Spiritual, Social and Systemic Conversion

Christians need to change. Sometimes that change is so radical, we could call it conversion. But how can those who have been converted be converted all over again? Here, Dr. Hall talks about three types of conversion, a spiritual, social, and systemic conversion. Using examples from his own life, he explains how each type of transformation was needed for him to do ministry effectively, and all three types of change were empowered by the redemption won by Jesus Christ on the cross.

by Dr. Doug Hall
September, 2009

Do the converted need conversion?

In the message to the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, it seems as though Christ is encouraging people who were already Christians to be converted! He is preaching redemption to the redeemed. Why would Jesus ask Christians to repent in such strong language? Why would he ask those he declares to be poor to “buy” something from him? And why would he tell Christians he is outside some door knocking to come in? This text is full of mystery!

I have just recently realized that I have had a wrong premise in writing this book. I kept asking myself, “How can the reader apply the material in this book?” And I have been expecting that the readers would first gain an intellectual grasp of the concepts and then apply that understanding to their life experiences.

But just the other day, a good friend, Dr. Bobby Bose, reminded me that it didn’t work that way for me. I didn’t begin my journey into living system ministry with intellectual understanding, so why should I expect you to find that as your entry point to a new level of ministry?

Then Bobby asked me, “How did you get converted to the way you do things?” What an interesting way to put it. As we talked, I realized that for me it really took a conversion experience, and I think this may be what is needed for you as well.

In the first few verses of his letter to Laodicea, Jesus calls the Laodicean Christians “poor, blind and miserable,” as though they had a need of redemption and needed to be saved. Next, he counsels them to buy gold, white clothes, and eye salve, symbolizing confession, forgiveness, and new life, also redemptive concepts. It sounds like he is saying that these saved people need redemption! Then he asks them to repent. Soon he is knocking outside the door of the Christian. Why is Christ outside the door of the believer’s heart? You would think this text would be about the unbeliever.

The fact that this seems to be a contradiction shows us that we are not conditioned to understand this text with the way we usually think about things as Western Christians. If we did understand it properly, not only would the seeming contradictions disappear, but also we would discover a different, higher level of understanding of God’s truth.

I think Christ is saying that although the Laodicean believers were converted and already redeemed, they needed to experience a fuller understanding of conversion and redemption. We are like that too. We have experienced one level of redemption, but there are other aspects that we have not experienced. I think Jesus is calling us to convert to full redemption.

As I talked with Bobby about how I had been converted to the way I do ministry, I thought about “three types” of conversion, and it seemed to me that I had undergone each one in some strategic experiences in my own life. Perhaps Jesus is calling us all to three conversions—a spiritual, social, and systemic conversion. Our initial spiritual conversion can give us some insight into how the other areas work.

I first experienced a vertical, spiritual conversion when I became a believer, a follower of Christ. Christians are familiar with spiritual conversion: a bending of our will to God, a calling out to him in repentance for forgiveness and cleansing from sin through a substitutionary atonement, and an acknowledgment that we want to begin walking through life with him.

Later, following my spiritual conversion, I needed and experienced a cultural (or perhaps I could call this a “social”) conversion from the limitations of my own culture to a love for other cultures. In this conversion, I found myself hungry to know about how the Gospel is expressed in other cultures.

A cultural or social conversion

We tend to get spiritual things and cultural things confused. This was true for me. Before I was a Christian, I was a Michigan Norwegian Lutheran. I believe that one of the reasons I was initially hindered from experiencing a real spiritual conversion as a young person was that I had confused what my actual faith was about with what my culture was telling me my faith should be. I finally realized that my culture reflected some things about my faith, but not enough for me to truly have a spiritual conversion. In time, I learned to parse the difference between what was my faith and what was my cultural expression of my faith. This gave me a hunger to discover how other cultures express the same biblical faith.

