The Myth of Conversion

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck was my all-time favorite book in Mrs. Sigmon’s 7th grade English class. Back then, I never would have imagined I’d spend 20 years of my life in the land of China. I also couldn’t have guessed that in 2010, my daughter and I would have the opportunity to act as Pearl Buck in a Chinese documentary in Jiangxi province. We discovered Pearl Buck spent her summers there with her parents, as she grew up in China in the late 1800’s.

The TV documentary included scenes of my 11-year-old daughter as the young Pearl Buck sitting at a desk, writing in a journal, getting her hair brushed by a Chinese servant, going to sleep in a big bed and waking up as me, the adult Pearl Buck. I chopped wood with an ax (this required multiple shootings as I was not a natural wood cutter), attempted to type with an old-fashioned typewriter, and in the final scene tied my scarf on the fence of the summer home while I carried my suitcase and looked back longingly.

It was sobering for me to see the way Pearl Buck’s father presented a very foreign gospel. One scene shows him preaching passionately while a Chinese peasant angrily exits the church, and in another scene a farmer refuses his gift of a Bible. Pearl Buck later criticized her father for having a negative impact on the people he was trying to convert. She also felt he neglected his family while he absorbed himself completely in “his work.” As an adult, Pearl seemed to turn away from the Christian faith that had been poorly modeled in her life.

Pearl Buck’s only reference to Christianity in The Good Earth is how the Chinese would have experienced it: a strange-looking white man presenting a piece of paper to an illiterate Chinese farmer, whose only impression of the half-naked man on the cross was that he must have been a very evil man.

Acting as Pearl Buck and learning more of her story challenged me to consider the way cross-cultural workers have presented the Good News throughout history in their pursuit of Christian converts. Their view of God, their view of themselves, and their view of the people they minister to were extremely critical to achieving the end result.

Because of our common commitment to overseas ministry, we are all aware of the pressure to report to our supporting churches the metrics of conversions. But is that really what we want to be about?

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are,” (Matthew 23:15, NIV).

Ouch. What a stinging rebuke by Jesus. This is not the kind of conversion we are after.

The Apostle Paul, who worked so hard to present a pure gospel of grace with no strings attached, reassured the Thessalonians:

God tested us thoroughly to make sure we were qualified to be trusted with this Message. Be assured that when we speak to you we’re not after crowd approval—only God approval. Since we’ve been put through that battery of tests, you’re guaranteed that both we and the Message are free of error, mixed motives, or hidden agendas. We never used words to butter you up. No one knows that better than you. And God knows we never used words as a smoke screen to take advantage of you.

1 Thessalonians 2:3-5, MSG

Ultimately, I think all of us in the Velvet Ashes community believe the Gospel has the power to bring new life to people of all nations and languages through complete life transformation within their own cultural contexts.

Without life transformation, what do Christians even have to offer? Christianity becomes just another religion, one that puts people’s focus in the wrong place—on converting to a new religious culture instead of developing a life-long, life-changing relationship with Jesus right where they are.

As the community of Christ and true representatives of Him, let’s remove the burden of reporting back conversions as the “fruit” of our work. Instead, may our focus be to live lives worthy of the Gospel, with the Fruit of the Spirit, and to share the Good News in a way that seeks to really love and understand other people. May Jesus reach out – through us and into other cultures – to draw others to Himself.

How has the myth of conversion impacted you? How have you seen lives transformed by the Good News that respects and crosses cultures? What can we learn from how cross-cultural workers did (and do) hinder the movement of Christ because of ignorance and pride in their attempts at religious conversion?

9 Comments

  1. Lorretta Stembridge November 15, 2017

    Thanks so much for speaking into this subject… below the surface and to the heart of the matter. As one preparing to go and knowing that I’ll have to steward so many things well, I NEVER want to steward anything better or higher or with more care than the Gospel. I know it’s a lifestyle choice, not a vocation. Bless you!

