–May of 2006
In a recent revival meeting, a 50-year veteran of pastoral ministry asked me a question that is on the minds of a lot of older saints. He said, “Are people really being converted anymore?” This man is not just an elderly pastor asking questions with a nostalgic glance over his shoulder to the “good old days.” He is a well-loved, highly respected man of God whose ministry has been marked by hundreds of souls finding Christ. Frankly, his concern is valid. Yet the answer to his question is not just a simple yes or no, it is a rather complex yes and no.
There is a tendency for American Christians to interpret what is happening in the Church through local or western eyes. This bias has often skewed our view of what God is doing in His world particularly in the area of evangelism, revival and end-time events. The spiritual dearth in the western church is not a reflection of what is happening in the rest of the Church. Stories of radical, life-changing conversions are flowing out of the Orient, South America and Eastern Europe. GBSC Missions Professor, Dan Glick, spent six weeks last summer doing a study of conversions in the Ukraine. His report sounds like something taken right out of the pages of the book of Acts. People are responding to the Gospel and experiencing true conversion in every part of the world. I don’t mean to exclude America. I witness every year many whose life has been radically changed by saving grace. God’s kingdom is marching forward and all the armies of hell have not been able to withstand it.
However, there is some cause for concern as it relates to the American church. I honestly believe that because of a number of subtle shifts in the presentation of today’s gospel message, there are many people who have undergone a religious transaction rather than experiencing a radical transformation. The first of these shifts took place at the beginning of the 20th Century when the 19th Century emphasis on pursuing holiness shifted to a desire for uplifting ecstatic experiences. The second shift took place following World War II as prosperity fueled the American economy and spilled over into the church. There was a shift from a call to total surrender to a more general call to commitment. (The difference is more than subtle. Surrender tells God that I belong to Him and He can dispose of me any way He pleases. In commitment there is no transfer of ownership. One may or may not do what God has asked, depending on the level he wishes to be committed.) The third shift came in the late 60s and early 70s when we started “deciding for Christ.” Salvation was simplified to little more than signing a card. These shifts had brought so many unconverted people into the church, that by 1980 a new battle began among religious leaders as to what it really meant to be a Christian. At the heart of this war was the controversy over Lordship salvation.
As the 20th Century began to wind down, the church shifted again and became consumer oriented. The gospel was stripped of its biblical vocabulary and was offered in the language of the culture. The concepts of repentance, dying to self, and submission were abandoned and the gospel was cast in terms of benefits. This ushered in a new round of self-help seminars and made the major selling point of the gospel what it could do for those who tried it.
Sadly, many churches have been left with what C.S. Lewis called a “truncated gospel.” Simple assent to the gospel divorced from repentance, surrender, and a supernatural eagerness to obey is by biblical standards less than saving. To illicit only a sense of this kind would be to secure only false conversions. And a false conversion, even by the most sincere, is still sincerely wrong.