As I pulled into the quiet driveway of a modest home, I wondered about the people I had arranged to meet there.
I was researching the subject of conversion, and several young adults had agreed to talk to me about their spiritual journeys.1 They seemed intrigued by my quest to understand how their experiences of having grown up in the Adventist Church might be considered conversion.
As Andrew welcomed me, I could see that the group was already in active conversation.
Belinda, a 29-year-old teacher, launched directly into the subject: “There are a lot of people like me. We’ve grown up in the church, so we don’t have that moment of being struck blind by God.” Belinda was thinking of Saul the persecutor of Christians, struck down on his way to the city of Damascus (Acts 9:1-31). His dramatic story stands for many people as the ultimate conversion story.
“I agree,” chimed in David, a 25-year-old theology student. “Sometimes the word “conversion” means people are afraid to share their story, because they don’t think they have a story.”
“But what is conversion?” asked Andrew, a thoughtful 31-year-old scientist. “Because I don’t really know. I don’t think there’s ever been a point in my life when I thought, You know, I’m now converted. I kind of wish it would be that way. Maybe it’s still coming,” he finished wistfully.
The experiences of these young adults are not uncommon. Second-and-greater-generation Christians don’t generally have Saul’s point-in-time experience that is normally equated with conversion. But while the language of conversion doesn’t adequately describe their experience, those who’ve grown up in the church have no alternative language for describing their unique journey. This can limit their ability to appreciate God’s presence and work in their lives, and lead many to question the legitimacy of both their experience and, ultimately, their salvation.2
Following many conversations with third-and-greater-generation Adventist young adults, I’ve come to see that while the experiences of those who’ve grown up with faith are not the same as first-generation conversions, they are more similar than they are different. They still represent authentic conversion experiences. What we need, then, is a language for articulating the distinctive experience of conversion in the lives of those who’ve grown up in the faith. My research points to four characteristics of personal experience that allow us to consistently recognize what we nevertheless concede is the spiritual miracle of conversion.
First, conversion is a process that occurs over a period of time, sometimes even years.3 Ellen White suggests that while we “may not be able to tell the exact time or place” of our conversion, this does not mean that we are “unconverted,” as the work of God’s grace in our lives can be “silent and almost imperceptible.”4
Andrew described it this way: “I guess I can never pinpoint any clear conversion time because there was never a time I was purposefully heading away from God. There was never a time I was neutral, or not intending to serve God, to know Him better.”
Rather than being something that happened in the past, for those who’ve grown up in the faith, conversion includes the ongoing process of God’s work in their lives. As Belinda explained: “It’s a constant turning away from me to Christ. Every moment that I have is an opportunity for conversion, for turning and looking toward my own interests or looking toward Christ. Choosing God on a daily basis—that’s what conversion is.”
Choosing God on a daily basis—that’s what conversion is.
Alan’s insight was similar: “I was filling in a survey just last week, and it asked about conversion. I thought, I was probably converted again this morning, you know, in my devotional time. I think conversion is almost a daily thing.” Evidently conversion as a process need not have a definite beginning or ending. Rather, it consists of how God has worked in one’s heart across their life span. As Paul has put Alan’s worthy insight: “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31, KJV).
Second, conversion includes a thinking, or head, component. For first-generation converts, this involves a radical change in thinking, as a result of understanding and accepting the gospel.5 While their experiences were not as dramatic as first-generation conversions are, the young adults with whom I spoke all described growth in understanding as part of their conversion experience. For those whose early faith experiences had been positive, this head component of conversion consisted of owning their faith.
David described it this way: “It was not really ever as much a question of ‘Do I really believe in this?’ as much as making it real; of determining that it’s not just a bunch of stories; of recognizing that it’s about Christ who lives, and then having that really, really settle in.”
For those whose early faith experiences had been less positive, this head component of conversion included an unlearning of false beliefs they had grown up with. Pablo’s spiritual journey was complicated by the legalism of his childhood home. His conversion included a radical transformation in his understanding of God’s grace. He shared: “I finally understood that Jesus is my Savior, and that I can have joy and peace because it’s His righteousness that God sees and not my ‘fig-leafed,’ feeble, filthy-rag righteousness. I mean [laughs], this is why we can be happy Christians. You can’t be if you don’t know that. And it’s changed everything.”
