My wife and I have been fortunate in the last couple of weeks to baptize a couple of our friends into Christ. Leading up to the first baptism, I was telling someone I was with that I needed to leave for a Bible study. When asked what about, I stumbled for an answer and said, "conversion." (wrongly thinking that the arbitrary titles given to our studies are meaningless unless you're in them) Naturally, that answer raised an eyebrow. The word conversion has negative connotations bringing images of the Crusades, cliches like converting the heathens, and highlights one of the most common negative images of Christianity in our culture- that we're right and everyone else is wrong.
The book unChristian uses several surveys, many by Barna Research, to identify preconceptions and misconceptions of "outsiders" and Christians, respectively. (I share the author's hesitancy in using the term "outsiders" because it is a loaded term, but is most illustrative of the purpose behind the study) A chapter titled, Get Saved!, brings the attitudes towards conversion to light. A telling number, emblematic of the disconnect between Christianity and our culture, is that "only one-third of young outsiders believe that Christians genuinely care about them." While, "64 percent of Christians... believe that outsiders would perceive their efforts as genuine."
Love-bombing visitors then dropping them like bad habits once they become full-fledged members of the church is all too common and only adds to this stereotype. The attitude of "I'm right and you're wrong, so therefore you're going to Hell" that is portrayed when we try and share our faith doesn't help this image any either. Add to that the infighting and competition for numbers within and between churches and you begin to see why outsiders would have a polar opposite opinion of our intentions.
While the word conversion may sound holier-than-thou, it shouldn't. Think of the word. Conversion means change. You need a power converter when traveling overseas so that you can use your hair-dryer (120 V) in foreign wall sockets (220 V). You need to convert electricity from alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC) to use most electronics. In both of these cases, the electricity is changed into something useful. It is still electricity, but is put in a form that we can use.
Religious conversion is really the same thing. It's not about "I'm right, you're wrong." It is about being changed into something useful to God. Jesus told Nicodemus, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." (John 3:3) Being born again implies a new creation, i.e. change. Ironically, Barna defines a "born-again Christian" as one who has only "accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior." The term "Evangelical" narrows down this definition by adding the conditions of "1) saying their faith is very important in their life today; 2)believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; 3) believing that Satan exists; 4) believing their eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; 5) believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; 6)asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; 7) describing God as the all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today." Neither of these definitions say anything about change, even though Jesus said, "unless..."
Paul instructs us to "be transformed" (Romans 12:2) and reminds us that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). That is conversion. That's why I so appreciate the ministry of Paul Washer. His emphasis is that simply praying the Sinner's Prayer doesn't convert you. Without evidence of change brought about by the Holy Spirit, can you really argue that you've been converted? [Ed: and since this was first written, David Platt has taken up the same argument within the SBC] I always joke that praying Jesus into your heart works. It's just that once Jesus is there, he's hanging out asking "now what?"
So when I share my faith, of course I want to convert them. But that doesn't mean I want them to conform to my way of thinking, or my personal theology/doctrine/denominationalism. It means I want to see the Holy Spirit come into their lives and change them. Maybe that is still judgemental, thinking that they even need change. But I see addiction, abuse, selfishness, and pride on a daily basis. Our media drowns us with greed and lust. I see no evidence in the world-at-large to make me believe that others don't need change. I can't do it. I can only offer it. I'm nothing special. But Jesus Christ is.