Re-storying conversion

Listening to students' accounts of coming to Christ

Brad M. Griffin | Feb 27, 2007

Photo by seyhoop6

Is there more than one way to Christ?

Tough question. Now I’m not talking about more than one way to God other than Jesus Christ. Rather, is there more than one way to discover this Jesus?

Any evangelism training you may have had in the past possibly suggested one clear, direct (and often urgent) path towards “winning” a friend, neighbor, or perhaps a stranger to Christ. Or if you were really lucky, you learned three, five, or ten ways to lead someone to the point where you “pop the question” and find evangelistic success.

But do our strategies always prove helpful for winning a “convert”? Do our sin and salvation metaphors make any sense at all to the kid sitting across from us in the McDonald’s booth when we’re giving it our best effort? And do the tricks we teach the students in our youth groups actually enhance their witness to their non-believing friends?

Many among the evangelical community have spoken out over the last decade on this issue. Our website hosts an article by Brian McLaren that challenges us to “A radical rethinking of our evangelistic strategy,” in which he offers some suggestions that I will not repeat here. One common theme that has emerged in both scholarship and popular writing is that of recovering the “story” aspect of conversion. Narrative, and specifically the narrative of the story of God and God’s people, is the new hot evangelistic term.

But how—if at all—is this emphasis on narrative actually changing the way we think about conversion?

Reforming conversion ideals—Refocusing on the process

Evangelism scholar and Fuller Seminary faculty member Richard Peace points out that modern Christian evangelism has focused primarily on “a single issue: accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior now, at this moment in time.” [Richard Peace, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 4.] By and large, this still seems to be the trend in perspectives of conversion in youth ministry (and in the church broadly). However, while few would argue that this is the biblical paradigm for Paul’s conversion (a radical moment-in-time decision, repentance, and transformation), perhaps it’s not the only model for “coming to Christ” in the New Testament.

In fact, Peace discovered through his study of the gospel of Mark that the author presents the twelve core disciples as examples whose conversions actually took the form of a process. Their journey with Jesus consisted of a lot of doubt and getting it wrong before they actually followed Christ in faith. [And some would argue that Mark leaves them as rather questionable believers in the end.] With this new perspective, Peace began to ask, “What might evangelism look like if we accepted the fact that for a lot of people [conversion] is a long-term process by which they come to faith in Jesus?” [Ibid, 5.]

In this paradigm, our primary task shifts towards helping others in the process of spiritual discernment—discerning their hunger for God, their views of God, their questions about and for God, and the process and potential end point of their spiritual pilgrimage. [Peace encourages a three-part process based on the focal image of pilgrimage: quest (search for meaning), commitment (to the person of Christ), and formation (growth in a lifestyle of discipleship—becoming one who actively follows Jesus). Ibid, 310-319.]

Naturally, how we think about conversion drives how we do evangelism. So depending on your paradigm, you might either ask “Will you receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior today?” or “Where are you in your spiritual pilgrimage and with what issue are you wrestling when it comes to God?” [Ibid, 286.] Both are evangelistic questions, but they might assume different definitions of conversion. And, we might argue, these questions need not be mutually exclusive. In other words, pilgrimage that never actually leads anywhere isn’t really pilgrimage at all—it’s just wandering aimlessly.

Recovering Students’ Stories

Wherever we may land in our definitions of conversion, ministering among adolescents in our particular time and place requires another level of application. How are the kids in our community responding to the Gospel? What seems to draw students towards pursuing relationship with Christ and his Church? When you think about students who have begun to follow Jesus over the last two years, what factors were involved in that decision?

These were the types of questions that led Dr. Tom Bergler and Dr. Dave Rahn of Huntington University’s Link Institute for Youth Ministry to conduct research on adolescent conversion. [This study begins to address a noticeable gap in conversion research. While studies of religious conversion go back 100 years, surprisingly little research has been done on adolescent Christian conversions since the 1960s. Most of conversion research has focused on conversion to non-Christian cults, and what does exist asks adults to think back to an experience that took place during their teen years. For more of the findings from this study, see Thomas Bergler and Dave Rahn, “Results of a Collaborative Research Project in Gathering Evangelism Stories,” Journal of Youth Ministry (4:2, Spring 2006, p. 65-74).] In their 2005 study, Bergler and Rahn purposefully sought to gather the stories of adolescents ages 16-20 who self-identified as becoming followers of Christ within the previous two years. They listened to the stories of 70 such students, and analyzed the words and themes that emerged from their narratives.