Reflecting on the conversion experience includes remembering its head component—either an owning of truth or an unlearning of error—and thoughts about how this might have occurred in one’s life.
Third, conversion includes a relational, or heart, component. For young adults whose childhood faith had been positive, this occurred as a natural progression from their earlier experiences. As Alan shared: “I don’t think it was ever not there, but there was another step: that I would have a relationship with God. To know the person you’ve believed in, rather than just belief.”
Central to this heart component of conversion is a growing sense of trust in God, which develops from coming to know God personally. As Joshua explained: “Relationship with God is, like, you know someone; and from that knowing comes a trust.”
For those with less-positive early faith experiences, this heart component of faith was more difficult. For Abel, childhood faith was “unfelt,” and his picture of God was that of “a distant God.” He explained: “I knew what they wanted me to believe, but I didn’t believe it. I didn’t feel it.” By the time he reached adolescence, Abel considered himself an agnostic.
Similarly, Pablo once considered himself “a deist, because I felt like God isn’t interacting, like God isn’t there.” For young adults with less-positive early life experiences, conversion involved unlearning some of their early perceptions of God.
For some, this occurred through the created world. As Joshua explained: “When you stop by a flowering bush, and you see the insects’ activities, you know it’s real. I can feel something profound in that experience.”
For others, it was through relationships, particularly with their children. As Andrew shared: “The way that I love my kids: if that is how God loves His children, then I think we’re in a good place.”
Abel said “Had I not had my son, I would never have been able to understand God’s love. But I now understand the love a parent has for a child; I now get it.” Of his current faith experience, Abel says: “I don’t hesitate to tell Christ about my problems or what I’m thinking, or anything like that. I know, just like a good parent, He wants the best for me. I know I’m not a traditional Adventist, but I love Adventism and want more people to have the peace and joy it has brought me.”
Fourth, conversion includes a turning, a hand component. For first-generation Christians, this involves a radical turning from sin to righteousness. Those who’ve grown up in the faith don’t usually include a dramatic experience of turning. But as Joy explained, they do experience “a turning—kind of—because conversion involves making choices to turn from those things that are not helpful, that get in the way of your relationship with God.”
For the young adults I spoke with, this included both past and ongoing experiences of turning. Past experiences were described as “turning away” from time pursuits incongruent with faith commitments, as well as “turning away” from romantic relationships unsupportive of their faith.
Many young adults also described their conversion in terms of a “turning” in their choice of vocation. As Mark explained, choosing to pursue a spiritual vocation “wasn’t conversion to God. But it was a life-altering kind of experience, and it changed everything.” Ongoing experiences were described as “turning away” from sin and self.
As Allan explained: “On a regular basis I have to reaffirm that, actually, no, my life is with God, even though I have this tendency to do it my own way. The need for daily conversion comes out of, you know, the awareness of messing up. It’s almost a daily thing.”
Articulating a conversion narrative can be difficult for people who grew up in the church. Asked about their conversion, many youth initially responded with words of uncertainty and long pauses. But articulating one’s conversion narrative is an important part of a Christian experience: it enhances our appreciation of God’s work of grace in our lives, “personally and individually,” rather than just “abstractly and theoretically.”6
Early faith experiences are a good beginning point, learning to love the Lord with all the heart, soul, and strength (see Deut. 6:5). Then come later (head) experiences that lead to new thinking about God. Also significant is continued reflection on how new thinking enables one to experience God in new ways (heart). Finally, individuals should consider turns they have made and continue to make away from self and sin, and toward God and faith (hand).
Each person’s conversion experience is unique. But conversion always results in “new thoughts, new feelings, new purposes.”7 These, in turn, lead to a more wholistic love for God.
So have you been converted?
Edyta Jankiewicz, wife, mother, lecturer, teaches discipleship and family life classes at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.