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Pointing to the Process: Living the Gospel in the American Suburbs

Written for MP 520: Transforming Contemporary Culture in Fall 2008

Table of Contents

Introduction………………………………………………………………………3

Assumptions……………………………………………………………………..5

Salvation Begins and Ends with God (Jonah 2:9b)………………………………6

Point Conversion in Action: The Story of Church A……………………………7

Point Conversion: The Postmodern Perspective…………………………………8

Point Conversion: The Speaker and the Translator………………………………9

Point Conversion: What Are We Really Saying?…………………………………………..10

Processing the Point: Creating a “Process” Community…………………………11

The Bounded-Set (Figure 1)

The Centered-Set (Figure 2)

Processing the Point: Creating “Process” Communication………………………12

The Engel Scale (Figure 3)

Conclusion……………………………………………………………………….14

Bibliography……………………………………………………………………..16

Introduction

“The mantle of intellectual meaninglessness shrouds every aspect of our common life.  Events, things, and ‘information’ flood over us, overwhelming us, disorienting us with threats and possibilities we for the most part have no idea what to do about” remarks Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy regarding the current state of American society (Willard 1998).  In the suburbs all across the United States, Willard’s quote resonates perfectly.  The culture is increasingly complex, and arguably, one of the hardest mission fields in the known world today (Guder 1998).[1]

This complexity stems from the collision of postmodern thought generated constantly through high-speed communication, with historic Christendom (Guder 1998), which still holds a prominent, yet diminishing place in suburban society.  No longer are people just aware of their hometown culture; but rather, a myriad of complex ideas are being communicated daily to millions of people, shaping and re-shaping their complex worldview.  Furthermore, a generational change is transforming suburban society.  Adults from younger generations (born after 1966 and sometimes referred to as Generation X and Generation Y) are inheriting the positional and vocational leadership once possessed by Boomers.  This is a generation described by Andres Tapia in the article entitled Reaching the Post-Christian, as “raised in chaos.”  Tapia continues that Generation X is “widely regarded as postmodern and often as post-Christian.  Social phenomena like AIDS, MTV, environmental catastrophe, and the lingering threat of a multitrillion-dollar federal deficit confront Xers” (Tapia 1994).  Furthermore, fierce marketing and over-consumption, along with the subsequent single-parent, or two-job households, has left many pessimistic about life, purpose and their future; “trust in authority figures is low, and cynicism of anything organized, like the church and political parties, is high.”  (Tapia 1994).

With this being said, how can Discovery Church, and other suburban churches, impact this culture despite the many complexities and perceptions that can inhibit the communication of the Gospel?  Such is the situation Discovery Church (and others) find itself today (presently 2008).  A refreshing look at how the Gospel is communicated could reach this culture as well as help alleviate the lack of discipleship present within Discovery Church and beyond.  Evangelicalism in America (specifically in mid-western and southern U.S.) has concentrated on a “point of conversion,” which ultimately effected the way the Gospel was communicated.  Individuals getting “saved” was the goal and the unbelieving were approached using modern sales methods, heavily scientific arguments[2] and, in some circles, fear-driven tactics[3] in order to convince one to accept Christ.  Although these methods impacted many people in the past, a new era is upon Discovery Church and we must shift our paradigm if we are to missionally engage this complex and cynical culture.

Therefore, instead of focusing on a “point” when a person converts to Christianity, Discovery Church must make a radical paradigm shift.  Salvation must be seen as a “process” where adequate time and safe space (Shenk) are allowed for the un-believing to challenge and overcome their own pre-conceived notions, which were shaped by this complex culture.  As Discovery Church allows this process to take place, it will greatly impact unbelievers within our culture as well as provide them a better foundation as many of them progress towards discipleship.  Overall, our desire as the church should be to focus on a process of discipleship rather than a point of conversion.  Such an outlook is more true to the biblical call for discipleship in Matthew 28:19 and, furthermore, it respects the complexity of the postmodern situation.