From their story-gathering research, Bergler and Rahn reveal some interesting findings:

  • When these students think about their “experience of first choosing to become a follower of Jesus Christ,” the most commonly-mentioned factors they describe are 1) Being in a setting away from their normal environment (church camps, retreats, conferences); 2) An experience of personal turmoil; and 3) The non-verbal influence of their friends’ lives.
  • When asked to identify what they believed to be the most important influence on their conversion, students reported 1) Again, the non-verbal witness of their friends; 2) The verbal influence of their friends; and 3) Their parents.
  • The significance of friends’ verbal interactions was most prominent among youth whose families had little or no religious involvement and who had no memorable childhood religious experiences. In other words, unchurched kids seem most likely to respond to their own friends who both talk about and live out their faith in front of them. Further, friends’ invitations to attend a camp or retreat were often noted as being important influences.
  • Camps, retreats, and conference settings provide fertile ground for the cultivation of new faith. This particular study also found that these events are most significant to kids who have little or no religious background, and particularly so when there is a specific “challenge to act”. This challenge is most important for guys, who mention the impact of this type of invitation more often than girls.
  • Youth leaders’ verbal influence ranked 7th on the list of most important influences in conversion, while youth leaders’ non-verbal actions ranked 5th.
  • For kids who grow up in more religious homes and who have memorable childhood religious experiences, but later make a significant decision to follow Christ, there is a tendency to devalue this background and to consider themselves non-Christians before that conversion experience.

An Interview with Dave Rahn

In order to flesh these results out a bit, I asked Dave Rahn to share the potential significance of their findings for youth workers.

Why study youth evangelism and conversion?

The study was originally a request from the Ministry Council of the National Network of Youth Ministries. In the context of their discussions, they realized that they were making assumptions about effective youth evangelism strategies that were unsubstantiated. Our research was intended to help guide youth evangelism practices by shedding light on stories of conversion.

“Conversion” can be a difficult concept to nail down. How did you define “conversion” for this study, and how did you describe it in your questions to students?

We asked two questions that we used as “conversion qualifiers:” “1) Would you agree with the following statement: I currently consider myself to be a follower of Jesus Christ?” and “2) Did you consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus Christ before the year 2003?” Respondents who answered “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second question qualified for our study.

We had done a quick previous study wherein we learned that at least two-thirds of college youth ministry majors would describe that they came to Christ “over time, like Peter” as opposed to “in a clearly memorable moment, like Paul.” The language we chose seemed to be the best to define what we cared about studying.

What did you find beneficial about using an interview process instead of a survey for this topic? What was significant about hearing kids’ stories?

The interview process allowed us to hear what kids thought was important to their conversion story in their own language and as they understood it. A survey construction would have supplied them with prompts or categories that might have nudged them into responses that they never would have made without us supplying them with such cues.

Of the factors and influences you discovered that seem to be related to adolescent conversions, what do you find most interesting or mystifying?

There was a strong affirmation by the teens in our study that relational influences—especially with friends—had a greater impact on their conversion than contextual or programmatic influences. While not surprising to many of us, there were probably some youth ministers looking for the newer, faster, better method in youth evangelism. I was also fascinated to see that a number of students who self-identified as new followers of Christ had no trouble also identifying a time during their childhood when they had prayed to receive Christ into their lives.

What do you make of the findings that “friends nonverbal” and “youth leaders nonverbal” were first and fifth on the list of most important influences in a student choosing to follow Christ?

Youth workers need to understand that simply getting the right words in front of people—often defined as proclaiming the gospel—is never done without some backdrop of context, history, meaning and experiences on the part of listeners. How we LIVE as followers of Jesus will probably be the loudest message communicated to seekers about what it MEANS to be a follower of Christ.

Interestingly, your study also found that friends’ verbal influence was a significant factor in decisions to follow Christ, in cases where the adolescent had little previous family religious involvement and where they had no memorable religious experiences in childhood. How should this influence our thoughts about equipping kids to talk about their faith as well?

Kids—all of us, probably—tend to project our experiences on others. So when Christian students think about sharing their faith, they aren’t too terribly concerned with getting the details right because, after all, everyone already knows God’s story, don’t they? Our Christian students must be led to understand how far from true that is. Words are even more important when someone is trying to make sense of an idea that is foreign to their own experience.

In the discussion of your findings, you suggest that using camp and retreat settings and including a “challenge to act” is an important strategy for adolescent conversions, especially with males. How do you respond to the suggestion that this type of strategy seems somewhat manipulative and inauthentic?

I’m not too dissuaded by these comments. First of all, a lot of ministry, or education, for that matter, is about manipulating an environment so that it helps communicate the message. Some forms of manipulation are more heavy-handed than others, but simply choosing a quiet park for a conversation rather than a crowded family apartment is a form of manipulation. “Manipulation” as a word or concept isn’t really the issue, is it? I would suggest that our concerns are more about ethical standards in the communication/persuasion process.

