Culture, Conversion, and Post-Christian America

Jonathan Dodson explains how various cultures experience conversion differently and what that means for evangelism in the United States today.

Gospel change in some cultures is more gradual than instantaneous. The American Evangelical tradition of “deep consciousness of personal sin followed by a sense of joyous liberation” is not common to all cultures. Missionaries labored for years before they saw a single conversion, and even then, the conversions were sometimes very different than what they expected. Cultures that are more communal experience conversion differently that cultures that are highly individualistic. In many African and Asian cultures, conversions come in pairs or families instead of by single individuals. Not all gospel change happens identically, especially across cultures.

What these missionaries encountered “on the field” is beginning to occur in the U.S. Many church planters have a pre-Christian past that is very “Christian.” We inherited the evangelical, pietistic conversion experience of our forefathers. Like the conversions of our missionary forefathers, our personal conversion relied heavily upon a prevailing Christianized culture, common basic knowledge of God, sin, faith and Christ. But America has changed. We cannot assume our listeners possess the same knowledge and experience that we did, which is precisely why it is so crucial that we exercise pastoral wisdom through contextualization.

What do you think? Although the gospel never changes, must we change our methods of evangelism in order to share Christ with those in a post-Christian culture?


  1. John W says:

    I have been pondering this lately in the context of “The Church” and “Congregations”. First, I will not surprise anyone by saying that I do think this needs to change. If evangelizing does not keep up with the current ways in which people are most likely to at least hear out the message, then it risks becoming irrelevant in the least — in the most, perhaps an annoyance. (Tangent about the annoyance — I know the media does its best to put the “idiots” on the screen, but it seems that there is more being heard than seen. I am concerned that the greater perception of Christianity in this country is due to words and not meaningful acts. Sadly, it only takes one fool on the news to cast a bad light on all of us. Now, back to the main topic…)

    I have been thinking that the notion of preaching to a congregation still seems to be very centered around the idea that everyone else knows little or nothing at all about their own view on scripture. for centuries, it was the role of the Church to essentially prescribe people’s beliefs to them — I don’t find the parallel to being sheep any kind of coincidence as I look back over history.

    Today, we still need to be tended to as a flock, but we have more resources available to us to become “enlightened” about scripture and our beliefs. We have the ability to think about harder questions and challenge ourselves with more inputs — and not just from outside Christianity. Perhaps there are still very sheeplike congregations out there, but how should a Paster handle a congregation that is more informed about their Faith? Is preaching to a crowd effective anymore? Is there a need to transform the congregational time into something that allows more more meaningful one-on-one conversation?

    I think this parallels to evangelism. Hellfire and Brimstone doesn’t work anymore — those we are evangelizing to aren’t ignorant peasants from the middle ages willing to fear eternal damnation. It is more likely that we are evangelizing to “middle of the road” people, or people who have flat out decided not to believe in anything; threatening them with Hell and Satan isn’t exactly the candy-coating on the message to keep them listening.

    Context is so important — even in understanding the Bible. Similarly, it is important in evangelizing. Who is the audience? What do they believe (or not)? What is the secular approach to Christianity? How can we bring The Good News to them in a way that will at least get them to listen to it? We need to pay attention to the world around us. We may be “not of it”, but we are certainly “in it”, and so is our target audience.

  2. Bethany says:

    An excellent resource is a book called Holy Conversations by Richard Peace. The author believes that many Americans today are actually very interested in “spiritual” things, but want to have conversations, not one way “lectures”. Many common evangelical methods rely on a format where the Christian is the one with the answers, telling the other person what he/she needs to know. This becomes a one-sided approach that is off-putting to many. To quote one of the “blurbs”, “More and more Christians are realizing that what people outside the faith need is not a sales pitch, an argument, a sermon or an information dump. Instead, they need caring, thoughtful conversation partners.” We are only in the 3rd chapter in our study group,but I have already had a number of natural, “holy conversations” that have come up with friends and strangers.

  3. Deb says:

    There is a proverb that says: “As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another.” Such sharpening does not happen when pastors lecture, parishioners listen, everybody says Amen and goes home. It is in the *articulation* of beliefs and thoughts about faith that people are forced to examine and refine those beliefs and thoughts. And it is in listening to others’ beliefs and thoughts about faith that we are challenged to further examine and refine. Not necessarily change (though that is a possibility) but certainly to continue to delve deeper and deeper — in short, to grow rather than stagnate.

