Making Christians: Conversion as Skill Acquisition

Christians are made, not born.
~ Tertullian, 3rd century (Apol, xviii)

If Tertullian is right, the question follows: how are Christians “made”? The specific approach to this question in this post looks at the dynamics and dimensions of religious conversion, as well as theories of skill acquisition that correlate to an understanding of Christianity as a way of life.

To clarify, I consider a Christian to be one who (however haltingly) lives in the way of Jesus. Thus, Christianity is understood to be a way of life for the sake of others.[A]  Furthermore, Christianity is regarded, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, as a habitus – an intellectual, behavioral and social dwelling. A disciple, then, is one who views reality from within a Christian worldview and embodies a distinctively Christian way of life. It should be noted that the terms Christian and disciple are throughout taken to be synonymous, for with philosopher and author Dallas Willard, I find that biblically speaking there is no such thing as nondisciple Christian (Willard 1980).

Conversion as a Holistic Experience

Lewis Rambo, in Understanding Religious Conversion, offers a seven-stage model of conversion that will be a helpful frame for interpreting what is in fact occurring as Christians are “made.” Rambo’s model is offered as a “heuristic construction designed to integrate the perspectives of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and religions studies” given that “conversion is a complex, multifaceted process” involving “personal, cultural, social, and religious dimensions” (165). Importantly for Rambo, conversion is a holistic experience. It is not complete when one has “decided for Jesus” or “prayed the sinner’s prayer” because it entails changes at all levels of the person. While occasionally a sudden occurrence, movement through the seven stages outlined below most often takes place over a period of time.
  1. Context: The “total environment in which conversion transpires.”
  2. Crisis: May take many forms, but the discomfort stimulates pursuit of resolution.
  3. Quest: The pluriform efforts to resolve the dis-ease initiated by the crisis.
  4. Encounter: At this point, the convert comes into dialectic contact with the “Advocate” or evangelist who offers a new option and perspective.
  5. Interaction: A stage of learning a new way of life, often dependent on relations.
  6. Commitment: The fulcrum of the change process. Marked by decision-making and often accompanied with initiation rituals.
  7. Consequences: Patterns of belief and action come to conform to those of the group.[1]
While stages 1-4 speak to the conditions that bring one to seek Christian initiation, the interest of this study has to do with the psychological, social and lived changes that transpire as one undergoes holistic conversion. By describing conversion as “holistic”, I intend to distinguish it from mere cognitive assent to religious doctrines and from the simple affiliation with a social group. As suggested at the outset, Christianity is understood as a way of life, or habitus, hence, special attention will be given to the Interaction and Consequences stages in Rambo’s model.

Stage Five: Interaction

To make sense of the psychosocial dynamics of the Interaction Phase, Rambo draws on the work of sociologists Arthur Greil and David Rudy. Their Encapsulation Theory identifies three means through which organizations promoting identity transformation “create and maintain “worlds” of their own” (Rambo 104). While it may sound sinister, encapsulation strategies are employed in some from by “everyone who wants to teach something” (104). Thus “every classroom is a form of encapsulation” (104). In fact, the classroom is a type of physical encapsulation as it entails removing the individual from their world, and bringing them into a controlled environment. Other examples include religious retreats or drug rehabilitation centers.

Social encapsulation is used “to create social buffer between the new reference group and the old” (Baucum 27). Sociologist of Religion Christian Smith highlights the powerful function of reference groups in his analysis of American Evangelicalism as a thriving subculture: “people care what only certain other people think of them...their “reference group”” (105). Peter Berger’s notion of the Social Construction of Reality is certainly in play here. Social encapsulation seeks to provide the potential affiliate with a new world through new friends.

In addition to these, and in the frequent cases when interaction with nonaffiliates is unavoidable, ideological encapsulation can be used to “neutralize any possible reality-upsetting consequences of such interaction” (Griel and Rudy 267). Ideological encapsulation manifests as weekly or daily rituals that reinforce the individual’s identity, and help to organize and interpret their experiences, often providing tools for critiquing hostile ideology and practice. Examples include the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Daily Offices of Prayer. Because of its orientation toward existence outside of the social capsule, we will revisit the promise of ideological encapsulation for Christian-making in Post-Christian context.

