When we consider the “process of conversion” we are looking at this topic from the perspective of those who seek to persuade, rather than from the inner perspective of those who make a decision to join. Since both perspectives are relevant there are two articles. The inner experience involved by a potential member is considered in “Becoming a True Believer.” It is worth reading this article in tandem with that one. By writing two articles it is hoped to avoid two extremes. The first is to suggest conversion happens purely as a result of individual choice. By writing an article on conversion we show that this is not the case. Active methods to influence the individuals will and thinking processes do occur and they explain why most people follow the faith they were brought up within and come into a faith as a result of personal connection with believers. This can be proven through statistics and is true for other aspects of life also. How we are raised significantly shapes our thinking. The second extreme is to remove freewill and personal decision making altogether and therefore fails to recognise there are personal reasons why people join religions. It is also worth noting some reasons people join are subconscious because we are not purely logical, but are affected by how we feel. For instance, we are influenced by social benefits and desires for social acceptance.
It should be noted that in the early days of the movement most adherents came primarily from other churches. With second, third and subsequent generations recruitment has also come from within. In other words, from the children of Christadelphians. In fact this is the primary method in its traditional areas of Britain, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Most followers are born into the faith. Noting this, Bryan Wilson, a sociologist, very accurately described it as a “family religion.”
Recruitment efforts historically were directed at those connected to the American Restoration Movement and those with Adventist links in particular. The primary message was not repentance of sin, because most already believed that. It was instead to raise doubts about peoples existing beliefs. The message was baptism and repentance mean nothing without correct knowledge (as recovered). The idea of it being a simple faith in Jesus as Saviour was rejected. Anything else was to not have the gospel. It was suggested peoples beliefs were as a result of traditions based on an apostasy which started soon after Christianity started. Doubts were implanted and to answer or disprove required existing Christians to gain advanced Biblical knowledge many have never had. This led to many debates at the time centred around seeking to prove “what the Bible really said” in contrast to what people had been taught or believed. Many of these were with with church leaders and in quite a few cases were actually published in newspapers of the day. These were often lengthy and complex and to judge required exhaustive knowledge of scripture as well as inquiries into the root meanings of words and how as a book the Bible was to be understood and balanced. The approach taken was intellectual to a high degree and although the main Christadelphian grouping has mellowed somewhat, to a lesser degree, is still that adopted today.
The method of conversion is therefore largely intellectual and as a community emotional methods of conversion are seen as less than rational. The belief is that every element can be proven rather than being a taught method or dependent upon the Holy Spirit reaching and converting the heart. As a result Christadelphians see little role for emotional conversion. Faith is seen to be based upon the rational belief in facts which can be proven.
The first principles therefore are seen to be to have a correct set of intellectual understandings. Since it is based upon “correct” scriptural knowledge and interpretation it is very difficult to reach and convince people who have no knowledge of the Bible at all. It has therefore had very limited success with people with no Christian background of any kind. The amount of knowledge to feel a certainty that Christadelphians “have the Truth” through scriptural knowledge is considerable and can require years of study. It also requires conformity of interpreting Bible passages in the way that is taught. Converting through an intellectual approach is less effective than having some kind of emotional appeal and is probably one reason why as a community the Christadelphians have converted far less people than other denominations started at the same time and why conversion from other churches historically has been a large historical ground of conversion. Most people feel a need for an emotional element to faith and a system based upon the intellect and proving can end up feeling over-rational and dry.
This is why a huge amount of Christadelphian talks and articles are not about the way we live or the heart, but about topics such as the existence of the devil, whether there is a trinity, whether Christ’s death was substitutional or representative, whether the kingdom is in heaven or on earth and so forth. Many today still are and such subjects are believed by many Christadelphians to be the first principles of the Christian faith. Those who attend their talks will tend to get a huge diet of talks dwelling on proving doctrinal statements. To express other thoughts and to see other possibilities will usually lead to attempts to disprove them, often in a very forceful manner which does not allow discussion. Although Christadelphians believe, in theory, in the Bible alone they, in practice, do not leave those who attend free to draw their own conclusions and therefore create a strong pressure to come to the same conclusions. The motives for doing this are usually a sincere belief that correct beliefs are necessary for salvation, but in the Christadelphian position there is also a defensiveness that is linked to this idea. If it can be proven another way or doubts emerge about any belief or position their theology makes little provision for grace. Christadelphians often need to feel everything is without any doubt in any way because their salvation depends upon having correct beliefs.