Most essential to this shift, is how the Gospel is communicated, in both word and action, and its grounding in wise cultural understanding.  Discovery Church must adopt such an understanding in order to foster a “safe” community where the perceptions of the unbeliever toward the Church can be challenged over time. In the following pages, we will analyze our communication with respect to “point” salvation first, and demonstrate the effects this paradigm has on the current culture.  Second, we will compare the results with a “process” view of salvation.  Finally, a recommendation of missional response for Discovery Church will be given for wise Gospel communication to the un-believing in this community.

Assumptions

However, several assumptions must first be addressed for proper understanding.  As stated earlier, this is written for the suburban, mid-western culture of the United States; and more specifically, for Discovery Church, located in a suburb of the St. Louis Metropolitan area.  Much of this is context specific and is not meant to be an all-encompassing model. Second (and essentially most important), the critique of “point” salvation is not meant to be taken as wrong; but rather, as becoming increasingly ineffective with respect to the mission of suburban culture in early 21st century America.  Furthermore, the term “point” salvation is not meant to challenge the doctrines on substitutionary atonement, or to suggest that atonement itself is not a point in time.  Theologians, such as Dwight Moody, have argued quite persuasively against this in the past (Rost 1989); however, the term process salvation is a means of viewing the whole salvific process of discipleship.  The atheist, the nominal Christian and the person with a positive outlook on the Gospel all stand at different places with respect to the Cross, and our desire should be to wisely communicate and be respectfully hospitable as to not hinder their involvement in the community and essentially their progress toward Jesus Christ.  In order to avoid confusion, the terms “process discipleship” and “point conversion” will be used in place of “process salvation” and “point salvation.”   Finally, it is assumed that the authority of everyone’s salvation has been given to Christ (John 5: 22-29); and therefore, only Christ alone judges the state of the human being.

Salvation Begins and Ends with God

The beginning of this discussion is, always has and always will be God.  As the short verse in the book of Jonah 2:9b states, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!”  The Lord is our creator, He became like us to redeem us (Phil. 2:7) and ultimately it is His Spirit (John 3:8) that is working throughout humanity that they may come to know the One, True God manifested in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2: 8–9).  We must initially recognize that salvation is directly from the Lord and we have received the opportunity, as His Church, to partner with Him in this mission.  Furthermore, if we are Christ-followers, our salvation was the result of God pursuing us and communicating His redemptive relationship through the person of Christ.  As Ulrich Frey noted, “God wants to make himself known to us.  That was and is his first intention[4]. He not only created human beings, but he created them for communication” (Frey 1999).  Therefore, if our design is integrated with communication, and we are created in God’s image, then learning to communicate wisely in culturally-complex situations is paramount.

Point Conversion in action: The Story of Church A

To look closely at Gospel communication through the paradigm of point conversion let us suppose that Church A (our example here) possesses this paradigm passed down over the generations. Furthermore, Church A is located in the suburb of a major mid-western city and holds to all essential doctrines of Christian faith.  For the most part, the congregants of Church A have the desire to reach their culture with the Gospel in order to transform people’s lives.  Many of the members of Church A have known Christ for many years and are very proficient in using their Bible.  On Sundays, they usually have a few visitors, many of whom are “church shopping,” and occasionally a person or two visit the church that are unbelievers.  Church A is blessed with a Godly pastor who is a gifted preacher.  The pastor cares about reaching the lost and is careful to maintain sound biblical theology[5] to properly communicate the Gospel. Regardless, the pastor always gives a formal invitation to receive Christ as your “personal savior.”

Church A represents the communication of “church” within suburban culture.  It is not meant to represent any specific church, but rather to serve as a fictional illustration to apply Gospel communication through “point conversion” and “process discipleship.” Church A represents a common ecclesial form in the American suburbs with a point conversion paradigm.

