Previous | Next

October 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 4 · pp. 10–15 

Contexts of Conversion

Al Dueck

“Becoming a Christian gave me a sense of fulfillment that I had never experienced before. I was a loner and found it hard to make friends. But then I met Jesus. He is the best friend ever. I can tell him everything that bothers me. He satisfies my deepest needs.”

“I grew up in a Christian home and attended church and Sunday school regularly. When I was a freshman in high school, my conscience began to bother me about some of the things I was doing. I felt guilty and depressed about my failures. I made my own decision to follow Jesus while watching an evangelist on TV. I personally experienced God’s forgiveness. The fact that God would love me unconditionally, regardless of what I did or didn’t do, was simply overwhelming. Afterwards I felt so clean inside. I was at peace with myself, and the legalistic attitude of some church members I knew could not take away my new freedom. I knew what God’s will was for my life, and I was not about to sacrifice this confidence.”

“It was like becoming a new person. My attitudes toward myself and toward God changed dramatically. Before, I felt inferior. I did not know where I was going. But becoming a Christian helped me to accept myself just as I was. God loved me, why should I not feel positive about myself as well? As a child of God I was a special being. As a result I began to feel much closer to God and I began to be much less critical of others. I gained confidence in myself because Jesus was with me in everything that I did. My grades in college went up and my relationship with my girlfriend improved. When I gave my life over to Christ I gained a new sense of meaning and direction in life.”

Conversion is an individual act that occurs in a social context. In the history of the church that individual act of turning has meant leaving behind the idols of self, family, and society and following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and of Jesus, John, and Paul. The social context of the call to conversion is the “cloud of witnesses” in the past who have responded to the same call and those today who in the midst of the congregation affirm that decision. But acts of conversion also occur in particular cultures that provide a setting for new converts and for the church. Turnings can be interpreted as genuine only when one {11} takes into consideration the state of both the Christianity and of the culture.

Western societies have been repeatedly criticized for their blatant individualism. What began as a healthy respect for the rights of the individual has degenerated into an obsession with the needs of the self. In such a setting the individual becomes the centre for all significant experience, events, decisions, and fulfillment. And so our societies face increasing narcissism, fragmentation, and the loss of interpersonal responsibility. The church has not escaped the ethos of individualism. In this atmosphere conversion becomes my personal relationship with God. It emphasizes the satisfaction of my needs, the fulfillment of my desires, and resolution of my personal conflicts. While conversion always has individual consequences, in an individualistic conversion there is little awareness of suffering, reconciliation with others, restitution, or the conflicts that a decision to become a Christian might entail.

The conversion accounts above were constructed from the scattered, written reports of Mennonite Brethren. They all have one thing in common; they focus on personal concerns and are silent on changes in relationships with others. The questions we face, then, are as follows: What constitutes a conversion which is individual but not individualistic? What is the responsibility of the church in the face of rampant individualism?


The idea of the individual is a contribution of Western civilization. Essentially, this conception of the individual person can be broken down into at least five components. First, it emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual. That uniqueness is contrasted with impersonal, mass society. Second, the individual person is independent, free to plan and choose a course of action. Mindless conformity is anathema. Third, the privacy of the person is a sovereign domain, not to be violated by any group. Fourth, the inner world of abilities and disciplines is the locus of self-development. And lastly, Western societies have affirmed the intrinsic worth of the individual life. This view of the person is the genius of the West. It has been the major force behind the emancipation of persons from oppressive societies. Freedom is then translated to mean the right to pursue one’s own dream to enrich one’s personal life, to create one’s own world.

Individuality is not incongruent with Christianity. Jesus called his disciples one by one and each was required to make a decision. For Christians, salvation comes as a result of the act of a single person obedient {12} to the will of God—Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul and the early church clearly called individual persons to repentance and obedience. In fact some theologians have asserted that this view of the significance of the individual in Christianity is the major influence behind the Western view of the person.

From the positive perspective of individuality conversion means that my response to God’s love, forgiveness, and faithfulness is an individual act. It is unique in that it is a radical turning from sin, self-centredness, and disobedience to forgiveness, love, and submission. Choice is involved. We are encouraged to weigh the alternatives. It involves a change of heart and is thus inward. It results in the satisfaction of some of our deepest longings to be loved and forgiven and remembered. It is an act which confirms the essential dignity of the person in the eyes of God. Thus in many ways conversion reinforces the view of individuality described above.


Individualism assumes that the individual is the absolute point of departure for an understanding of individuality. While it led to the emancipation of individuals from oppressive institutions, it has had two major consequences, devastating both for the church and for society. The first is the rise of narcissism. The second is the loss of a sense of community and tradition (to be discussed below). Individualism is individuality without limit or context.

In a narcissistic society uniqueness means having one’s own personal identify crisis. Independence turns out to be rationalization of self-interest. Privacy becomes an obsession with subjective processes. Self-development degenerates into egotism. The focus on the dignity of the individual human being becomes a form of idolatry. In our culture narcissism has manifested itself in an excessive preoccupation with psychology, and obsession with self awareness and subjectivity. Carl Rogers, a well-known American psychologist, has said that for the mature person the only meaningful question is: “Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me?” Wall posters in the dorm rooms of our students proclaim this bold individualism: “I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations nor are you in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I. And if perchance we find each other, it’s beautiful.”