    1. Jodie November 17, 2017

      Lorretta, I completely agree with you and your conviction that you “never want to steward anything better or higher or with more care than the Gospel.” So glad that you have connected with the Velvet Ashes community before you leave for the field and that you are entering into this conversation.

      Did you see Lauren’s powerful post earlier this week? https://velvetashes.com/responsible-ethical-storytelling/

      She highlights another critical stewarding issue: how we handle other people’s stories in the way we communicate to supporters/the online world. I think both issues are so important to consider in what we write publicly. It’s very easy to give into feelings of pressure that we need to prove what we’re doing is worthwhile. The truth is that we don’t need to prove ourselves or to promote ourselves, but to be sure we are being faithful to our audience of One.

      1. Lorretta Stembridge November 17, 2017

        Yes, as a matter of fact I did read/see the article and followed the link to the website and agree totally about the necessity to steward stories and situations in community with responsibility and integrity. I’ve recognized that there’s a temptation to meet an expectation on this side of the pond and that it will take diligence and a constant commitment to a Higher Truth to navigate all of the variables. I’m also keenly aware that there are things I do not yet know… and sometimes (as someone once wisely said) I don’t/can’t know what I don’t know. Which is why Who we know becomes the highest importance. As a writer myself, I know sometimes there’s a prideful pull to write or present in such a way that will afford you the ever-ridiculously-coveted “Like and Share”. God has been tempering me there too and showing me through His word how to write to glorify Him best and to “Love my Neighbor” well. (Even if it’s the girl in the mirror!) 😉 Thanks for the reply– I have been seeking wisdom through the voice of experience out here and that’s how I found VA. So glad I did. Blessings!

        1. Jodie November 17, 2017

          Lorretta, SO much wisdom in your comment! I wish I was as mature in my perspective before I went overseas 🙂

          1. Lorretta Stembridge November 17, 2017

            Well, bless you but I have to confess that it’s the kind of wisdom born from failure and from nearly 49 years of shuffling along on this planet! 😀

  2. Spring November 16, 2017

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I would love to see the video with you and your daughter. I do feel like the hardest thing for me is heart work is much slower, and doesn’t always show an outward sign the way a conversion does. It takes being humble and trying to understand the culture you are living in. This takes years! It makes me sad to hear about this side of Pearl Buck. She actually lived in the area I grew up in.

    1. Jodie November 17, 2017

      Spring, How interesting that you grew up in the same area as Pearl Buck! I was saddened by her story too.

      You’re right that heart work can be a slow process and because the world values quick results, we can feel a constant tension. Understanding the culture and humility, like you mentioned, are so foundational to cross-cultural work. If we focus on outward religious expressions instead of true heart change we might discover later that the “fruit” is fake.

      We have the Chinese documentary in CD form but I don’t know of a link to watch it 🙂

  3. Joy Feser November 18, 2017

    Thanks for an important article. I have never forgotten a 1993 article in the Evangelical Ms Quarterly. Here are 2 paragraphs from it:
    “Don’t show the “Jesus” film until you are well acquainted with the foundational myths and world views that
    drive your target audience. Those preparing to present the film should know how the audience is likely to construe it Viewers will interpret every incident through their mythologies and world views. For example, some from Latin America took Jesus’ statement about his coming to set the captives free as an endorsement of Liberation Theology. The Sawi identified Judas as the hero of the gospel story. Some Mongolians believed Jesus to be a Buddhist monk. We must do our homework and take nothing for granted.

    When those showing the film do so, they will then know what points or to add to the discussion so that the film will have a more direct impact on viewers. When showing “Jesus” to the Ifugao of the Philippines, for example, beginning with a genealogy would provide credibility to the ensuing cellulose images. These people would also be highly interested in any stories pertaining to wealth, health, long life, and the spirit world.” (https://www.emqonline.com/node/1430)

    1. Jodie November 18, 2017

      Thanks so much, Joy, for sharing this portion of the article and the link as well. Great to think about cultural context ahead of time and how Jesus might be interpreted because of the myths already rooted there.

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