Why are previously unchurched people becoming Christians today?
That was the BIG question that I explored in my PhD.
What did I discover?
Here’s a bit of a summary… Within each of these brief headings and summaries lies much additional material!
Why ask the question?
Christian church attendance and religious affiliation in Western countries is declining. Decreasing proportions of people are raised in the Church. However, Christians are called to bear witness to the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ. The purpose of this research was to investigate why some previously ‘unchurched’ people become Christians: thus, encouraging and enabling more effective engagement by Christians in conversion. Combining social scientific practice with theological reflection revealed a substantive theory of religious conversion contextually located in late modernity/postmodernity.
What did I do?
The research began with the lived experiences of previously unchurched Australians, who recently converted to Christianity. It used critical realist grounded theory to answer research questions about the conversion process; the roles of other Christians and God in conversion; and the deep processes occurring within these converts. Semi structured interviews generated rich data, which was analysed using iterative and in-depth grounded theory methods.
What did I discover…
About the conversion process?
The research found that following initial exposure to Christianity, participants experienced a catalyst that encouraged them to further explore Christianity. They began to engage in various spiritual practices, usually following a specific invitation. Having made a series of decisions to continue to explore and engage, they reached a point where they called themselves ‘Christian’.
About how they perceived other Christians?
Converts generally had a positive perception of other Christians, and understood them to have been helped by their faith; to live differently because of their faith; to share openly with others; to be deeply hospitable; and to allow room for complexity, doubts and questions in their faith.
About how they understood God’s role in conversion?
God was understood to be loving, powerful, patient, accepting and forgiving. In addition, God was seen to work through others; curate unique conversion experiences; be present; speak; help; grow the participants; and to have acted in the past in creating, sacrificing, redeeming, and Jesus dying.
What was going on deep inside?
Converts experienced ‘affects’ as they journeyed towards Christian faith. a yearning or wanting more; a desire to live better or become who they are; a sense that faith relates to everyday life; a sense of welcome, warmth, belonging and homecoming; a sense of knowing; and, because of their fledgling faith, they saw things differently.
So, what is it all about?
For those I interviewed, conversion can be understood as resulting from their desiring, observing and experiencing relational authenticity. Religious conversion is fuelled by a desire for authenticity. God enables authenticity to develop and flourish. Religious conversion is resourced by Christians who embrace and exhibit authenticity in their personal, social and spiritual lives. This genuine authenticity is relational in nature: focusing not (just) on the self but also on relationship with God and significant connection with, and responsibility toward, others. This understanding rightly challenges the notion of authenticity as a narcissistic actualisation that prioritises the self over external relationships and responsibilities. When relational authenticity is sought, and realised, healthy transformation results. This transformation sees new converts ‘becoming’ the people they were created to be: unique persons who see their worth and their responsibilities in the light of their relationships with God and with others.
Want to hear more?
There is a very brief article in here on the role of other Christians in faith formation.
Thanks for stopping by my blog! This is a spot where I share some thoughts about life, spirituality, mission and ministry.
I live in Dunedin with (hubby) Steve, and our young adult daughters. And a cat. (Don’t forget the cat.) l love our views of the harbour, as well as the birds that serenade us daily.
Work-wise, I like variety, which is just as well! I’m Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at Otago University; co-leader of Student Soul (a student congregation); and I also do a little research and consultancy for various not-for-profits – churches and denominational agencies mostly.
I grew up in Christchurch, and have also lived in Auckland and Adelaide.
Overall, I’m passionate about helping people connect with God; and about seeing them become the people that God has made them to be.
Today was my first time doing something “up front” at our newish church in Dunedin. We’ve been attending for almost a year, but I’ve been diligently NOT doing stuff, instead spending energy on completing my PhD.
It was REALLY nice to be back contributing today.
I’d prepared a basket of goodies, which i invited people to select something from as they arrived at church.
There were: shells, lollies, money, coloured pencils, birthday candles, bandaids, puzzle pieces, maps. It was fun to give them out: not least to the boy who kept coming back for more (maybe he was hoping I’d soften on the one money/one lolly rule :)).
We usually have the prayer for others at the end of the service, when the kids are out at KidzTime, but we moved it so they were still in and got to pray with us too.
For the prayer, I’d basically selected a kinda positive and a kinda negative about each item: something to be glad of and something to pray for.
I started by naming the fact that as well as holding a physical item in our hands, we also came holding stuff in our hearts: the good and bad of the week past. The things that brought us joy and the things that concerned us.
And then i prayed through each item. Things like:
Candle: which we light to celebrate birthdays, but we also light candles at sad times, in memory or to pray.
Lollies: which we enjoy/help us be sensible and healthy/help those who don’t help enough to eat: help us to be generous
Coloured pencils: school – kids and teachers/may people who colouring in (as so many do) find connection with the Creator, as they create
Bandaid: for those who hurt and those who heal
Money: too little/too much
Puzzle piece: recreation/that people will have enough friends to play with
Shells: beach walk, whales, bush, birds, beauty of our part of the world/climate change
Map: our neighbourhoods/people who feel lost, that they will find their way home
The things we hold in our heart.
Why did I pray like this?
I like giving people something tangible to hold, and to take away. The physicality of something can help focus our prayer. And it can serve as a reminder of God, and God with us, in the days ahead.
I wanted to help people remember that we can pray with everyday things. So when we colour we can be glad of the Creator. When we hear the rescue helicopter, or a police siren, we can pray for all those affected.
And to see the good and the hard together. That as we are grateful for the beauty of a beach walk, we can also remember those whose houses are threatened by rising sea levels. Not to make us gloomy, but to make for solidarity and concern beyond ourselves.
To create sparks. Sparks that might grow into flames.
I was keen for the kids to be in with us, not because it is the sort of thing that we should just do with kids, but because I didn’t want them to miss out on either collecting something, or on praying together. Kids can do the BEST praying!
I had some people thank me for all the work, but really we just collected shells on a beach walk, I shopped for candles and pencils and the rest were “found” objects from around the house. (We have a very useful bag of puzzle pieces we bought just to give away like this). So it was easy. And it was connective for people. And fun (for me at least!). My shell will be placed with some of its shell-friends in our bathroom, and will remind me to pray for the world God loves.