To be perfectly honest, I think often we have to manipulate the environment as much to preserve the integrity of teens’ decision-making process and respect their dignity as we do to communicate the gospel. I probably would wish that people more naturally connected the dots, that they easily saw the implications that newly acquired values—like deciding that Jesus is worth following—have on the behaviors that such values require. They don’t. This research suggests that young people—especially males—benefit from having someone give them behavior-specific instructions to activate their new faith. There is certainly plenty of evidence in the New Testament that points to this sort of strategy. I see the “challenge to act” as helping young people make a move that gets some traction as they construct memories of meaning around this new life that they have chosen. It certainly fits the self-perception theory related to attitude change, where attitudes get “locked in” because we see ourselves acting on them.

The final hypothesis you suggest for further research states, “Christian youth environments that produce teenage conversions may tend to influence some of those converts to devalue childhood religious experiences and to regard themselves as not really Christian prior to their adolescent conversion experiences.” Can you share more about how we as youth workers might respond to this tendency?

This is tricky because it is informed by our theological convictions about salvation and conversion. What I would suggest is that we focus on how young people understand their current relationships with Christ. Helping them to normalize their lives and identities as followers of Jesus today is the goal. While I don’t think it’s necessary to minimize childhood experiences, it may be necessary to reflect on the journey. What happened between their childhood decisions to become Christ-followers and today? Maybe the original decision was ill-informed, but it’s not necessary to say it didn’t do anything at all. We don’t know that. Concentrate on how to go forward, building on both the positive and negative experiences of the past.

Where do you see evangelism and evangelism training heading in youth ministry in the coming years? Are the changes you see happening currently leading us to more or less helpful places?

I like the direction evangelism is taking in youth ministry, and think it supports our findings. Conversations and relationships; listening, then sharing; less formulaic and more honest processing.

What practical suggestions can you make to youth workers who want to better understand evangelism and conversion and adjust their ministries to more effectively and authentically bring good news into students’ lives?

Self-serving, I know, but I just finished working on a project with my friends in Youth for Christ that will be published by Youth Specialties this spring. I really think that this 8 week 3Story® training curriculum for students will be wonderfully helpful to the cause of youth evangelism.

What’s different about this approach that you’re excited about?

I think it does a nice job coaching kids to live authentically and openly with their friends as followers of Jesus. It prioritizes the need to abide in Christ. It emphasizes discovering my friends’ stories and loving them enough to help them find their own connection to Jesus. Sort of like Jesus seemed to do throughout the gospels. Most of all, it de-emphasizes “decisionalism”, acknowledging that the Holy Spirit will move in his time. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a sense of urgency, but our urgency needs to be placed on being faithful to Jesus, living deeply in him and loving our friends, which includes exchanging our stories with one another. I think this is a much different focus than being driven with the urgency to bring about an end or decision over which I have little control.

Reconsidering our Practices: Action Points for Youth Workers

  • Camps, retreats, and conferences have long been seen as important venues for drawing students to Christ. Physical and psychological separation from their normal environment, along with sharing intense experiences with others, create ideal settings for kids to make important spiritual decisions. We should note, however, that this is the same recruitment tactic employed by religious cults. [[Thomas Bergler and Dave Rahn, “Results of a Collaborative Research Project,” 5.]] How can we carefully design these experiences such that they do not manipulate students and force a decision they simply aren’t prepared to make? Further, how do we keep at bay our attempts at manipulating God’s action, allowing the Holy Spirit to be the one who convicts and transforms students, not us? What implications might this have for the way we plan our next retreat?
  • While our words are certainly important, this study still ranks the youth worker’s verbal influence lower than non-verbal influence, and lower than a student’s own friends’ non-verbal and verbal influence as well as their parents’. In other words, our words may not have the impact we think they do, or perhaps not in the same way we think they do. This requires humility on our part, and a willingness to place a higher value on helping kids become effective disciples who live out their faith alongside their friends. And given that parents’ influence was the third most important factor in conversion, perhaps we need to give more credibility and support to the parents of kids we know.
  • In our work with adolescents and their families, are we doing them any favors by suggesting that their faith journeys before the “moment” they make a decision to follow Christ are worthless? Is the work of faithful parents and other believers a contribution to the faith-forming process, or is it simply laying the ground for the “real” work of evangelism? Youth workers may need to carefully rethink this one. We have a tendency to congratulate ourselves (sometimes in front of parents) for “saving” kids who have in fact been on a very significant pilgrimage before our influence. Our language may actually do more harm than good to the family—and to the work of the kingdom.
  • Invite some of the students you know who have come to know Christ over the past year or two to sit down with you and share their stories. Compare what you hear with these findings, and talk with your ministry team about it.
  • Think about a couple of adults in your ministry with whom you could discuss this article. Email this to them, and plan a lunch or coffee meeting to talk about the implications of your models of conversion and your church’s evangelistic practices for the students and families among whom you work.


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Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.


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