth in the context of life goals, felt needs and basic motivations.
8. There is no distinct decision per se as is usually found in extended problem solving. Rather, there is a change of allegiance that takes place through repentance and faith motivated by the Holy Spirit.
DECISION PROCESS RESEARCH
What some are not referring to as the "Wheaton School of Conversion Research" has built upon the conceptualization inherent in the Engel scale.9 This includes studies undertaken by Sogaard10; the research unit of Daystar University College in Nairobi, Kenya; Management Development Associates; students at Wheaton College Graduate School and others. IN all, more than 30 studies have been undertaken in the U.S., Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Kenya, Sudan, Liberia, Singapore, Thailand, Ecuador and other countries.
Decision process research requires some type of survey covering the following categories of information:
a. Desire for change in life.
b. Presence or absence of a hostile attitude toward Christianity and/or commitment to an alien religion.
2. Knowledge of fundamental gospel truths.
a. A concept of a living God who loves and who is knowable.
b. Grasp of what it means to be a sinner and awareness of personal sin nature.
c. Some understanding of the unique saving role of Jesus Christ.
d. Awareness of how one becomes a Christian through repentance and faith.
3. Basic motivations and felt needs.
4. Cultural norms and values (worldview) which impact biblical knowledge, motivations and needs.
5. Ways in which information is transmitted and learned, ranging from interpersonal communication and oral tradition to all forms of mass media and traditional media.
Data are analyzed in such a way as to separate receptive audience segments from those who are not receptive. These two groups are tabulated separately and compared to answers given to each survey question. As a rule, evangelistic strategy begins with the receptive and then moves to the non-receptive.
Receptivity usually is detected in terms of basic dissatisfaction with life accompanied by desire for change as well as absence of a hostile attitude toward Christianity. A person can be at any stage of decision process with respect to biblical knowledge and still demonstrate receptivity (or lack there of).
The goal becomes one of helping the pereson to move step-by-step toward salvation through bringing about understanding of gospel truths and their implications. Anything done to motivate or stimulate this movement is "successful" evangelism, even though a commitment may not culminate until much later.
MAJOR FINDINGS AND IMPLICATIONS
1. Most people in most situations are at the very early stages of decision process and cannot be reached with traditional evangelistic strategies presenting a truncated plan of salvation and calling for decision. How can people understand Jesus Christ and accept him when they possess only a fragmentary knowledge at best of basic gospel truths? The seed must be sown before it can be reaped. Nonetheless, the majority of evangelistic efforts ignore this basic fact and proceed as if God will bring about some miraculous understanding of the message.
The tragedy is that most people approached this way ignore, disregard, or even reject what is said, thus making a mockery of unverified claims that people have been "reached" because they have been the target of a message. We cannot say that communication has occured until the message has been understood.
It is clear that little has been developed in the way of "seed-sowing" evangelistic methodology. As a result, vast numbers are not being reached in terms they can understand. What often appears to be lack of receptivity frequently represents a "tuning out" of an inappropriate message.
2. Cognitive grasp of the plan of salvation is not sufficient to motivate a decision. This will not occur until the personal implications of the gospel are grasped and conviction is actively sensed. Movement in decision process is arrested until the individual senses his or her lostness becasue of the barrier presented by sin nature. It is essential to grasp that life cannot have ultimate meaning apart from a relationship with God.
All to often evangelists assume cognitive knowledge is sufficient, but survey evidence frequently discloses substantial "head" knowledge with either little grasp or a distorted concept of what this truth means. Such a person has yet to be evangelized because understanding has not been created.