According to Rambo, once a sphere of influence has been established by encapsulation, four dimensions of interaction are deployed:
  1. relationships create and consolidate emotional bonds to the group and establish the day-by-day reality of the new perspective;
  2. rituals give integrative ways of identification and connection wit the new way of life.
  3. rhetoric provides an interpretive system, guidance and meaning to the convert; and
  4. roles consolidate a person’s involvement by giving him or her a special mission to fulfill (Rambo 107-8).
Each of these four processes is clearly visible in Christian initiation, though the scope of this work will severely limit my comments regarding the first three. Recent research confirms the role of relationships in Christian conversion.[2] This has led to the popular cry for helping spiritual seekers “belong before they believe”. The sacrament of baptism is perhaps the universal ritual of Christian initiation, though the practice of infant baptism has somewhat confused this. Most churches require some sort of instruction before one becomes a “member” though the extent and content of this rhetoric varies. Notably, Augustine and Wesley use Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a primary source of catechetical rhetoric. Roles are perhaps the most neglected process in Christian initiation, often expressed informally as a call to be a “good Christian” by avoiding moral faux pas and by attending and contributing to the church.

Tony Baucum in Evangelical Hospitality (summary) offers a helpful analysis of Rambo’s Interaction stage through the lens three Christian processes of evangelism and conversion: The Alpha Course, Early Methodism’s class-band structure and the ancient catechumenate. Of most interest to Baucum is the centrality of relationships to the conversion process, which he considers both primary and pervasive. Referencing Griel and Rudy he writes, “people change primarily by changing primary reference groups and embracing their new meaning systems and learning to abide in the new plausibility structures which undergirds the new meaning” (27).

This review of the dynamics of Rambo’s Initiation stage surfaces two interrelated areas of particular relevance from the perspective of Christianity as a way of life. First, is the function of ideological encapsulation, which can take the form of what has classically been called in religious circles a “rule of life.” This “rule” makes space for a Christian plausibility structure to actively reinterpret the everyday experiences of the initiate. Furthermore, a thoughtful rule of life for initiates could very well serve as the backbone of a full-bodied Christian way of life.

Second, the role of a potential convert or new initiate is of the utmost importance under a praxis scheme. If Christianity is a way of life, then a Christian initiate’s role is to “try on” this way of life. Baucum describes this “trying on” role as a “faith experiment” (144). Faith experiments, notes Baucum, invite us to live into the insight of David Myers: “If social psychology has taught us anything during the last twenty-five years, it is that we are likely…to act ourselves into a new way of thinking” (Myers 137).[3] In order to construct the initiate’s role, the primary features of the Christian way of life must be identified and formulated as practices that can be “tried on.” In section four, I attempt to capitalize on these insights in my proposal.

Stage Seven: Consequences

The seventh stage of Rambo’s model has particular relevance to an understanding of Christian initiation as formation of a way of life. According to Rambo, the consequences of conversion vary depending on the “nature, intensity, and duration of conversion and the response to conversion in a person’s or groups’ context” (144-5). Thus conversion to a mainline Protestant church may require few major changes in one’s life while “conversion to Orthodox Judaism…requires one to change eating patterns, acquire a new set of associates, possibly modify job commitments, and follow a new and complex set of rituals” (145). To say anything more than the above recognition of variety of consequences, necessitates a move to beyond interpretation of conversion into the bias-laden normative task of asserting the proper outcome of one’s commitment. While this important task will be taken up in the following section with input from Rambo and those he draws on as sources, we will first briefly consider two additional and related frameworks for interpreting the process of conversion.

Conversion as Skill Acquisition

The following two paradigms for understanding conversion reflect an understanding of Christianity as performative knowledge. From this commitment, Christian initiation can be reconstrued as a process of skill acquisition or apprenticeship.[4] The “skill” which the initiate seeks to acquire, then, is the ability to live the Christian way of life, or we might say, to dwell in its habitus. Speaking of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, Graham, et al state:

To be inducted into culture is to acquire a sense of how to behave, as expressed in the practical attitudes, preferences and actions of those around us. The habitus makes society possible. We enter a culture in which things are done—practised-in a certain way, and that is chiefly how we learn core values (194).

According to Walter Bruggemann, “To make disciples means to bring others under the disciplines that mark the followers of Jesus” thus we “instruct new recruits into the practices and habits that will sustain life and mission in the counter-community” (Chilcote and Warner 226). Connecting initiation to metaphors of skill acquisition, Bruggemann describes it as “like the acquiring of any new competence” and thus “not unlike the learning of a new language by practicing the paradigm of verbs; not unlike the learning of piano by practicing the scales; not unlike the maintenance of good health by the tenacity of jogging; not unlike every intentional habit that makes new dimensions of life possible” (Chilcote and Warner 230).