Point Conversion: The Postmodern Perspective

With the increasing complexity of American society along with the generational change described earlier, what does the point conversion paradigm communicate to the complex unbeliever if they attended Church A?  The postmodern unbeliever could approach this from many angles.  One could describe it as over-simplistic, due to the increasing complexity seen everyday through media (Kinnaman 2007).  Another person could react with cynicism, due to an earlier emotional experience as a teenager at church camp where they “got saved,” yet after camp nothing changed.  Another person may feel completely lost because some words the pastor used were completely unknown and irrelevant to them.

Overall, Church A does not communicate the Gospel with respect for the complex situation of the hearer, and therefore, it cannot address their deep-seated needs.  The Gospel of Christ was told (with great theological accuracy), but raising the hand and repeating a prayer seems somewhat simplistic, or “quick fix,” to this complex culture.  Good theology, communicated poorly, will inhibit the reception of the Gospel and distort the ultimate message of the Church.  As David Kinnaman says in regards to those under 40 (Gen. X & Y) in his book unchristian, “…they don’t like feeling ‘cornered’ into conversations about faith.  A generation reared in a marketing-drenched world is quick to sniff out what they believe to be the underlying motivations and superficialities” (Kinnaman 2007).

Point Conversion: The Speaker and the Translator

However, one must be aware of the two-sides of communication that will affect any local church. In any act of communication (even between church and culture), there is both the sender and receiver of the message.  Therefore, it is unwise, as some have done, to assume communication is one-sided and that the receiver is passive (Kraft 1999).  We will call these two communication modes the speaker and the translator, with the local church representing the speaker and the culture as the translator.

Viggo Sogaard suggests both, what is said, and how it is translated by the hearer, hold equal importance.  He describes Christian communication in the West as generally, “…based on a one-way concept, which is partly due to the lack of information about the audience.  This has left us with message-oriented theories of communication, where emphasis is placed on the design of the message rather than on the intended listener [italics mine]” (Sogaard 1993).  Sogaard furthers the point by using the figure of a syringe adequately labeled “message,” injected into a small, shaded box labeled “audience.”  The pictorial display works well, because the only option with an inoculation is to inject a substance, or to take a substance.  Doctors and churches, ironically, are two places many like to avoid. When we recognize the complexity of our current suburban culture, as well as the “one-sided” nature of our communication, we can see that change is necessary.  However, has this “one-sided message,” which includes point conversion, only had an impact on the postmodern unbeliever or has it changed our perception within the church as well?

Point Conversion: What are we really saying?

Stephen Hall, in His article Praying the Prayer, recalls being a traveling evangelist for close to thirty-years and asserts that only 10-20% of respondees at evangelism events become active in a local church (Hall 2000).  Hall has become an advocate for an approach that is arguably not new – discipleship.  Hall says, “Making disciples is fundamental to the mission of the church, the mission delegated to us by the Lord himself.  Making disciples is the only measure of success in evangelism…” (Hall 2000).  Hall and others are critiquing, in many instances, the lack of discipleship within the Western church.  Therefore, by embodying a point conversion stance within our suburban church, are we really exchanging lifelong discipleship for an immediate (and often temporary) transaction?

Many suburban evangelical churches owe their roots to historic Christendom, and thus, have a core bend toward point conversion.  In addition to its lack of reception in post-modern culture, how does this point conversion inhibit discipleship as is suggested?  First, in point conversion we are assuming one’s understanding of the Christian faith is sufficient, in a one-size-fits-all manner (Kinnaman 2007).  It assumes that all people are in the same place on their spiritual journey, and are ready to “pray the prayer.”  In their book Tell It Often, Tell It Well, Mark McClosky and Bill Bright describe the importance of understanding that “not everyone is at the same level of spiritual preparedness” and they encourage a thorough recognition of this when communicating to the unbeliever (McCloskey 1985).  Furthermore, due to the marginalization of the church in postmodern culture, we can no longer assume a basic understanding of Christianity like we could in the past (Guder 1998).   Second, point conversion communicates a transactional approach to salvation, which comes dangerously close to our own economic system.  In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard describes this transactional prayer as a barcode to be swiped across a divine scanner and “beep,” you’re in (Willard 1998).  “Barcode Christianity” can be especially dangerous in a culture quite privy to buying things to make one’s self feel better.  The message of Christ can become just another product to make one feel better and once it wears off, they move on to something else.  Third, point conversion can be a proponent of reductionism.  People are reduced to numbers and their complexity and confusion (ingrained by the current culture) are many times minimized in an effort to get them “saved.”  Such reductionism is under increasing suspicion within American culture and often will cause offense to the person.  Although its intentions were initially good, point conversion seems to counter-act Jesus’ call to discipleship.  Christ was not enacting a transaction; but rather, a committed follower-ship created to bless the world through its benevolence.

