The New Conversion: Why We 'Become Christians' Differently Today
Significantly, conversion was viewed as something distinct from "disciple-making." The making of disciples was thought to be subsequent to conversions. Thus evangelicals would speak of "making converts into disciples"; evangelism and disciple-making were distinguished, and typically the approach to evangelism was distinct from the approach to spiritual formation.
On each of these points, evangelicals are moving toward a thorough reenvisioning of the nature of conversion and redemption. Increasingly, there is appreciation that conversion is a complex experience by which a person is initiated into a common life with the people of God who together seek the in-breaking of the kingdom, both in this life and in the world to come. This experience is mediated by the church and thus necessarily includes baptism as a rite of initiation. The power or energy of this experience is one of immediate encounter with the risen Christ—rather than principles or laws—and this experience is choreographed by the Spirit rather than evangelistic techniques. Evangelicals are reappropriating the heritage of the Reformation with its emphasis on the means of grace, and thereby affirming the priority of the Spirit's work in religious experience.
The fundamental categories and assumptions of revivalism are thus being questioned as never before. There were voices in the past that questioned revivalism: C S. Lewis, always adored by evangelicals, was seemingly oblivious to the language and categories of revivalism. A. W. Tozer, J. I. Packer, and John R. W. Stott, while obviously evangelicals, nevertheless seemed to be able to articulate the Christian faith in other than the language and categories of revivalism, as did many others. But the difference of the past generation of theological reflection is that we can genuinely speak of a sea change, so much so that the language and categories of revivalism are simply no longer viable. However much this vision powerfully shaped the life of the church and its mission and, indeed, influenced more than a generation of evangelical missionaries to spread around the globe, the church has over the past generation sought new linguistic wineskins and new theological categories by which to understand conversion and redemption.
A number of factors have brought about this thorough rethinking and thus the challenge to revivalism.
Biblical studies. Evangelicals are indebted to both Old and New Testament scholars, including James Dunn, Gordon Fee, N. T Wright, Christopher Wright, and others, who have called for a biblical theology of conversion and redemption that is more deeply rooted in the Scriptures and that takes account of the full scope of God's purposes in Christ. These scholars are drawing more fully on the vision of God's righteousness that emerges in the Old Testament and finds expression in the Gospels, as well as the letters of Paul—and not just a verse here or there, but rather the grand sweep of Pauline theology. As this vision of God's salvation permeates the language and thought of evangelicals, they are being weaned from their propensity to make a one-to-one correlation between conversion and "getting saved." More and more evangelicals appreciate that God's salvation has both a past and future dimension, is about not merely conversion but lifelong transformation, and has both a corporate and cosmic dimension.
The nature of religious experience. Theologians within the evangelical tradition are learning from interdisciplinary contributions to the study of the nature of religious experience, and thus by implication the experience of conversion. Philosophers (such as Charles Taylor and Louis Dupre), behavioral scientists (notably Lewis Rambo, but also developmental theorists such as James Fowler and Erik Erickson, as well as anthropologists such as Paul Hiebert) have broadened the evangelical appreciation of the phenomenon of religious experience. This consideration of the nature of religious experience has also been informed by critical reflection on a postmodern awareness of the spiritual dimension of life, and of the nature of Christian religious experience in a post-Christian social environment (see especially Brad Kallenberg and Robert Webber on this). Further, as evangelical witness has led to the conversion of Hindus and Muslims, there has been an increasing willingness to ask, for example, not "how should a Muslim become a Christian" but how does it actually happen: What is the character of their experience and how can we appreciate this without having to superimpose the categories of revivalism on their faith journey?