No clear downward trend in conversions: study

The survey investigates how and why Canadians become Christians

The most surprising thing about his latest study of faith formation among Canadians is that conversions don’t appear to be noticeably on the decline, says Jeremy McClung, interim director of the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College.

The study, “Finding Faith in Canada Today,” found that among converts who had come to faith as adults in the past 50 years, “there is a slight decline in the past 10 years, but not enough to see a trend at this point,” says McClung. “That was a shock to us. We thought we were just going to see a downhill slope.”

Plotting the respondents’ self-reported conversion dates on a graph showed a small, unexpected reduction over the past 10 years, McClung says. Source: Finding Faith in Canada Today

With funding from the Diocese of Niagara, Muskoka Community Church and the Institute of Evangelism, McClung and his predecessor as director of the Institute of Evangelism, John Bowen, contracted the data services firm Maru/Blue to find and interview Canadians who said they had become Christians as adults since they were not raised as believers. Questions were designed to identify what their conversion experiences had in common, whether there was a distinct order in which those experiences typically occurred, and demographic patterns among converts to Christianity, among other things.

Among the study’s 318 respondents, McClung says there was no clear pattern in the sequence of events that led to acceptance of the belief. For many it was a process that lasted from less than a year (39 percent) to more than 10 years (19 percent). While the number of converts hadn’t dropped nearly as much as McClung and Bowen had suspected, the average age at conversion did increase, McClung says. Most converts were over 40 at the time of conversion in the past 20 years, compared with about a third over the five-decade survey period.

People who converted in the last 20 years were more likely to do so after age 40. About two-thirds of respondents reported becoming Christians in their 20s and 30s in previous decades. Source: Finding Faith in Canada Today

Canon Neil Elliot, statistics officer for the Anglican Church of Canada, cautions that those 318 respondents represent only a small fraction of the total 7,717 Christians surveyed, only about nine percent of whom converted. over age. 17. As such, he says, “the study is examining a process that applies to less than 10 percent of all Christians, and perhaps a much smaller proportion of Anglicans, [who are] anecdotally much less likely to engage in evangelism.” Therefore, he cautions that the study should not be taken to suggest a reversal of the shrinking trend in the church as a whole.

McClung, who acknowledges the study has some limitations, says he and Bowen hoped to find some indication of how the conversion process works. An interesting – though more difficult to implement – ​​idea for future research, he adds, is to interview people who had considered Christianity at some point to ask what prevented them from joining and thereby seeking data on how evangelism could be done better.

The survey also asked respondents to rank seven conversion-related events in the order they occurred, ranging from attending church for the first time to having intellectual doubts and questions answered to feeling God’s presence for the first time. seen. The survey showed that these did not occur in any predictable way from one respondent to another, a finding that McClung says may disappoint anyone hoping for an algorithmic, step-by-step process for future evangelism.

It’s tempting to go into research like this looking for a simple assembly-line process to put non-Christians to work and get a guaranteed conversion, he says.

“The people we love, who we want to become Christians – we find it frustrating that we don’t know how to help them with that. If we just had the magic formula and plugged them into that and they turned out to be Christians, that would help us feel a lot better.”

The good news for Christians like these, he says, is that the survey also suggested that the most common factor at play in conversions was friendship with an existing Christian, with about 40 percent calling it somewhat or very important to the journey. theirs – more than those who named their parents (13 percent), a particular church (about 35 percent) or even their spouse (32 percent).

Interpersonal relationships of all kinds are an important factor in the faith formation of young Christians, with friendships leading the pack above all others listed. Source: Finding Faith in Canada Today

And when asked what a Christian they knew had done to help them on their way to conversion, the top three things they mentioned were showing them Christ’s love (47 percent), inviting them to services or events of the church (44 percent) and lived a life that seemed attractive (36 percent).

A surprisingly high percentage of converts said they had been in contact with the church before their conversion, but believed they had come to the true faith later in life. Source: Finding Faith in Canada Today

At a time when evangelicalism is “deeply unpopular inside and outside the church,” McClung says, that news should come as a big relief to people who feel they need to do more to spread the gospel. “I’m more from an evangelical, Anabaptist background, and even though in our tradition we should pretend to be excited about evangelism, people are still terrified and don’t really do it,” he says. But if Christians realize these three things are all they need to get started, he adds, they can feel much less intimidated about evangelism.

Speaking to the Journal about the study, Rev. Connie denBok, a sessional instructor focusing on evangelism at the Atlantic School of Theology, says she has often seen the evangelistic value of modeling relationships with God. She compares the process to the conversion of St. Augustine, who was intrigued when he saw a Christian sell everything he had to benefit the poor.

“So when people see faith, it costs [Christians] more than you earn them, I think you earn a measure of respect,” she says. “If no one is doing evangelism and there are still [conversions]imagine how much better it would be if we were actually intentional about being open with our faith.”

It remains unclear exactly what order events will follow once a potential convert’s interest is piqued, McClung adds, though he points out that there may come a time when any potential evangelist will also have to speak articulately. for God’s love and power. of the Holy Spirit.

But while not having an assembly line approach can make it difficult to use evangelism as a solution for churches whose Sunday attendance is falling, knowing that conversion is unpredictable has its advantages, he says. He reminds Christians that no matter how much they want to help, faith formation is something that is still in God’s power, not theirs.

“Being part of a mysterious process that I don’t control—that I don’t even fully understand—allows me to be faithful and leave the results in God’s hands,” he says.

Similarly, denBok adds, “I think it forces us to be in relationship with both people and God and avoid the idolatry of the church establishment. The purpose of evangelism is not to win souls for the church… We love people, not processes.”

  • Sean Franklin

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He has followed stories since his first collaboration for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other media outlets.

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