The aim is therefore to try through their form of logic to get people to mentally concede. They do not generally believe in the ideas of people being drawn to God (although there is some belief in providence) and the main statement has a rejection in number 13 which is aimed at the belief that Christianity primarily centres on a person.
The focus of the community is therefore in locking a person’s thinking into seeing only one set of possibilities within scripture. Broader perspectives are contended against in those who attend and often lead to disfellowship of those who have joined. This is how the community has retained its distinctiveness and today is beginning to break down as some of the limitations of this have grown and the internal emotional needs of its members have needed consideration. It has also led to division for, despite these constraints, various issues have emerged that have presented unforeseen threats to the structure. One issue which has emerged repeatedly is that of how God helps us today and how his Spirit works.
The debating method of gaining attention has declined and the primary method used today in the English speaking nations, where the movement largely formed, is in giving talks. Most have a specific Sunday evening lecture for the general public which rarely attract many non believers, but do have a secondary purpose of converting the young who have not committed. Sometimes a special meeting (or “effort”) will be organised in a venue on a title felt to be of public interest and supported with adverts or by leafleting. Attendance by the public is generally poor, although one or two individuals sometimes go along and having “a witness” and “sowing a seed” generally is considered to make it worthwhile. Making an effort is considered more important than effectiveness and going through this kind of routine convinces Christadelphians they are fulfilling the command of Jesus to preach. The general lack of interest is usually attributed to the lack of faith in the “end times” and there is rarely much thought about whether some of the lack of interest may be due to some inherent weaknesses within the Christadelphian mindset and a failure of approach. “Special efforts” are commonly held today in a “neutral” venue such as a public hall or some place where it is felt those who may not feel comfortable in a church would more easily go to. A common theme is that of Bible prophecy and the talks will use modern day events, maybe some recent political happening or event. These will be presented as sure signs of the soon return of Christ and this is often a common method to encourage commitment to search out the Christadelphian beliefs. It is also a way that those searching come under pressure because they are urged of the need to “be ready” which is presented as being baptised. However this baptism is not considered possible without having the right beliefs and this can create an extended struggle for the potential Christadelphian because this “searching out of scripture” is not easy.
From time to time Christadelphians arrange “campaigns” to attract more potential converts. Many are near existing meetings, others are more remote. Those who arrange and help do so on a voluntary basis and a huge amount of effort goes into them. The “campaigners” are often housed by nearby Christadelphians and there is usually some social activities arranged as well as the main preaching work. Some campaigns are very small with just a few people, others are much larger. A major focus of some of the larger ones in the UK is a “Bible Exhibition” which is very professionally presented and is a travelling collection of presentation displays, videos, old Bibles and other exhibits. Talks are usually held concurrently in the evenings and the aim is to encourage people to attend these using interest established by the exhibition. The name Christadelphian is generally downplayed initially and the “Christian” angle used to gain interest. Non church locations are usually used initially. The intention is to show “the message of the Bible” (as understood by Christadelphians) and as a result many who attend initially will be unaware that the exhibition and talks are promoting non mainstream Christian views. Those who attend will find themselves treated in a friendly manner and people will often ask about their lives, what they are doing and so forth. It should be remembered, however, that the prime intent is not to be friends, but to convert to a way of thinking and friendship given will be conditional based upon that occurring. It will also likely be more intense than may be maintained should the “interested friend” convert.