Processing the Point: Creating a “process” Community

So, how do we enact a process discipleship DNA in the midst of a faith community?  First, the preexisting mindset of how one view’s the faith community must undergo transformation.  In the book The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost and Hirsch give some potentially world-changing insights.  They use the concept of a bounded-set and a centered-set to visually contrast current local church thinking with a missional, discipleship-oriented paradigm.  The bounded-set is the normal mindset of most churchgoing, suburban Americans.  As Figure 1 demonstrates, a bounded-set is pictured as a square, representing four walls, with the believers inside (us) and the unbelievers outside (them).  Although, unbelievers are welcome to be apart, it is clear who is “in” and who is “out.”  Furthermore, this form of thinking tends to relegate the experience of “church” to a time and place, rather than a New Testament lifestyle.

However, a centered-set (Figure 2) is a transformed way of local church thinking that is missional and conducive with process discipleship.  It is best explained as a piece of farmland with a well in the center of the property.  Both the believers and unbelievers can mingle on the farmland, and the well (Christ) is always open to all, yet unbelievers feel less threatened due to the absence of “walls.”  In regards to the centered-set Frost and Hirsch say, “…people are not seen as in or out, but closer or further away from the center.  In that sense, everyone is in and no one is out.  Though some people are close to the center and others are far from it, everyone is potentially part of the community in its broadest sense” (Frost 2003).

The bounded-set and centered-set serve as a mind-frame within which the average believer views their relationship with those around them. All communication (verbal, non-verbal, video, signage, website, etc.) that is either only comprehensible by insiders or, overtly offensive toward outsiders, builds the walls of a bounded-set.  Furthermore, point conversion has been a common bedfellow with bounded-set thinking due to its common assumption of who is “in” and who is “out.”  At Discovery Church, as we desire to be a community that is centered on Christ and without boundaries to our surrounding culture, our paradigm would more assume a process of discipleship rather than a point of conversion.  The surrounding culture (overrun with complexity, quick-fix marketing and relativism) will not be nearly as threatened, making them more apt to stay within and around the community, and furthermore the concept of discipleship will be instilled before one is even a Christ-follower.

Processing the Point: Creating Process Communication

As was demonstrated in Sogaard’s example earlier, our communication of the Gospel must take both sound theology as well as a thorough understanding of our society (missiology) into account.  When we fail to contextualize the Gospel to the surrounding culture, our communication becomes one-sided, and the Gospel is only understandable to the “insiders,” even if “outsiders” are present.  As mentioned before, this lack of understanding is partially responsible for a bounded-set community.  However, it is also important to understand the spiritual process of a person being drawn toward Christ.

In his book, What’s Gone Wrong with the Harvest?, James Engel presented his work on this concept that has since been named the Engel Scale (Engel 1975).  Since its publication many have used and modified the Engel Scale to better understand the conversion process of a person.  One such modification (Figure 3) is published in by Paul Hazelden, in which he notes the overwhelming failure many Christians feel with respect their ability to share their faith (Hazelden 2000).  He describes the Engel Scale as having 12 pre-conversion steps labeled -12 to 0.  As Christians discover this process they can begin to seek the Lord, hence Jonah 2:9b, to gain better understanding for a person’s spiritual placement on the scale.  Evangelism then is seen as helping someone overcome each step, rather than converting a person from -12 to 0 in a more instantaneous fashion.  Embracing a centered-set DNA within the local church culture and allowing people to process the steps toward conversion illustrated in the Engel Scale, could impact both unbelievers and their growth as disciples (not to mention the growth of discipleship culture) within suburban America.

