Information or Conversion (part one): Knowing Your Approach

Understanding and Change

Pope John Paul II told us in CT 20 that every time we teach Christ to others, we do so with two goals: to increase their understanding and to bring about conversion and change in a person's life.

Catechesis aims therefore at developing understanding of the mystery of Christ in the light of God's word, so that the whole of a person's humanity is impregnated by that word. Changed by the working of grace into a new creature, the Christian thus sets himself to follow Christ and learns more and more within the Church to think like Him, to judge like Him, to act in conformity with His commandments, and to hope as He invites us to.

Understanding and Change was beaten into my head over and over again in my  Catechetics courses at Franciscan University. You can ask any FUS student who took a Catechetics class in the last 15 years and I'm sure they can spout out CT 20 to you in a heartbeat.

After 8 years of ministry, both full time and traveling on the side, I've done about 100 retreats and conferences, and have given over 300 hours of talks. Each talk is crafted to suit the needs of the audience as best as I can know them (hence the importance of relational ministry!). I have come to learn the subtle differences between a talk that is more about information transfer and one that primarily seeks conversion.

Recently I spoke at a Confirmation retreat weekend, which is usually time to engage in heavy apologetics and a basic introduction to the Gospel. But not this weekend. The kids were well educated and enthusiastic to be there, which is rare for such a retreat. I realized half way through the opening song that my original line up of talks would have to be augmented to suit a more prepared audience. My talks would have to change now.

More Knowledge or More Conversion?

In the past, when faced with such an audience, I would have switched the primary focus of my talk from conversion to understanding, thinking that they were ready for more information. But retreats are not really about acquiring information, there's a place for that, of course, but they are really about fostering ongoing conversion. You retreat to get closer to God. Sure, there's a knowledge component, but that serves the union, not the other way around.

This time I tried something different. I focused on making the appeal to change deeper. Basically, I asked more of the kids, spoke more to the rigors of the Christian life, and focused on sacrifice more so than I usually do. For the talk on sin, instead of diving into a biblical analysis of temptation and how it coincides with Genesis 3's depiction of the Fall, I focused on the things in our lives that prevent full conversion to Christ. I talked about how our sin, mistakes, and past baggage stop us from living the abundant life that Christ promised us. I talked about cultural obstacles that deny  or contradict the Gospel with false promises. I talked about their desire for happiness.

I learned a long time ago that if you offer the youth a small demand you get a small response. Once they are enthusiastic, why not go for broke? Sure, the conventional wisdom might be "Aim small, miss small", but when it comes to inspiring real and lasting change in your hearers, that is a disaster. It makes Christianity small, and us small for following it.

The Usual Disclaimers

Let me preempt the emails by saying, yes, I believe that all Christian information is indeed formation. I know that knowledge of the Gospel is never just "fact retention" and that God is Truth Itself. I'm not denying the crucial importance of knowledge in conversion, nor in the living the Christian life in general.

What I am saying is that the proclaimer's emphasis ought to be on either Understanding or Change depending on the circumstances and needs of the audience. What I have discovered on this retreat was that, instead of relying on passing on more Understanding, it was more proper to the place and purpose (a retreat) to engage them on the level of Change instead. And yes, I know that growth in understanding is also growth in conversion, is also growth in understanding. I embrace this reality, but you need a point of entry into that reciprocal process to start it up somewhere.

Working for Change

With the above stated clearly, (and rather defensively) here is what I learned. I have been a part of too many retreats where the evaluation of how great it went was based on how the kids thought about the retreat when they were leaving, or when they got home an hour or so later to their parents. This is just wrong.

The true value of a retreat is the level of commitment practiced afterwards (not perfection, just commitment). If we are not consciously working for conversion- sustainable change- for our retreatants, then why bother having a retreat at all? The goal is not the accumulation of more knowledge for its own sake, but the increase in personal intimacy with God.

Sustainable change does not mean short changing the Gospel to make it easier. It does not mean watering down biblical demands on their lives so they will say "Yes Lord! Yes Lord! Yes, Yes Lord!" quicker. It means creating a goal big enough to inspire, the desire strong enough to follow through with it, and the support system around them to encourage, nurture and repair the wounds along the way.


In the next post I am going to talk making change a priority in our presentations and retreats, by talking about testimonies.