    I actually feel as badly for pastors in the preach/listen scenario as I do for the people in the pews. Though there is certainly a place for a “facilitator” who has put in the time to study scripture at a level others have not, pastors need this iron against their iron as much as anyone else… more, in fact. If they are going to continue to be true leaders, then they need to be examining and refining all the more. And this sort of sharpening does not come from books. It comes from conversations. Too many people hold their pastors up in such a way that they are unable or unwilling to challenge them as they should be challenged, for the sake of the personal growth of all involved.

  4. Roger says:

    As a Christian artist and worship leader I have seen many different types of preaching styles but they all follow this same preach listen format. For mega-churches I don’t see how they could do it any other way (of course I can’t see how they can effectively tend those congregations anyway due to their size but I digress…). For other smaller churches it can be hard to change due to a large percentage of older folks who simply want to sit and be lectured to since it was good enough for Grand-Pappy. I think this may be why so many churches are going to small groups meeting in peoples homes during the week instead of having a large mid-week service. These small groups are all about conversation. They are designed to allow people to tackle the deeper issues and I know of many people who decided to follow Christ because they, in their words, “…had finally met some real Christians who had brains…”

    John W. mentioned how our approach to evangelism also needs to evolve and I agree. I have been in ministry for a decade now and have seen many different ways to evangelize and honestly, most no longer work very well. I went to Belgium on a missions trip in 2001 and was amazed to see how evangelism happens there. It is relationship based and it takes time. I was there for 2 weeks and talked to at least 100 people the first week and then followed up with about 10 the next week. Over the next few months members of the church that hosted the outreach met with the people who were still interested and gradually a small home church was born.

    What I learned from that was this, in our disconnected western societies we have lost that sense of community (for the most part) and our connectedness to it. We are all alone typing on our computers sharing ideas with complete strangers trying to feel more connected to someone, anyone. When we as Christians reach out and build a real face to face relationship with someone it really makes a difference to them. They know we care about them as we put more and more time into building that relationship and they are more willing to listen when we do have those “holy conversations” Bethany mentioned.

    I should caution however that if you aren’t really interested in them as a person and only as a potential convert that you will most likely, in the end, force them further away from Christ as they are looking for genuine relationship (something that we have lost in America IMO). No one likes to be treated or thought of as simply a “closed sale” or “potential customer”. They want to be seen for who they are, just like we do.

  5. Ray Fowler says:

    Some great comments all around. Let me add my own thoughts to the comments about preaching.

    I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss the traditional model of preaching. (Of course, I’m a pastor, I have to say that, right? 🙂 ) It seems to me we set up a false dichotomy when we set traditional preaching against dialogue. Why not have both?

    There are many benefits to the traditional preaching model — careful study of God’s word, carefully constructed message around a central idea, encouragement, exhortation and application of the word to our lives. There are biblical reasons that support a traditional model of preaching as well.

    There are many benefits to dialogue, too. In fact, the Bible also supports dialogue and encouraging each other in the faith. There are many ways to incorporate dialogue in the church without losing the benefits of preaching. Sunday School classes, small groups, dicussion groups, etc. all provide for this “iron sharpens iron” aspect of the faith. At our church we actually have a discussion class immediately following the message in order to interact with the word and learn from each other.

    A couple more thoughts. Some of the comments above refer to preaching as a lecture. Although there are some similarities (person up front speaking), I believe Biblical preaching is a very different form of communication than a lecture or a speech. Biblical preaching is more proclamation of truth than just impartation of information. Therefore, anyone who is seeking to hear God’s truth from his word will benefit from preaching, even if they know more than the preacher does!

    For example, I already know Jesus rose from the dead informationally, but I still benefit when I hear this truth proclaimed in the preaching of God’s word. It encourages me, it focuses my heart on God, it draws me to worship, it builds me up in my faith. That’s what preaching is meant to do.

    So to summarize, I believe the Bible points us both to preaching and dialogue. If someone just goes to church on Sunday, listens to the message and goes home, and never interacts with other believers, they are missing out on a vital aspect of Christian faith. In the same way, if someone just goes to small group, talks about the Bible with other believers, and never listens attentively to the proclamation of God’s word in preaching, they are also missing out on a vital aspect of Christian faith. Both are good; both are needed; both are Biblical.

  6. John W says:

    “At our church we actually have a discussion class immediately following the message in order to interact with the word and learn from each other.” — Now that’s a great idea. That should be put into practice in more places.

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