3. Felt need is an important avenue toward creating a grasp of the personal implications of the gospel. The presence of felt need signifies a perceived gap between the ideal state of affairs and the actual situation, thus giving rise to a point of receptivity. Perceptual filters are open and there is a motivated search for solution. Evangelistic communication falls on fertile grounds if felt need is viewed as the entry point for communicating real need following the model so foten used by Jesus in his strategy.12
To provide an example, recent research undertaken for Campus Crusade for Christ among US university students found material success to be the highest felt need. This felt need, in turn, is based on a belief that happiness and well-being are an outcome of wealth accumulation. Evangelistic strategy has been developed which acknowledges this felt need and proceeds to demonstrate the faulty premise on which it is based and establish that the only lasting source of well-being lies in the spiritual realm.
4. The time required to move to a point of conversion is a variable. It can range from a full lifetime to a matter of minutes depending upon interpersonal and cultural factors affecting the nature and extent of deliberation which is required.
5. An overt action such as a verbally stated prayer or act of going forward is not normative in salvation and can be highly misleading when interpreted as signifying conversion. People do not "decide" for Christ in the same sense as they decide to vote or buy in a particular way. Change of allegiance is far more complex in that it requires both faith and repentance. Futhermore, only the Holy Spirit can bring about regeneration.
There are certain cultural situations where overt actions (i.e., the sinner’s prayer) are both appropriate and helpful to the individual. But no such actions are specified in scripture, and research clearly reveals wide variation.
The danger enters when it is falsely assumed that verbal assent or overt action always signifies conversion and hence becomes the cornerstone of evangelistic strategy. This easily degenerates to a "sales approach" in which evangelistic success is indicated by the number of so-called "decisions." Such decisions can be made for extraneous reasions. One Japanese leader alleges that the number of reported decisions since World War II exceeds the total population of Japan which is less than one percent Christian.
Clear signs that conversion has taken place are elusive. Ultimately, it can only be discerned by evidence of fruit of the Spirit, and this is both subtle and quite varied in its expression. The best recommendation is to be cautious in tallying immediate results. In reality, behavior over time is the only real indicator of evangelistic outcomes.
6. Receptivity often varies inversely with economic development. There is strong evidence that satiation of survival needs and achievement of middle class status lead to perceived satisfaction with life as it is. This means that expectations and preceived reality essentially coincide, thus leading to little or no desire for change. As a result, receptivity is lowered, thus creating a potent barrier for evangelism.
7. Those who are nonreceptive because of satisfaction or hostile religious attitude are largely impervious to standard evangelistic approaches. The best strategy is an incarnational strategy of Christian presence which generates felt need for change by demonstrating the reality of Christianiy in action and words (1 Peter 3:15).
8. Conversion, however it takes place, is most directly influenced and motivated through personal communication and evangelism. Other forms of media, especially mass media, are most useful in sowing seeds through changing knowledge and attitude except in those situations where personal witness is restricted or forbidden.
Conversion research is as yet infrequent and sporatic. It is difficult to advance generalizations with full confidence and there are some important unresolved issues.
1. How much biblical knowledge is required for valid conversion? The issue arises because of the biblical reality that spiritual truth can be fully understood only by spiritual people. How much can be understood prior to conversion?
2. How can appeal be made to felt need without leading to existential heresy? The excesses of the "health and wealth" gospel are all too evident worldwide in that many seem to be drawn to Christianity largely to have carnal desires met.
One answer lies in focusing clearly on movement from felt need to real need (excluding, of course, bodily and safety needs when felt and real needs coincide). But this requires interpersonal understanding and sensitivity because of the need to uncover the beliefs or presuppositions which lie beneath felt need. The best strategy seems to be coutering these false presuppositions with gospel truth.
If this is the correct approach, and many feel it is, how do we teach this to evangelists? There are no evangelistic formulae here. Instead, it is necessary for the evangelists to do some hard thinking and evaluation motivated by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
3. How do we break away from inappropriate reliance on reaping techniques when seed-sowing is required? Seed-sowing requires research on biblical knowledge, motivations, and needs. And, once again, there are no evangelistic formulae to move people closer to conversion. This presents another formidable challenge for training.
4. How can we be certain that a person is converted? Researchers are far from having the answer to this dilemma. Perhaps there are no universally valid measures. This issue must be addressed.
