We Need Conversion
Orlando Costas, a renowned missiologist, is well-known in many Hispanic theological circles and among socially-minded missiologists. Still, his writings and thinking tend to be less known amongst those from more dominant, Western theological traditions. Yet, his thinking on missiology, evangelism, and social action should be far more broadly influential in contemporary times.
During the rise of liberation theology in the 1950s and 1960s, Costas realized the need to address the concerns raised by liberation theologians, particularly their concerns about injustice, poverty, and the oppression of various power structures. Yet, he recognized that Western theology, especially evangelicalism, was often impotent in addressing those concerns properly, but also found liberation theology lacking, if not completely wrong, in its understanding of theological assertions about the work of Jesus. For Costas, his missiological framework understands holistic Gospel ministry as about evangelism and social action. One without the other was a distorted view of Gospel ministry.
In his essay “Conversion as a Complex Experience” in Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture, which John Stott edited, Costas poignantly addresses a real problem in many Christian circles. Namely, our understanding of conversion is lacking, and such a lack is undermining our ability to engage in faithful and effective evangelism properly.
A Brief Biography
Though there is much to say about what brought him to his conclusions––the primary reason being the teaching of Scripture––his life experiences certainly shaped his missiology. Thus, for those unaware of his work, allow me to provide a brief yet consequential biographical sketch of Costas.
Though born in Puerto Rico in 1942, Costas and his family moved to the United States, first to the Bronx and then Connecticut, in search of work. Particularly in Connecticut, Costas has described the impact of the strange environment full of hostility and prejudice toward him and his people. The consequence was a deep feeling of shame and self-hatred for his heritage.
Though he grew up in a Christian family, he ran from the things of God until he had a genuine encounter with the Lord at a 1954 Billy Graham crusade in NYC. In what might seem like an unexpected turn of events, Costas would eventually end up at Bob Jones Academy and University. He notes this season of life for him was deeply formative in that this hotbed of fundamentalism formed a deep burden for the lost. His passion for evangelism as a call to repentance and faith was rooted in his own conversion and the subsequent discipleship he experienced.
However, as a minority in an almost entirely white context, Costas also experienced the sacralizing of white culture, manifest destiny, and racism. The otherness of his experience drove him to become more conscious of his own Hispanic cultural roots. As he put it, these experiences “kindled a passionate love for the lands south of the Rio Bravo” (173) and drove the rediscovery of his hidden Latin American identity. Consequently, for Costas, the coming years would result in commitments to Spanish-speaking ministries in both Connecticut and New York.
While pastoring in New York, he continued his studies at Nyack College, a school part of a denomination committed to missions. But at this time, he also felt compelled to learn deeply the context of his roots and the needs of the people in Latin America, especially Puerto Rico. So much so, he went on to do studies in Latin American history and politics, which led to both an affirmation of his heritage and also a questioning of the political hegemony of the United States in Latin America. He points out that while he did not develop hostility toward North American persons, he was “increasingly aware of the political oppression and economic exploitation which their nation, as an imperial and neo-colonial power, was exercising over Latin America as a whole, and in particular over my own country” (180).
Eventually, he returned to the United States, studied at both Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Garret Theological, and eventually completed his ThD at the Free University in Amsterdam under Reformed missiologist Johannes Verkuyl. But amid these studies, he also began serving Spanish-speaking communities that were regularly marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed. His faith animated his conviction that the Gospel had something to say to the poor and the disenfranchised. Not in the same way that many liberation theologians understood, but rather, just as the Gospel has “personal, spiritual, and cultural dimensions,” so also did it have “social, economic, and political ones” (181) as well.
With that backdrop of experiences in mind, we should now turn to the issue of conversions. Depending on how one reads that brief biographical sketch, we may or may not have noticed several key conversions in Costas's life. He acknowledges a genuine conversion to Christ, which led to a conversion to the religious significance of his cultural heritage, which led to a conversion to a world of the forgotten and exploited. These three conversions are deeply instructive for us all, as we similarly need each if faithful Gospel ministry is to take place.
1. Conversion to Christ: Conversion as a distinct moment and a continuous process (176, 183)
Drawing on 2 Cor. 3:16-18, Costas rightly points out that Paul understood conversion as something that happens in a moment when one, for the first time, consciously turns toward and trusts in Christ. It is the moment when the blinding “veil is taken away” (v. 16). But subsequently, as you grow in faith, the Spirit works in such a way that we contemplate the Lord’s glory and are “transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (v. 18). Throughout our Christian experience we must regularly turn from self, turn from sin, turn from the things of this world, and again turn toward the Lord. In this way, conversion is both a distinct moment and also a life-long process.