The intent following talks and lectures is to get those interested into some kind of structured learning program. It is widely recognised that simply expecting people to go to evening lectures and that they will become convinced that way is unlikely. That can happen on an informal basis with people being invited to share a meal or be involved in events in some other way. A more formal method is to establish “Bible seminars” one of which is called “Learn to Read the Bible Effectively.” These sometimes make no mention of the name Christadelphian at all, claim to never preach and state that the participant will never be asked to attend a church. In practice the courses are designed to encourage people to adopt the approaches Christadelphians have adopted and many of their theological positions are built in. For instance they will refer to the need to look at root meanings of words and emphasise those on which Christadelphian theology rests. The aim is to influence in a more subtle way than has historically been the case and which would be the case if a convert was to ask the question, “Which church do you go to?” and subsequently decide to attend.
As someone who has participated and been involved in such seminars an interesting problem can emerge. Certain people attend the seminars and find interest in learning about the Bible, how it is structured and so forth, but feel no conviction to go further than learning a set of facts. Since there has been a promise to not convert and they are presented as being educational rather than religious in intent as the seminar starts reaching a conclusion there is a lack of certainty on how to proceed further. The aim and hope is to get people to make the step from attending seminars to attending a church, but there is no consistent method to achieving this. The links which it is assumed people will automatically make therefore do not always occur.
In practice therefore converting people in the traditional areas of conversion is not easy and the Christadelphian community is declining in its heartlands. They rely upon a purely intellectual approach without conviction of sin that is largely too difficult for most folk to easily grasp. Most conversion therefore comes from the children of Christadelphians.
As noted at the beginning in much of the world most recruitment comes from the children of Christadelphians. Some of this can be attached to the claim that society has become more secular and has less interest in Christianity, the Bible and religion in general. It can also be claimed that society has become more materialistic in nature. These are common arguments advanced by Christadelphians. There are however more specific reasons. If we for instance look at other movements which started around the time (and which have shared origins) such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons and the Adventists, they have recruited more members from outside than the Christadelphians and have grown to far larger numbers. How can this be explained? It has been noted elsewhere that initially recruitment was fast and rapid, but the movement became entangled in schism. This has always been a feature of the movement because its whole foundational basis was highly intellectual and the whole emphasis has been that salvation is dependent on correct theological understanding of the Bible. This has made recruitment very complex. In other words it is hard to explain to those not brought up within the movement.
Its lack of success recruiting can also be attributed to some extent to the fact that almost all effort has been the focus on being a closed community of believers. Whilst some efforts have always been put into preaching, much has been done in a rote fashion. Public talks are often conducted in a set way regardless of effectiveness. Little emotional commitment into real engagement with those outside has been made. Much effort has been a fruitless going through the motions. In theological terms there are many similarities with the movements noted – in their views of the world, their legalism, even being a very enclosed (some would say cultlike) community. These movements have largely overcome the difficulties through active recruitment programs, focusing on simple methodologies. Unlike these movements, most communities run autonomously, without central leadership, without central planning, without any paid ministers and recruitment is down to individual effort. No one has to engage with something which in practice is very difficult to do unlike the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses where activity is compulsory. Without paid ministers or organisers the sheer effort of maintaining formal activities on top of the effort of everyday life leaves little free effort by members. Whilst many members are undoubtedly sincere and enthusiastic about their faith, it is a religion bounded by organisational formulas, rote routine and going through the motions that cripple attempts to recruit from outside.
Recruitment from within does not suffer from these limitations to the same degree. Emotional connection is not made through having any emotional appeal or structured campaign that is effective. It comes from seeking to limit what are seen to be wrong thoughts and actions through environmental means in the home as well as having the faith advocated continually. The children of Christadelphians are brought up to view the world as evil and the community as safe, other churches to be flawed and truth to only rest within the community, to associate with other Christadelphian children and minimise it with other children. Thoughts expressed that don’t agree with this dominant one are suppressed. This isn’t totally closed in that Christadelphian children do go to mainstream schools and it isn’t without benefit, but it does mean every effort to influence them has been made.