When I finally found the reality of my faith apart from my culture, and began to see new facets of Christianity expressed in other cultures, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to see the faith reflected in as many cultures as possible, with the belief that each culture could give me another important focus that I had not seen in my original culture. So, as an extension or continuation of my spiritual conversion experience, I also had a social conversion which caused me to see how different cultures were helpful in understanding my faith. No single culture was adequate to tell me all I needed to know about Christ. My own early experience was not in a first-generation immigrant, storefront church, but such churches taught me much about the spontaneous expansion of the faith that was possible in an urban environment. I am not Pentecostal, but Pentecostal Christian friends have taught me how to do my Christianity in a vital and fruitful way. I am not part of a holy order of some liturgical church, but many people who are in such orders have taught me how to see the poor as Jesus himself, how, as he explained it, when I do something for the least of these, I have done it to him. They teach me to see in new ways, to see that people are not to be seen as categorically poor, or addicts, or street people, but as Jesus himself.

This social conversion empties me of paternalism in ministry. I learned to maintain my own cultural identity but develop the ability to have a Process of the Gospel experience where I relevantly communicate and participate with people of other cultures in the meeting of their perceived and basic needs.

The list of other cultural groups who ministered to me and showed me a new way of looking at my faith can go on and on. Today, EGC interrelates with over 100 denominations and over 100 ethnic groups, and people who worship Jesus in 600 churches around Boston in 30 different languages. The Quiet Revival was an invisible movement of God, until we became socially converted to see it with the eyes of faith, and eventually identified it so we could talk about it and show it to others.

Yet, when I talk about cultural or social conversion, I think it will resonate with you because you have already experienced a conversion in the spiritual realm. Those of us in modern society need more than a spiritual conversion, the one that takes us to heaven. Because God’s redemptive design includes people who are not like us, people from every nation, language and tribe, we may need to be converted to the social aspect of God’s redemption.

A systemic conversion

In the course of my early ministry in the city, Judy and I began to experience a third type of conversion, a systemic conversion. A systemic conversion takes me beyond my personal spiritual redemption experience to learning how God’s redemption also extends to other aspects of life as well. On a micro scale, this means that Jesus is able through his redemptive power to supply healing of people’s bodies. On a macro scale, this means Jesus is able through his redemptive power to heal neighborhoods, communities, cities, and other large social systems. As Christ overcame sin through his victorious and sufficient death and resurrection, God is working out his redemptive plan right now to the ultimate end of bringing everything under the feet of Christ. And all this was made possible by the cross.

To confine redemptive activity to the spiritual realm is to miss the truth of Romans 8:22. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Systemic conversion relates to our ability to embrace the whole created system—the spiritual, social, and physical dimensions of life. I believe it is in God’s heart to redeem our physical world and our social world, as he also provides spiritual redemption. We have to be careful not to elevate the spiritual above the physical. God created the physical world, and he is still a part of it. Christ was God and man, and he lived on earth in a social environment. God was not contaminated by sin from a physical body or by living in a social environment. The contamination came from sin, not earth. Our sin was placed upon him who was perfect, so he could pay the penalty of our sin.

My systemic conversion has really changed me and the way I think and the way I do ministry. I have moved from an organizational/technological thinking process to an organic thinking process that I find is more in tune with what God creates, rather than with what humans create. I begin to understand how social/spiritual realities—families, churches, ethnic systems, even the church universal—operate organically as complex, interrelated living systems, far above our normal understanding of organizational order. After we have experienced a systemic conversion, we can begin to see what scripture means when it speaks of the church as an organism. It is in organic ministry that we learn how to not only know truth, but to do it! Organizational Christianity cannot do truth, but organic Christianity can do truth. Seeing the organic nature of social systems shows us a higher level of very complex order that far exceeds organizational levels of order.

So back to the Laodiceans. The church in Laodicean was a mature church. While spiritual conversion had already taken place for the Laodiceans, making them believers, Christ wrote to them to say they needed more. I believe that Christians need total redemption that extends beyond our spiritual conversion and salvation experience if we are to be involved in the full redemptive activity that God is doing in our world today. His total redemption will ultimately produce not only individual believers destined for heaven, but a whole new heaven and a new earth in which we will eternally reside! The old things will pass away, and the new things, including the physical and social things, will be made new.

For more, check out Dr. Hall's 2010 book, The Cat & The Toaster, Living System Ministry in a Technological Age. Copies are available at the EGC office in Boston at a reduced price (walk-in only, no shipping available).