Bryan Stone makes a similar connection describing Christian conversion as “something like gaining a new citizenship, learning a new trade, or acquiring a new language” (174). Dallas Willard, too, uses metaphor of apprenticeship but more importantly expands upon the metaphor of conversion as language acquisition by noting the three-stage process that unfolds in each, denoted by the acronym VIM (77-92). This process begins with the vision of the alternative life. In Christian conversion, this vision is the life Jesus offers—life lived in the Kingdom of God. In language acquisition, the vision is simply the life that would be possible if one acquired a new language: “I could travel more easily” or “I could fit in to the dominant culture.” If the vision is strong enough, says Willard, intention will follow. This “considered commitment” will then take on means. For the language learner, this might include an immersion course or purchasing Rosetta Stone. For the new Christian, these means take the form of Christian disciplines.

The first skill-acquisition model we will look at briefly is that of brothers Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus. Michael Eruat, author of Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, summarizes their procession from “novice” to “advanced beginner” to “competent” and then to the higher stages of “proficient” and “expert”. The first three stages are taken to be the typical stuff of formal training and the first years in professional practice. In these “early stages of learning, they argue, learners need theory—articulated knowledge and rules of thumb—to guide their action” (Bass and Dykstra 268). In the later stages, usually reached only after a number of years, “excellent practitioners develop the capacity to act without rational deliberation”. This matches Aristotle’s notion of phronesis “in which one does “quickly” the “right thing, in the right way, and at the right time” (Aristotle VI, 9, 6). Thus the primary developmental leap is “a shift from action based on rational calculation to intuitive action” (Bass and Dykstra 268).

While the whole schema is of interest in the larger process of discipleship, Christian apprenticeship into a way of life seeks as its immediate goal not “intuitive action” but simply the competency of stage three. The features of stages one and two, therefore, will be of particular interest. Christian Scharen, who uses the Dreyfus model to reflect on ministerial competency, uses helpful phrases for each of the first two stages. She refers to the work of the novice as “learning the rules of the game” while the advanced beginner is “using the rules in context” (Bass and Dykstra 271, 274). This contextually-situated morality is what Johannes van der Ven makes the goal of moral formation, using Aristotle’s term phronesis for what seems to me an earlier stage of moral development (van der Ven 156). In the Dreyfus model, the earliest stages in skill acquisition rely on what Bonnie Miller-McLemore, too, calls “rules of thumb,” as she applies them to the training of ministers and theologians (Miller-McLemore 19).

A related framework is useful for clarifying the meaning of the competence of Dreyfus’ third stage. This framework comes from psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of four progressive stages of learning:
  1. Unconscious Incompetence: the learner is unaware of his/her lack of proficiency
  2. Conscious Incompetence: the learner is aware of his/her lack of proficiency
  3. Conscious Competence: the learner shows proficiency with concentration and effort
  4. Unconscious Competence: the learner shows proficiency without concentrated thought
Just what type of competence does Christian initiation seek? In Maslow’s terms, I propose that the task of a process of Christian initiation is to move the initiate from conscious incompetence in the Christian way of life (which occurs at the moment of commitment) to conscious competence. This model assumes that evangelism has guided the initiate from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence and that Christian initiation cannot facilitate maturation to unconscious competence, which is the telos of the Christian life, though it should make this goal and trajectory clear. This look at the theories of Rambo, Griel and Rudy, the Dreyfuses and Maslow yield several insights relevant to the question of Christian initiation into a way of life that could be drawn upon in practical proposals. These include: 1) the power of ideological encapsulation through a rule of life; 2) the initiate’s role as “trying on” the Christian way of life through “faith experiments”; 3) the centrality of “rules of thumb” for early stages of skill acquisition and; 4) the aim of Christian initiation as conscious competence in the Christian way of life.

See this closely related post:
What is Normal Christian Conversion? Asking the Early Church (on the catechumenate)

John Westerhoff asserts plainly that “Christianity is a way of life” (Childcote and Warner 239).
[1] Rambo develops these stages in Understanding Religious Conversion, 1993.
[2]In Finding Faith Today, John Finney discovers that “meeting Christians” is a top influence on people converting to Christianity.
[3] One significant area for further research would engage the tension between acting ourselves into new ways of thinking and concerns about works-righteousness. Advocates of spiritual disciplines face this constantly.
[4] The language of apprenticeship to Jesus is found even in Vatican II Ad gentes 14.

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  1. Thanks for the insights love your mix of voices in building a framework for conversion.

    RE: Bryan Stone ...describing Christian conversion as “something like gaining a new citizenship, learning a new trade, or acquiring a new language” (174). Gutierrez makes a similar statement connecting the new citizenship in the kingdom to mean separation from familiar allegiances and aligning with God's care for the oppressed....

  2. Teri,

    Thanks for the comment. Stone is definitely influenced by liberation theology--I believe he did his doctoral work on Segundo.

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