Particularly as the children reach the teens the movement can seem more oppressive. The encouragement to be “separate from the world” in practice means encouraging them to be less involved with schoolmates and their activities and more involved with church activities. They also experience more pressure to become baptised, although it is often worded as “searching the truth out for themselves” and the “need to be ready for the return of Christ.” They are also reminded about the pointlessness of life and the impending destruction of the world and signs that point to that are drawn from the daily news. This can be very difficult for children and recognising this, the community puts considerable effort into youth activities. The strong youth movement in the community is undoubtedly one of its strengths in gaining the young and receives a high priority of time and effort. This transition is more likely within a peer group of other Christadelphian children and a lot of effort is put into youth activities and meeting their needs. For this reason many with children will seek to go to congregations or even move to areas with other children. Those in larger meetings and with more social connections are more likely to commit and the isolation of many meetings and the difficulties of finding partners within is also another big reason. Since most congregations are small and often some distance apart, accepting the beliefs isn’t the only issue. Those who remain single can end up very isolated and outside the small window of youth, with work and time restriction can become impossible. Youth activities therefore have a strong secondary role for many – finding partners. It is worth noting here that this is critical for another reason. Marrying outside the faith is forbidden and leads to discipline. Endogamy (or marrying within) is also part of the closed setup and a significant number of Christadelphians could be joined by drawing up a genealogical chart, and family connections are a common topic of interest.
Christadelphian children therefore experience considerable pressure to conform to expectations and commit to beliefs which have been inculcated in them. To believe and commit offers them a community, a settled worldview and acceptance in a world they are taught is wrong and with churches which are all wrong. Despite this, it has become less and less effective and more do not join.
The growing failure to convert is leading to a growing interest in home schooling to counter the “influence of the world.” Some would also like to establish schools for Christadelphians, such as Heritage College in Australia.
The intent of conversion is to bring a person to the point where they request to be baptised. It is not normally about convicting them of sin, and repentance is rarely mentioned. Repentance and baptism are generally treated as though they are synonymous and this was a position established by John Thomas where he suggests it is about a change of mind rather than any sorrow for sin. It is therefore primarily treated as though it is an intellectual decision based upon having gained a belief in correct knowledge. It is incidentally for this reason that in the Doctrines to be Rejected, (number 22), idiots are considered incapable of being saved, although in practice some Christadelphian children who are very limited in this aspect are carefully tutored to give the right answers.
Once a person requests baptism, preparations for baptism begin. This usually involves a baptismal interview to ensure the candidate has the right knowledge and proof quotes for answers given are often required. To prepare for this, instructors historically were used. The examination is usually conducted by brethren appointed for this purpose and it is rare for people to fail because they are advised against applying for baptism if they are not considered ready.
Following baptism a person is considered to be a member of the church and by default expected to abide by the form of church authority in place, even though in practice a huge number do not know much about the official documents and rarely give an official agreement to them. In addition many of them haven’t been translated into other languages.
The information above is largely true in the English speaking nations which form the historical backdrop of the Christadelphians. Membership is declining due to the inertia of the movement, the rigidity of thought required and poor rates of young Christadelphians becoming committed. There is a distinct archaism of thought and approach which has its origins in Victorian England, the organisational structures and systems established in the past and high resistance to change. This is similar to the problems of institutionalised religion in other denominations.
Growth still continues particularly in developing and poor countries across the world as well as Eastern Europe. This has been spearheaded by a Christadelphian called Duncan Heaster and has centred around the use of a book called Bible Basics which is described as “being used world-wide as an instruction manual for those seeking baptism.” He espouses mainstream Christadelphian doctrines, but has adopted very different approaches and often operates outside historical Christadelphian traditions of how things are done. This may be partly because his efforts have been in areas which do not have existing structures and traditions, and which has meant he has operated with far less restraints over which methods he fixed upon. He has adopted more pro-active and varied approaches with a large degree of success, but not without criticism. Some believe this is the direction Christadelphians need to go, others feel his efforts need restricting and should be more controlled by existing Christadelphian preaching groups. There has been some criticism over the validity of his baptisms and whether those converted are sufficiently well schooled to be considered Christadelphians. His efforts are also connected with a group called Carelinks Ministries which focus on the practical trials of the new Christadelphian believers in these countries and the persecutions and practical difficulties they often face.