For the next two issues, I’ll be sharing some of the insights on conversion and evangelism that I gleaned while writing my MA thesis a few years ago. Don’t worry, though—I’m not taking over Good Idea permanently. After next month we’ll get back to hearing from a variety of authors.
Reconciliation is a relational word: two parties who were previously estranged are brought together, and a friendship renewed or formed. It is one of the ways the New Testament describes the transformation that occurs when someone becomes a Christian. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” (2 Cor 5:17–18). Part of what happens during conversion, then, is the formation of a relationship with God.
This has important implications when it comes to sharing our faith. Paul describes evangelism as “the ministry of reconciliation,” refers to the gospel as “the message of reconciliation” and depicts us as ambassadors of Christ, appealing to people to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:18–20). In other words, our job is to help people who are estranged from God establish a friendship with him.
The same God who created us to connect with other people also designed us to connect to himself, so we can expect to find some similarities between the two kinds of relationships and how they grow over time. Communication scholar Mark Knapp outlines a five-stage process that describes the development of human relationships. However, it can also help us envision what happens as people begin a relationship with God:
Initiating refers to the moment when two parties meet for the first time. While this phase is brief and superficial, it sets the tone for the relationship—and determines whether one is desired at all. The earliest stage of a relationship with God is similar. While individuals may have heard about God, and may even allow for the possibility of his existence, it is at this point they become personally aware of his reality. This may be through an initial sense of his presence, an answered prayer, or some other personally significant sign that he is there—and interested.
The next phase in human relationships, experimenting, focuses on gathering information about the other person—their hometown, occupation, hobbies, and other basic facts. This often takes the form of “small talk” which creates a sense of safety, opens paths for future conversations, and “auditions” the potential friendship. Individuals in this phase of the divine-human relationship are also experimenting: attending church, reading the Bible and other books, having conversations, and getting to know the basic facts about God and Christianity. As they begin to pray (sporadically and timidly), they may also have a sense that God is getting to know them as well.
In the intensifying stage, increasing self-disclosure leads to growing trust, vulnerability, and intimacy between two people. Insider vocabulary is developed and the relationship itself becomes a topic of conversation. Similarly, in a relationship with God this phase is characterized by intensified interest and an increasing sense that the relationship is two-way. Prayer and worship become more frequent and intimate, and the quest for God becomes more active and all-encompassing.
The next phase, integrating, moves beyond information to transformation. As commitment grows, incompatibilities must be addressed and compromises made. Both parties must change so they can be more fully connected to each other. In divine-human relationships, this is the point at which questions of discipleship and commitment must be answered. Integrating God into a human life calls for change—repentance, obedience, and amendment of life.
The final phase of relationship formation, bonding, refers to an official, public commitment to the other person. While this may include the declaration of formal statuses such as “dating” or “engaged”, the ultimate example of bonding is marriage. A clear parallel is baptism, which publicly acknowledges the relationship between the individual and God. Depending on the tradition, bonding could also include public testimony, confirmation, or being received into membership in a church.
Of course, there are clear limitations to the analogy between human and divine relationships: God is unlike any human partner, all-knowing and unbound by time. Furthermore, every relationship, whether it is with God or another human, is unique and cannot be forced into a universal pattern. Arranged marriages are a good example of a major variation where bonding occurs near the beginning of the relationship—perhaps something like infant baptism!
The purpose of considering this model is not to list five discrete stages every Christian goes through during their conversion. Rather, it is a thought experiment that gives us a fresh way of looking at the ministry of reconciliation. Evangelists who operate out of this kind of framework focus on helping individuals engage, one step at a time, in their relationship with God. They are less likely to employ a one-size-fits-all approach and can cultivate a greater sensitivity to what is needed for relationship formation at any particular time.
This framework can also help us understand why evangelism no longer works the way it did several decades ago. Then, most people gradually acquired a basic knowledge of God at church, school, and home, so that by the time they reached adulthood, most were past initiating and well into the experimenting phase. For many, only a brief burst of intensifying interest in God was needed before they were ready to commit their lives to Christ. Some approaches to evangelism such as revivalism capitalized on this by providing people who already knew about God an emotional experience (intensifying), a call to repentance (integrating), and a chance to be baptized (bonding), all in a short time frame.
However, in today’s secular culture, many people have no knowledge of God whatsoever. Evangelism must start at the very beginning, helping them become open to and aware of God’s existence. Acquiring the kind of basic knowledge of God and the Bible that could have been assumed in the past might now take months or even years. Before they can seriously consider the invitation to follow Jesus, people need to have established enough of a relationship with God to know to what and whom they are committing. Evangelists today need to be in it for the long haul, ready to patiently walk people through these early stages of relationship formation before expecting whole-life surrender and baptism.
While the Holy Spirit can (and sometimes does) short-circuit the typical conversion process, evangelists need to accept that helping people become reconciled to God will normally be a process that unfolds over time. It is a relational process in every way. It is also a holistic process, one that involves transformation of the mind, heart, will, and other aspects of human life. Next month, in the second part of this article, we will look at how an awareness of the multifaceted nature of conversion can also help us see evangelism with fresh eyes.
 Mark L. Knapp, Social Intercourse: From Greeting to Goodbye (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1978), 35–40.