I found college students to interview for my research about how people become Christians by asking campus ministers to introduce me to students they knew who had come to faith within the last two years through their ministries. I had delightful interactions with staff of Campus Crusade, Intervarsity, Campus Outreach, Christian Union, and other great ministries. They contacted students first and asked them if it would be OK for “a guy doing doctoral research” to email them and set up a time for an interview.

Thus, I only initiated with people who had already expressed willingness to tell their story about how they became a Christian. I, therefore, avoided a common problem in research – hearing from people who really don’t fit into the “sample” you’re hoping for. I had a very high likelihood of success in finding people who truly were born again and had come to that milestone within the last two years.

Still, I did find myself, on a few occasions, listening to someone tell me about their conversion wondering if, in fact, they really knew the Lord. Granted, the very fact that they were new to the faith meant they did not know all the terminology or the best ways to articulate the gospel. That was part of the design of my research. I wanted to hear how people described their experience before they learned how to “sanitize” the message or use common expressions instead of choosing their own terms.

Even taking into account their lack of training and their newness to the faith, some people spoke about their experiences in ways that made me wonder if they ever really grasped the centrality and the uniqueness of the cross.

For example, a few people told me how they stopped doing certain things (getting drunk, having sex, taking drugs, etc.) and started “living my life the way God wants me to.” A few people told of very emotional experiences on a retreat where they were overcome with tears or joy or warmth or love from other people but never mentioned Jesus in any way other than “he just seemed really…like, y’know, there…and accepting of me just the way I am.” And some others compared how they used to be so unhappy, depressed, suicidal, lonely, fearful, etc. and now after meeting such great Christians, they’re never unhappy, depressed, suicidal, lonely, fearful, etc.

I followed up their stories with probes about who they thought Jesus was or what they understood about his death. In most cases, they expressed a clear understanding of the gospel. (Although I did still wonder why that didn’t make it into the initial recounting of their “how-I-became-a-Christian” story.) Some of them showed such a little amount of understanding about the cross, forgiveness, atonement for sin, etc. that I took out a piece of paper, drew a diagram of my understanding of the gospel, and asked them how that compared to what they believed. How delightful that “research” became a great opportunity for evangelism (even if it did slow down my work, since I decided not to include these interviews toward my goal of 40).

My point is this:

Lesson 16 in my list of “Evangelism Lessons for the 21st Century” is that evangelism training must include deep reflection on the nature of true conversion.

This is nothing new. Jesus told parables that included mention of seed scattered on rocky soil that grew up and then died away. In fact, two out of the four soils in that parable (according to most commentators I’ve consulted) might have looked like “good soil” but turned out to be just as bad as the one where the seed fell beside the road and never took root. Jonathan Edwards and others have written extensively on the dire need to distinguish between genuine and false conversions.

But our day and age may need greater attention to this problem because we, in our postmodern milieu, downplay the importance of words, overvalue the validity of emotional experiences, and have limited (if not crippled) capacities to read, understand, and apply the Bible. We use words incorrectly, vaguely, or poorly, shrugging our shoulders with “whatever” “like” and “yeah!” and wonder why our understanding is as cloudy as our vocabulary.

I realize this opens up several cans of theological worms. I also know that different schools of theological thought have very different ways of interpreting these experiences. I won’t attempt to sort that out here. I do believe that all evangelicals, regardless of denomination or tradition, would agree that true conversion involves more than a warm feeling, a change in behavior, or a new social arrangement. We would hope those things would flow from a new acceptance of the gospel. But we should also distinguish them from the realities of saving faith.

At bare minimum, we need to think carefully about terminology. Some expressions are vague and unhelpful in proclaiming the gospel. We need to wrestle with what we mean and what people may hear when we say:

“Ask Jesus into your heart.”

“Become a follower of Jesus.”

“Turn from sin.”

“Be born again.”

Hearing how others explain the truths of Scripture, describe their own experiences, or instruct us in how to proclaim the gospel is crucial in our day and always. Reading books intended for believers and non-believers, learning from people with experience in evangelizing distinct groups of people, and insisting on the importance of proper use of words should become part of our evangelism training curricula in the 21st century.

We dare not offer assurance to people who have come close but have still missed the gospel. The stakes are too high.