How To Convert Unconverted Christians6 min read
There’s a saying I’ve grown up hearing: “The most difficult part of ministry is not converting non-Christians; rather, the most difficult part of ministry is converting Christians.”
I know the statement isn’t completely accurate. Technically, there’s no such thing as an “unconverted Christian.” Either you are a Christian, or you are unconverted.
But it certainly seems like there is a third category, right? These are the people who claim to be Christians, but they are not living up to their claim. They want to follow Christ so they can go to heaven, but they will not allow Christ to influence any part of their lifestyle. They think that as long as they attend church at least semi-regularly, God will present them with a “get-out-of-hell-free” card.
Let’s go ahead and colloquially call these apathetic, lukewarm, and indifferent people “unconverted Christians.” And in this sense the saying is true – the most difficult part of my ministry has certainly been converting “unconverted Christians.” They call themselves Christians, but their lifestyles are no different from those of unbelievers.
I think Paul is addressing “unconverted Christians” in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. He writes in verse 1:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.
Unconverted Christians are simply not spiritual people. Their moral system is still based upon the world’s standards (i.e. “as people of the flesh”). Of course, Paul is not affirming that there is such a thing as an “unconverted Christian,” but he is confronting the sins in their lives which are keeping them from maturing in Christ. He continues (verse 2):
I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready
Unconverted Christians, though they may have attended church for decades, are unable to grasp the more meaty subjects of Christianity. They still “need milk, not solid food” (Heb. 5:12). And even on a steady spiritual diet of milk, the message just goes in one ear and out the other. Teach about faithfulness, and they will seemingly become even more sporadic in their church attendance. Teach about moral issues (modesty, lust, alcoholism, &c), and they will get their feelings hurt. Teach about weightier matters (denominationalism, worship, grace & works, &c), and they will argue with you. Paul goes on to write (verse 3):
for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
Unconverted Christians hinder the work of the Church. They promote “jealousy” (zelos, i.e. “rivalry”) and “strife” (eris, i.e. “contention; disputes”) within the Body. Instead of being zealous about serious issues (such as hypocrisy, false teaching, or sin in the church), they get upset over petty things and cause division (“I don’t think Sister Smith should be on that committee!” or, “If you don’t turn up the air-conditioning, I’m going to leave!”). They are controlled by pride, rather than bowing to others in humility (Eph. 4:1-3). Paul goes on to say (verse 4):
For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
Unconverted Christians are confused about the nature of Christianity. They will often refer to themselves as “Church Of Christers,” making themselves a denomination just like their friends who are “Baptists,” “Presbyterians,” or “Church Of Godders.” They do not see denominationalism as being fundamentally sinful (cf. John 17:20-21), and therefore do not hold the pure undefiled teachings of God’s Word in high regard. They value the teachings of ‘Christian’ celebrities and the latest fads within Christendom more than they do Jesus Christ and His New Testament.
Though “unconverted Christians” may have been Christians for a long time, Paul still calls them “infants” (1 Cor. 3:1).
How do we deal with “unconverted Christians?”
1. Recognize in reality there is no such thing as an “unconverted Christian.”
Either you are “in Christ” or you are not (2 Cor. 5:17). Either you are “walking in the light,” or you are not (1 John 1:7). Either Jesus is the foundation of your life, or He is not (John 6:35). One of the most dangerous places to be is among the Church of the Living God while under the delusion that you are actually following Christ for the right reasons. It is possible for someone to attend church his/her entire life without obeying the Gospel by fully submitting their lives to Jesus.
2. Distinguish between those who are actually unconverted and those who are just spiritually immature.
God is the only One Who can truly know the hearts of all men. But in the words of Marshall Keeble, “maybe we can’t judge people [as God judges], but we can be fruit inspectors.” Jesus said “the tree is known by its fruit” (Matt. 12:33). Sometimes the difference between an unbeliever and someone who is just an immature Christian is hard to distinguish. But just because someone may have been baptized does not mean they are a Christian.
3. Take weak Christians ‘under your wing.’
Paul told the weak Christians in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). It is unfair to be critical of someone who never seems to mature in their faith if you haven’t first attempted to show them what real Christianity looks like. Show them what a more mature – and constantly maturing – Christian looks like. We need to be encouraging one another to greater faithfulness (1 Thess. 5:11). Perhaps part of the reason they are still “unconverted” is because their brothers & sisters in Christ haven’t been challenging them enough.
4. Change how the church recognizes new members.
The best long-term fix to the problem of “unconverted Christians” is to raise the standard of who is allowed to place membership. Every church eldership should have an intentional process for people to go through if they wish to place membership at your congregation. Have they truly been converted? Is there impenitent sin in their life? Why do they want to place membership at your particular congregation? This is not an easy solution, but effective solutions rarely are easy. And it takes real leadership to care for the flock in this way.
5. Preach the Word.
I never cease to be amazed at the power God’s Word has upon the human heart. I’ve seen Christians, who have been babes in Christ for years, very quickly become passionate about following their Lord. It is awesome how the Gospel – if the whole counsel is patiently taught (cf. Acts 20:17) – can cut through the messiest of lives and crucify the hearts of the hardest of people. Perhaps the reason there are so many “unconverted Christians” at your church is because God’s Word is not being taught in its entirety.