Time to Reconsider Conversion?

By Doug Priest

I believe a person is incorporated into the body of Christ at the point of baptism. But if we focus only on baptisms—especially in resistant cultures—we may miss other progress that is leading a person toward salvation.

People enjoy the Old Phuket Town Festival in Phuket, Thailand, on February 8. Doug Priest says Christian missionary successes in countries like Thailand cannot always be measured in baptisms and churches being planted.
People enjoy the Old Phuket Town Festival in Phuket, Thailand, on February 8. Doug Priest says Christian missionary successes in countries like Thailand cannot always be measured in baptisms and churches being planted.

It happened yet again. A missionary working in Thailand among the highly resistant Thai Buddhists received an annual questionnaire from one of his supporting churches. The church, rightly trying to be a responsible steward of its funds, wanted to determine the success of the ministry. The questionnaire included some helpful questions, like the health of the family, the spiritual growth of the missionary, examples of goals achieved and not achieved, personal and ministry prayer requests, and so on.

Then came the question the missionary dreaded: “How many baptisms have you had this year, and how many churches has your ministry planted this year?”

While this information is important for the church to have, the missionary knew his response would likely influence church decisions regarding the amount of financial support he would receive for the next year. He wondered, Don’t churches understand that successes can take place in a country like Thailand, but these successes do not always result in baptisms and churches being planted? Somewhat discouraged, he filled out the questionnaire and awaited the response.


Studying Conversion

I am the son (and grandson) of a preacher. My first outing into the world was to go to church, and I’ve been involved with the church my entire life. Growing up, I knew the important place of the baptistery in the church building. My understanding was that conversion was closely associated with the obedient act of being baptized. Much emphasis was placed on that event, and at least for me, less thought was given to what led up to the event or what followed the event. Baptism was referred to as “the decision to follow Christ,” and in some congregations coming up from the water led the church to burst into singing the chorus, “Now I Belong to Jesus.”

Years later, after having been a missionary kid in Ethiopia for four years, I attended Bible college to prepare to become a missionary. As a part of that preparation, I also took a university degree in anthropology before going on to seminary for further training in missions.

My course work encompassed the cross-cultural study of decision making, and some of this study was directly related to conversion. I came to understand that conversion is best seen as a process, not an event, as I had naively understood as a child. The process of conversion stretched from pre-evangelism into discipleship and sanctification. After all, none of us has yet arrived. We are still on the journey of faith. We are still being converted—made into the likeness of Christ—and becoming the people God wants us to be.

When studying conversion in different cultural contexts from my own America of the second half of the 20th century, I came to see that people do not all begin at the same starting place. In America, everybody has heard of Jesus and has some awareness of the gospel, even if it is only minimal. In other cultures, the name of Jesus is totally unknown. So, the starting place in the conversion process depends not only upon what the person knows, but also where one attempts to share the good news.


A Helpful Model

A helpful model was developed by Viggo Sogaard and James Engel. That model, called the Sogaard-Engel Scale, or the Engel Scale, assigns a numerical value that represents the level of spiritual understanding a person or group has reached. The scale is as follows:


When viewing this scale, it is important not to get hung up on the theological terminology, the point of baptism on the scale, and the specific order of the steps. For example, I believe that one is incorporated into the body of Christ at the point of baptism, rather than after, as this chart implies. But to focus on these sorts of questions may miss the point that conversion is a process made up of steps. The model helps us see that conversion is directional, takes place over time, and in the conversion process one progresses upwards numerically through the scale. The Engel Scale helps us to see that conversion can be likened to a ladder, taking one step at a time.

As a youngster I might have focused on baptism as the most important rung in the ladder (and I am not downplaying the place and importance of baptism), but I came to see each step up the ladder as important.


Different Starting Places

Not all people begin at the same place on the ladder. Not all people climb the ladder at the same clip. Some may even seem to skip a step in climbing upwards. Any step up the ladder, regardless of where one starts, represents directional movement. Any upward directional movement means success is occurring in the conversion process.

In a culture where people have not heard of Jesus, for them to become aware of a godly human named Jesus represents progress. For people to see Jesus as not just a godly man, but as a prophet of God, represents more progress. For them to further understand there is a tangible relationship between Jesus and God is movement in a positive direction. To see the Son’s relationship to God the Father is another positive step. Then to understand Jesus must become their Lord is progress, as is the acceptance of Jesus as Lord. For new believers to more fully understand the gospel is progress. For believers to begin to serve and share with others is more progress. We should celebrate all of these steps up the ladder, rather than highlight only the step that involves baptism.

Fortunately for our missionary friend in Thailand, his supporting church came to understand the concept of conversion as a process rather than simply an event. He was able to share with this congregation that in a highly resistant Buddhist society, success in ministry can mean movement up the ladder. He was able to help them see that metrics other than baptisms and churches started should be considered.

He was able to suggest certain questions that would help him and hold him accountable, such as:

• On average, how many conversations did you have with Thai Buddhists each week?

• How many dinners did you share with Thai Buddhists in your home?

• How many times did you discuss Jesus with Thai Buddhists?

• How many Thai Buddhists are you praying for by name?

• Tell us about your Bible studies with nonbelievers.

• What acts of service have you performed for Thai Buddhists?

Such questions would be appropriate to ask a missionary, and would provide an accurate assessment of the way the missionary spends his time and whether he is helping move people along in the conversion process. These questions demonstrate concern for the missionary and an understanding of the ministry context. Missionaries would be encouraged by these questions rather than discouraged by questions that measure success strictly in terms of baptisms and churches planted.

The Engel Scale helps us to understand what comes next in the conversion process for those among whom we are ministering. It would not be prudent to teach a devout Muslim, for example, how to discover her spiritual gift or the steps in evangelizing other Muslims. In a sense, the steps on the scale guide us in the sorts of activities we should be encouraging, what we should be teaching, and the matters about which we should be fervently praying.


Doug Priest serves as executive director of CMF International and is one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors.

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  1. Todd Lundgren
    June 4, 2014 at 8:33 am

    This is a great and helpful article. I grew up believing as I was taught, that the water of baptism washes my sins away. I put my faith in the “tank” and what I was doing. Now I know and teach we are to put our faith in what Jesus has done for us. Baptism is wonderful but our salvation comes from only what is going on in our heart and mind, and only God knows when and what that is. Obviously others will sooner or later see what has been going on in our heart. Thank you for sharing that scale/ladder.

  2. June 4, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Thanks Doug! As we work in any nation, we need to assess the issues of cultural anthropology. It is difficult for some who have grown up in the USA to realize the different cultures that exist in what was once thought to be one homogenous culture. This extends well beyond the obvious cultural differences of those who immigrate. Conversion has never been a singular event. We celebrate the event however, because it is what we observe publicly. The same questions raised in the latter part of the article might apply to urban ministries in particular.

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