The New Conversion: Why We 'Become Christians' Differently Today
It is not an overstatement to say that evangelicals are experiencing a "sea change"—a paradigm shift—in their understanding of conversion and redemption, a shift that includes the way in which they think about the salvation of God, the nature and mission of the church, and the character of religious experience. Although there is no one word to capture where evangelicals are going in this regard, there is a word that captures what they are leaving behind: revivalism.
Revivalism is a religious movement heir to both the 17th-century Puritans and the renewal movements of the 18th century, but one that largely emerged in the 19th century. It was broadly institutionalized in the 20th century in the conservative denominations in North America as well as in parachurch and mission agencies that then in turn spread the movement within North America and globally. For evangelicals up until at least a generation ago, the language of conversion was the language of revivalism; it shaped and in many ways determined their approach to worship, evangelism, and spiritual formation.
Evangelicalism is certainly not monolithic; the points at which evangelicals differ among themselves is significant—both Baptists and Pentecostals see themselves as coming under this umbrella, along with Mennonites, and then also Calvinists and Wesleyans. But for all their diversity, the way in which they spoke of conversion and redemption was remarkably similar. Evangelicals took for granted that the language and categories of revivalism were the language and categories of the New Testament. Conversion was viewed to be a punctiliar experience: persons could specify with confidence and assurance the time and place of their conversion, by reference, as often as not, to the moment when they prayed what was typically called "the sinner's prayer."
The focus of conversion was the afterlife: one sought salvation so that one could "go to heaven" after death, and the assumption was that "salvation" would lead to disengagement from the world. Once converted, the central focus of one's life would be church or religious activities, particularly those that helped others come to this understanding of salvation that assured them of "eternal life" after death. Life in the world was thought to hold minimal significance. What counted was the afterlife. And if one had "received Christ," one could be confident of one's eternity with God. Conversion was isolated from the experience of the church. Indeed, it was generally assumed that a person would come to faith outside of the church and then be encouraged, after conversion, to join a church community.
Typically evangelicals approached evangelism through the use of techniques or formulas by which a person would be introduced to spiritual principles or "laws" on the assumption that if these principles were accepted as "true," a person would offer an appropriate prayer and thus "become" a Christian.
Baptism, it was insisted, was subsequent to conversion and essentially optional. For although baptism was thought to be perhaps important, true spiritual experience was considered a personal, interior, subjective experience and thus not sacramental. Evangelicals have typically had a deep distrust in sacramental actions, insisting that they do not have redemptive significance.
Further, the church was often defined as in the business of making conversions happen; its life and mission were oriented toward getting more people converted through whatever means possible. Successful congregations were characterized by numerical "conversion growth."