5. What can we do to overcome deepseated lack of receptivity among those with alien religious beliefs (i.e., the committed Muslim)? Some contend, with justification, that the fault lies in lack of proper contextualization. But is this the only problem?
6. How can we overcome the problem of the "satisfied"? Because of the inverse relationship between receptivity and economic development, should we consider generation of personal wealth a valid outcome of Christian development activities? What can be done to minimize the spiritual hardening which seems to take place?
Over these last two decades audience research has been demonstrated repeatedly as playing an essential role in evangelistic strategy. When it has been undertaken, both informally through conversation and more formally through surveys, significant gains have been made. We no longer need to demonstrate that audience (receptor) orientated communication is both biblically and pragmatically justified.
Furthermore, it is no longer appropriate to contend as some have done that research-based strategy reflects a non-biblical western managerial outlook. Indeed, most of the most successful and most cited examples of this approach are found in such countries as Kenya, Hong Kong and Egypt, not in the west. For some reason westerners have the unfortunate tendency to be more method-oriented.
Those engaged in research-based strategy, however, often are pragmatists lacking in theological sophistication. It is time for the theological community to interact meaningfully with us as partners, shedding greater scriptural light on biblical mandates. But we, in turn, have much to give to the theologians who, in a well-meaning way, can advance presuppositions that fail to reflect human reality.
1. See, for example, How Japanese Become Christians (Tokyo: Lutheran World Federation Office of Communications, undated); Deborah Ford Gourley, Conversion Experiences: College Students Describe Their Life-Changing Decisions (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina (USA), 1987); Robert Ferm, The Psychology of Christian Conversion (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1959); J. Loflund and R. Stark, "Becoming a World Saver: a Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective," American Sociological Review, 30 (1965), 862-875; and R. Ward Wilson, "A Social-pyshcological Study of Religious Experience with Special Emphasis on Christian Conversion" (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Florida (USA), 1976. For a good review of other published evidence, see Cedric B. Johnson and H. Newton Malony, Christian Conversion: Biblical and Psychological Perspectives (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1982). Also there are a number of unpublished studies undertaken by Management Development Associates and students at Wheaton College Graduate School.
2. Geoffrey, E.W. Scobie, Psychology of Religion (New York: Wiley, 1975).
3. See, for example, Vigo B. Sogaard, Everything You Need to Know for a Cassette Ministry (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1975); Em Griffin, The Mind Changers (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1976); Edward R. Dayton, Planning Strategies for Evangelism (Monrovia, Calif.: MARC, various editions); A.R. Tippett, Verdict Theology and Missionary Theory (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1973); James F. Engel and H. Wilbert Norton, What’s Gone Wrong with the Harvest (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975); and James F. Engel, Contemporary Christian Communications (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1979).
4. John Dewey, How We Think (New York: Heath, 1910) and Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein, Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1980).
5. Tippett, Verdict Theology.
6. L. Berkhoff, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1941).
7. Ajzen and Fishbein, Understanding Attitudes.
8. It is a misnomer to attach one name to this scale because of the multiplicity of others who have shaped its form, including especially Viggo Sogaard, Charles Kraft, Peter Wagner and Edward Dayton.
9. The most lengthy exposition appears in James F. Engel, Contemporary Christian Communications. The current version appears in James F. Engel, Communicating the Gospel with Understanding (Hong Kong: Christian Communications Ltd., 1987; and Accra, Ghana: Africa Christian Press, in press).
10. See Sogaard, Everything You Need to Know About a Cassette Ministry and Viggo Sogaard, Bangkok All Media Penetration Research (Bangkok, Thailand: Southern Baptist Mission, 1979).
11. This methodology is explained in James F. Engel, How Can I Get Them to Listen? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1977).
12. For a more extensive discussion see Charles H. Kraft, Communication Theory for Christian Witness (Nashville, Tenn.: Abington, 1983); and Engel, Contemporary Christian Communication.
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