The first lesson from my research about evangelism is that conversion is a communal experience. The second is that conversion is a multifaceted experience. Allow me to elaborate.

Many Christians think of conversion as primarily a cognitive experience. There is good reason for this. The Bible (a written book that needs to be read, understood, and applied—thus, implying a rather cognitive context for all aspects of our relationship with God) speaks about “believing,” “knowing,” “understanding,” and other words that all point toward our minds. But the Bible also describes a relationship with God in terms that are not primarily intellectual. We’re encouraged to “trust,” “seek,” “taste and see,” and other sensory endeavors. Jesus told Nicodemus that being born again is like the wind. “You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). This does not rule out the cognitive, but it doesn’t limit conversion to that realm either.

The students I interviewed spoke of their experiences as emotionally moving events or socially engaging experiences as well as intellectually educational realizations. Some of them had trouble finding the words to describe their experiences. Several got quite emotional while recounting their conversions. Using a technically refined computer program, I analyzed the transcripts of the students’ stories, categorizing terms and phrases as cognitive, emotional, or social. Within the “emotional” category, I placed the terms into over a dozen subcategories (e.g. joy, sadness, remorse, depression, relief, etc.). All forty stories included at least two out of the three dimensions—cognitive, emotional, and social. Most included all three with great variety of emotions.

On some level, this is not surprising at all. In fact, I can hear some of you responding to this with, “Well, duh!” But what strikes me is the discrepancy between the way the students described conversion and the way most evangelists present the gospel. We can imply conversion is only a matter of understanding and intellectual ascent. Some of us even downplay the emotions when we evangelize. We don’t want people to be ruled by emotions, but I wonder if we swing the pendulum too far in the other direction.

Perhaps a specific illustration will help. One young woman recounted how exhausted she was by the time she reached college. In her efforts to get accepted to college, she joined every activity her high school had to offer. She worked hard to get good grades, played several varsity sports, held offices in numerous clubs, and even volunteered outside of school. After her acceptance at her first choice, thanks to an impressive application, she began her freshman year with the same zeal to start building a good resumé for the job search four years in the future. By October, she was worn out. One night she heard someone (not the main speaker) at a Christian organization’s weekly meeting. She thought membership in a religious organization would look good on the resumé. The speaker read Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” She couldn’t believe her ears. Someone was offering rest! That’s exactly what she desperately needed. She became a Christian less than a month later.

Please hear me carefully. I do not want to downplay the intellectual component of evangelism. Proclaiming the gospel is primarily a cognitive event. People need to understand and believe the truth of our message. But we should also appeal to other aspects of our personhood when we tell people the good news. It shouldn’t just sound like a logical argument that people can either accept or reject. Our gospel preaching (over a cup of coffee, in small group discussions, or from the pulpit) can also appeal to their need for rest, their hunger for meaning, their desire for connection, their remorse over sin, or a host of other aspects of what it means to be whole people.

For Biblical support of this multifaceted approach to evangelism, see D. A. Carson’s article, Motivations to Appeal to in Our Hearers When We Preach for Conversion. He identifies eight motivations found in the gospels and Acts:

  • 1) fear,
  • 2) the burden of guilt,
  • 3) shame,
  • 4) the need for “future grace”,
  • 5) the attractiveness of truth,
  • 6) a general, despairing sense of need,
  • 7) responding to grace and love, and
  • 8) a rather vague desire to be on the side of what is right, of what is from God, of what is Biblical, of what is clean, of what endures.

People are complex. The gospel is rich. Our evangelism should seek to connect the two. I’ll explore this further in the next lesson in my next blog.