Unfortunately, however, this perspective on conversion often is treated as the only real dimension of conversion. Though a lifelong, Spirit-empowered commitment to repentance and faith is a conversion, other conversions must take place for us to accomplish holistic Gospel ministry and faithful mission.
2. Conversion to Culture: Conversion as a socio-ecclesial reality (177, 185)
Costas argues we should think about conversion as a socio-ecclesial reality as well. Social because it is a historical event that does not happen in a vacuum or outside a cultural context (185). For all Christians, conversion will require a break from the day's social norms, commitments, and priorities.
But conversion is also ecclesial because conversion “is the result of the witnessing engagement of a visible community which leads to incorporation into that community” (186). The significance of this reality is that every cultural context is fraught with sin, and since churches are in those contexts, “not only believers but the church as a whole in a given geographical area can be trapped by sin” (186).
To be converted into a particular social context means breaking from the sinful norms of that context but also, at some point, also break from some of the problematic, and even sinful, norms of the church and church tradition into which we were converted. Our conversion from sin to Christ will require further conversions from sinful contexts to Christlike faithfulness. For Costas, he needed to break from the “sacralization of white culture, manifest destiny, and racism” if he was to be effective in his mission field. And so that we are clear, this was not a break from the social context outside the church, but rather a break from the socio-ecclesial inside the church.
Whether one comes to this idea of socio-ecclesial conversion from a more conservative or a progressive vantage point, all need this conversion. Remember, Costas experienced the idolatry and wrongheadedness of both fundamentalist theology and liberation theology. He took great issue with both extremes. So, if, by the world's standards, we are not wildly conservative in some areas and wildly progressive in others, we are likely in need of a socio-ecclesial conversion before we can be truly effective in faithful Gospel ministry.
3.Conversion to the World: Conversion as a missional commitment
Finally, Costas addresses his final conversion, one that confirms the robustness of the latter. He asserts that conversions have a definite “what for?” as conversion “is not to provide a series of ‘emotional trips’ for assimilations of a body of doctrines, nor to recruit women and men for the church, but rather to put them at the service of the mission of God’s Kingdom” (187). He rightly points out that Matthew’s account of the Great Commission is to make disciples by baptism and teaching all that the Lord commanded. And Jesus, knowing our need for simplicity, summarized those teachings as loving God and loving our neighbor.
Our spiritual conversions to Christ through repentance and faith result in lives of conversions orientated toward God and our neighbors. And though this has recently received much attention, for many, there ends up being a wrong emphasis on loving God or loving our neighbor. That is, we may love God through worship and personal piety but end up being functionally indifferent (by “functionally,” I mean most of us would never say we are indifferent, but practically speaking, we are) to the plight of our neighbors. Conversely, we may love our neighbor and seek their good but cease to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, evidenced by our lack of ongoing repentance and faith.
But, for Costas, his conversion to Christ, and his conversion away from the problematic socio-ecclesial contexts, led to a conversion to the needs of the world, “especially the world of the forgotten and exploited.” Elsewhere, Costas notes,
A personal experience of God's liberating grace is not enough to give authenticity to evangelism. Communicators of the glad tidings of salvation ought to be persons committed to and engaged in the process of positive change in their respective life situations. Since the Gospel is addressed to persons socially and historically situated, it follows that the Gospel's transforming impact is also to be evidenced in these contexts. Once in Christ, “business” cannot remain “as usual….[Christians] need to demonstrate the power of the Spirit’s presence through a new lifestyle of freedom, service, justice, and peace. (Liberating News, 30)
In sum, faithful Gospel ministry and evangelism require ongoing personal sanctification but also the pursuit of, by the power of the Spirit, the betterment of those we seek to serve. Without a conversion toward the needs of the world, we present a truncated and often disembodied Gospel that cares only for the needs of the soul and cares little for the needs of the physical. And to put a final emphasis on the point, it is amongst the poor, oppressed, and marginalized that we can see the greatest power of the Gospel on display since they simultaneously experience the full effects of both personal and societal sins. Like all humanity, they possess personal sin that must be dealt with at the cross through repentance and faith. But they often also experience the full weight of societal sin over which Christ has victory, a reality we ought to reflect, to the best of our ability, now.
If you are reading this, I venture to guess you have experience conversion 1, a conversion to Christ. Thanks be to God for His grace, mercy, and kindness! But I wonder the extent to which we have experienced conversion 2––a conversion from the sinful patterns of our socio-ecclesial contexts. How are the patterns of this world influencing our faithfulness to Christ and His mission? And finally, I wonder if we’ve experienced conversion 3––a conversion to address the needs and concerns of this world, especially the most vulnerable. How is our evangelism reflecting the Spirit’s power that brings a “new lifestyle of freedom, service, justice, and peace.”
I pray the Spirit helps us see the ways we need to be converted.