The author's primary purpose is theological and, despite the title, only secondarily an exercise in the historical study of the sociology of conversion. The first and last chapters make it clear that the author intends the book to function as an appeal for understanding and appreciation (not just toleration) , for the various conceptions of conversion which exist in various branches of the holy catholic church. Writing as a Protestant Evangelical, the author proposes a reasonable taxonomy of three types of "conversion" (pp. 5-15): (1) Socialization (e.g., many mainline Protestant denominations), (2) Liturgical Process (e.g., Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy), (3) Personal Decision (e.g., Evangelical denominations). He insists that the focus should not be on the problems found in each of these three conversion-orientations, but rather on "the grandeur of what God has done and continues to do and will do through a great message about Jesus Christ and God's love for us" (p. 14). As an Evangelical, the author is aware that the personal-decision orientation tends to denigrate the "socialized convert" and the "liturgical convert," largely because those orientations supposedly lack individual decision and commitment, the hallmarks of conversion. Though he holds that "certain tenets" need to be affirmed in order for conversion to qualify as "Christian," he is vague about what these are. McKnight argues that a truly Christian perspective on conversion, and one which allows us to appreciate the orientation to conversion which others have is by balancing the biblical evidence with realistic descriptions of how conversion happens today. This juxtaposition of modern mini-autobiographical conversion accounts and a sociological analysis of the phenomenon of the theme of conversion in the Gospels constitutes the focus of the book.
In a preliminary examination of the Gospels in the first chapter, "Jesus and Conversion," the author finds enough features of conversion to propose a preliminary "call-repentance-discipleship" model. He is then ready to turn to a sociology of conversion approach. "What the sociology of conversion approach implies is that the process of conversion can be investigated by the use of sociological models and that there is a fair degree of uniformity, with plenty of room for emphasis and diversity, in all conversion experience" (p. 48). Basing his sociological model of conversion on the seven-stage model of Lewis R. Rambo, McKnight proposes a model of six dimensions of conversion (pp. 49-50): (1) each person's context must be understood, (2) some kind of crisis emerges, (3) a person quests for answers to needs, (4) a person encounters and interacts with an advocate for the Christian faith (Rambo's fourth and fifth stages are here collapsed into a single dimension), (5) the converting person commits to the religious persuasion, and (6) the consequences of conversion manifest themselves in a person's life in a variety of ways.
These six dimensions provide the framework for chapter 2: "Conversion: From Context to Quest" (pp. 49-81), and chapter 3: "Conversion: From Encounter to Consequences" (pp. 83-114). In these two chapters, McKnight illustrates each of the six dimensions by reproducing the conversion testimonies of nineteen North Park University students of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.
All of this is preparation for the central focus of the book, chapter 5: "Jesus and Conversion. Encounter to Consequences." Those who have been waiting to find the three types of conversion in the Gospel (socialization, liturgical process, and personal decision) will be somewhat disappointed: "Since Jesus' mission to Israel was something new, socialization was only a part of the story, and liturgical rites seemed to have played a minimal part in the conversion stories that have survived" (p. 152). Where and when do these other two dimensions become part of the picture? "These two orientations, however, undoubtedly became two of the road bumps [an unfortunate metaphor] within a generation or two and remain important dimensions of the conversion process" (p. 152). In this chapter, the author focuses only on dimensions four (Jesus as advocate, encountering Jesus, and interaction), five (Jesus and commitment) and six (Jesus and the consequences of conversion). In the concluding chapter, McKnight maintains that one clear result of his study is that the Gospels confirm the consensus model of modern sociologists of religion (p. 176). Another way of saying this is that, despite that sparse and inadequate data on conversion in the Gospels, through modern theories of conversion the author was able to draw observations out of the Gospel evidence which "confirm the fundamental theories of sociologists" (p. 176).
There are "road bumps" in this study, which are evident to me as a member of a mainline Protestant denomination. First, while the central notion of "conversion" is certainly appropriate in an Evangelical Protestant context, it is of more marginal significance in many mainline Protestant denominations as well as in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox contexts where the "journey of faith" and "living out one's baptism" are just two of the many metaphors for the Christian life (though the term "conversion" is appropriate in the case of adults who move into those traditions from radically different ones). Second, the author does not take with sufficient seriousness some Christians participation in the sacramental life of the Church, which for them is a reality which cannot be compromised. Third, the author reads the Gospels more homiletically than critically. All the stories narrated in the Gospels are understood by McKnight as factual accounts for what Jesus really said and did and how he interacted with those around him. In fact, the Gospels reflect the various ways in which the Church understood the continuing relevance of Jesus for faith and life as inseparable from its own understanding and existence. While some aspects of the words and deeds found in the Gospels are undoubtedly historical, others are just as certainly products of the Church's understanding of Jesus; one must argue which is which. Third, using modern sociological models is perilous (anthropological models are less problematic since they tend to be based on cross-cultural evidence which has a broader application), since sociologists (usually relying on data from western societies) work inductively to discover basic patterns in human social interaction. New Testament scholars like McKnight, on the other hand, use sociological models deductively to see patterns or "fill in the blanks" of the admittedly meager New Testament evidence for various types of social interaction and behavior. Since modern sociological models are based on generalities, they cannot easily be used heuristically to understand specific social realities, since the latter will only rarely instantiate all the generalities which have been cobbled together in the model. It will not have escaped the thoughtful reader that the six dimensions of conversion derived by McKnight from the seven stages proposed by Rambo can also apply equally well to a variety of other types of life experiences, such as entering a religious order, going into the ministry, and even (sans the religious dimension), dealing with midlife crises and the experience of job-loss necessitating a second vocation.