Conclusion

We have been studying the current complexity of Western culture as it has been affected by postmodernity, suburban affluence, generational change and the communication revolution; and the need for the perception of conversion to move from a point in time to a process.  It has been shown that the overwhelming permeation of point conversion in the Western church can be both misinterpreted in various ways by the receiver and also minimize the emphasis on discipleship.  Furthermore, it is imperative to recognize that all communication from church to culture must understand not just the importance of what is said, but how the receiver will interpret the message.  Such lack of understanding will help institute a bounded-set mindset within the DNA of Discovery Church and other churches of similar demographics.

However, we have also seen the importance of the faith community demonstrating the genuine love of Christ without boundaries.  As the research of the current cultural situation in America demonstrates, the historic view of “conversion” as a point rather than a process, is counter-productive in reaching out to a skeptical culture as well as creating a discipleship community.  Overall, if Discovery Church and other similar churches continue to consider the two-sides of communication, as well as fostering a centered-set community, we could greatly impact the complex society within which God has planted us.

Bibliography

Engel, James F., H. Wilbert Norton. 1975. What’s Gone Wrong With the Harvest?: A Communiation Strategy for the Church and World Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Frey, Ulrich. 1999. Communicating the Gospel to Men in Switzerland: Fuller Theological Seminary, School of World Mission.

Frost, Michael & Alan Hircsh. 2003. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church. Third ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Guder, Darrell L., ed. 1998. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Hall, Steven. 2008. Praying the Prayer. Living Waters Christian Fellowship 2000 [cited September 3rd 2008]. Available from www.lwcf.org.uk.

Hazelden, Paul. 2008. The Modified Engel Scale: Working with God in Evangelism [Online] 2000 [cited September 3rd 2008]. Available from http://hazelden.org.uk/pt02/art_pt068_modified_engel_full.htm.

Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Kraft, Charles H. 1999. Communicating Jesus’ Way. Revised ed. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

McCloskey, Mark & Bill Bright. 1985. The Modified Engel Scale: The Complete Article. In Tell it Often, Tell it Well. San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers.

Rost, Stephen, ed. 1989. Dwight L. Moody: The Best from All His Works. Edited by S. Rost. Vol. 6, The Christian Classics Collection. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Shenk, Wilbert. A Missional Approach to Western Culture. Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary.

Sogaard, Viggo. 1993. Media in Church and Mission. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Tapia, Andres. 1994. Reaching the First Post-Christian. Christianity Today (September 12, 1994):18-23.

Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.


[1] Lesslie Newbigin is quoted calling the West “the most pervasive culture in the world and one of the most resistant to the Christian Gospel.”

[2] Such as Josh McDowell’s insightful book Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

[3] “Fear-driven tactics” is defined as using fear in order to manipulate someone into making a decision for Christ.  Asking questions such as, “If you do not ask Jesus into your heart right now, you may die and then you will go to hell.”  This desire is not always impure in its motives; however, it can manipulate people into praying a prayer just to avoid hell, even though work of Christ and the Christian faith may be unknown to the person.

[4] Another example of this intention would be the Apostle John using a communicative description of Jesus Christ as he calls Him the “Word” (John 1).

[5] In no way is cynicism being used toward in describing the use of sound biblical theology.  Good doctrine is very important in today’s world.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 14, 2013 11:49 am

    Dear Matt, thanks for the above. I am, as a retired teacher, currently tutoring a college student with an assignment in apologetics/evangelism and creation. However, reading the article has helped me to crystalize some of my personal discomfort with point evangelism and reductionism often exhibited in my experience of church.
    blessings Rod

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