A second consequence of individualism is the loss of a sense of community. In the process of liberating the individual from repressive culture, culture itself is rejected, as if society is an entity separate from the person. A radical distinction is made between public and private. At {13} best, that separate culture allows each person to pursue his/her own enlightened self-interest and, at worst, it encroaches on personal freedoms. In the first case it is assumed that society is a collection of individuals bound by a social contract which allows the individual to develop individual interests without harming others. It provides support but it does not demand. In the second case it is asserted that society too easily presumes authority over the individual. Institutional authority over-rides personal authority. Autonomy is sacrificed and privacy eliminated as the individual becomes a pawn in the hands of any group.

From the perspective of the individualist, any community is viewed negatively. A community which emerges because its members have a common vision, a commitment to voluntary sacrifice of personal interests for the sake of the other person, and a common language with which and through which to describe the world is easily perceived by the individualist as demanding conformity. When the older generation explicitly and the ethos implicitly expects obedience to a vision that has emerged from the history of the community, the individualist who has not experienced that history senses alienation and judgement. Communal expectations are perceived as legalistic. The separation from other communities that is a natural consequence of a particular vision, set of commitments, and network of beliefs is viewed as provincialism and sectarianism. The desire to maintain continuity with the generations that have preceded is rejected as conservatism and traditionalism. The order and predictability that develop over time in any culture is perceived by the disenchanted as an over-protective, secure environment that requires no risks and is suspicious of novelty and variety.


In an individualistic culture conversion may well take on a narcissistic and asocial bent. Narcissistic conversion makes the experience an end in itself and a personal possession. Intensity and novelty are the criteria of validity. It focuses interminably on the quality of the decision. The entire Christian life is judged on how one has made the decision. Such a conversion is preoccupied with introspection, analysis, and the satisfaction of personal needs of security (eternal salvation), peace (internal harmony), and belonging (the family of God). In the narcissistic conversion, the experience affirms my abilities and strengths. Conversion is perceived as the sole cause of academic achievement, financial success, and public leadership. In this form, conversion is a thinly disguised form of egotism.

When conversion becomes asocial in nature, one forgets the churchly context of conversion and the larger social responsibility it entails. Such a conversion is a personal commitment to God, made alone, {14} whether before a TV set or in a mass rally. It is then an experience so unique that it cannot be compared with the experiences of others, and so it is not open to public verification. Since conversion is a matter of exercising my free choice, no human, whether the tradition of my parents or of my church, can decide what constitutes an ideal conversion. Such a conversion is seen as an event that results in the fullfillment of personal needs not the needs of others. It is a shift from anxiety to assurance, from conflict to harmony, from fragmentation to wholeness. It is a call not to help build the Kingdom community but to enrich my personal life. Lastly, such an individualistic conversion affirms the personal capabilities for change and the essentially positive forces in the human heart to the exclusion of the resources of the church and its contribution to one’s spiritual development, Conversion is then, in the language of contemporary psychology, the creation of personal identity, self actualization, self fulfillment, and self acceptance.


To encourage such narcissistic and anti-social conversions is to undermine the very calling of the church to be a redeemed community and a sign of the Kingdom. What then are the options open to the church in response to individualistic forms of conversion?

First, we must counter the interpretation of conversion as exclusive and unique by providing public contexts in which conversion experiences are shared, interpreted, and examined. But churches which have accepted the individualism of our age are increasingly hesitant to evaluate conversions. Not surprisingly, candidates for baptism often share their conversion stories and pilgrimages with the church council, not the whole congregation.

Second, the church must correct the assumption that conversion is independent of church and tradition by making it clear that a new personal identity comes with a new history, a new story. It means the entry into the history of God’s acts both in the lives of His people and in the world. This story begins with the creation of the world and continues through the Exodus and Pentecost to the present. Conversion does not occur in a social-historical vacuum. The faithfulness of this body of witnesses to the truth ought to be the context which influences the form and context of conversion, not the context of the spirit of our age.

Furthermore, if the history of the church is the context of conversion, then it is not unexpected that some assumptions regarding the nature and effects of the conversion experience should develop. The church must hold up the vision of what conversion should mean even if {15} that vision has not yet been attained. For example, there is good reason to believe that Paul’s statement that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) was a baptismal formula (cf. v. 27). This implies that at the time of baptism the ideal of the life of the church and of society which would transcend sex, status, or nationality was upheld. Such a public statement set a model for what conversion to Christianity might entail, a model that was clearly not individualistic.

Third, the church must deepen the interpretation of conversion as a private experience which pertains only to personal matters by insisting that conversion is an act of covenant not only with the people of God but also with the world which God loves. It is an act by which one enters the company of Christians who have preceded him and who will follow him. It is an act by which we indicate our willingness to respond to the call to love and care and fellowship in the context of responsible, accountable covenantal relationships.

Fourth, when conversion is perceived as personal development, then the importance of building up the body of Christ is secondary. While becoming a Christian often results in personal satisfactions, it also results in both personal and interpersonal conflict. For Jesus the call for the inauguration of the Kingdom resulted in brokenness and suffering. In relation to others it meant a posture of servanthood. When the fulfillment of personal needs is over-emphasized, conversion as a task and a calling is minimized. For the apostle Paul the focus was not so much the resolution of guilt as it was a call to bring the Good News of God’s love to the Gentiles.

Conversion, then, is not simply the experience of isolated individuals. Rather, it is the act of making a covenant with God and it occurs in a social context. That context is the community of people who have transmitted the vision of faithfulness and are committed to incarnating it. Augustine made the point clearly: “I would not have believed the gospel if the authority of the church had not moved me.” The fundamental question we face is whether the church today possesses the authority to move individuals to authentic conversion.

Al Dueck is a member of the faculty of Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California.

Previous | Next