Two years ago, John Bowen and I partnered together to research how and why adults in Canada become Christians. We were inspired by similar studies in the UK (Finney, 1992) and the USA (Stone, 2018), and the helpful insights they offered for evangelists. However, we wanted a particularly Canadian take on the subject. So, we designed a questionnaire, hired a data services firm which administered it, and then began the long process of analyzing the data.
The results are in, and the good news is that Canadians are still becoming Christians—and at about the same rate as they have been for at least fifty years. You can access the full report, but below are a few tasters of our findings to get you started.
Becoming Christian can be complicated.
Sometimes we think that becoming Christian is simple, something that happens in a moment. While some respondents (16%) described their conversion as a single, life-changing event, most said it involved a process. Of these participants, 61% said the process lasted more than a year, and 30% said it lasted more than five years!
What did this process of becoming Christian look like? We asked respondents to arrange the following seven elements according to the order in which they had occurred in their journey: attending church, sensing God’s presence, understanding the gospel, making a commitment, praying in their own words, experiencing God’s forgiveness, and having questions answered. We wanted to know if there was a common order in which people experienced their journey toward Christ. There wasn’t. Over a third identified church attendance as their first step, but other than that, no meaningful pattern emerged.
Becoming Christian is often a convoluted and lengthy process. Evangelists need to understand this and be in it for the long haul.
Helping people become Christian can be (relatively) simple.
Christians often think evangelism is difficult, requiring special gifts, knowledge, and resources. But our research says this is not the case. First of all, it’s not surprising that relationships with Christians were really important for respondents. They indicated the importance of friends (40%), a spouse or partner (32%), a pastor or priest (19%), parents (13%), other family (12%), and even their own children (11%) in coming to faith. (This adds up to more than 100% because respondents could choose multiple options.)
What did these people do to be helpful? The three most important things, according to our respondents, were that they demonstrated the love of Christ, invited them to church, and lived an attractive life. This is help that any Christian can give. However, despite the common truism “preach at all times; when necessary, use words”, helping people become Christians does involve talking. This is seen in the next three ways people helped: they answered questions, taught the practical aspects of the faith, and shared the gospel.
While many could benefit from some training in these last three verbal aspects, the most important things we can do to help people come to faith are almost embarrassingly simple: love, live, and invite.
Evangelism should be aimed at churchgoers too.
Another common misconception our research exposed was the idea that evangelism is something that happens outside of the church. For many people, starting to attend worship services was an important—and often early—part of the process. Churches should be ready to welcome newcomers who are still journeying toward Christ. But perhaps even more significant are the 8% who described themselves as active in church and the 26% who indicated that, before their conversion, they had mistakenly thought they already were Christian.
As important as it is to bring the good news to the world around us, it’s likely that some of the harvest is already sitting in the pews.
Not everyone who becomes Christian is on a quest for God or forgiveness.
Sometimes Christians assume that non-Christians all live with burdensome guilt or emotional emptiness that sends them on a search for God. This was certainly true for some of our respondents: 30% were wondering about the meaning of life, 27% were curious about God and Christianity, 15% struggled with shame, and 11% with guilt. Almost half (47%) said they had a sense that something was missing.
Not everyone, however, had a “felt need” that led them to Christ. Although they could select as many options as they wanted, most respondents did not choose the above options to describe their previous life. In fact, 20% described their pre-Christian life as marked by contentment. This seems to indicate that many people became Christians not because they went looking for God, but because God came looking for them—often through their friends and family. They accepted the gospel simply because they believed it was true, not necessarily because they had been on a quest for meaning.
Awareness of “felt needs” can be helpful in contextualizing the gospel, but evangelism that is exclusively focused on this misses those who don’t feel a need for the gospel.
The best resource is the oldest.
Besides relationships and churches, what other kinds of ministries, programs, or resources were helpful in the process of becoming Christian? We asked about all kinds of things that are usually thought of as evangelistically effective: Christian television, radio, websites, books, music, youth groups, camps, campus ministries, and classes like Alpha. While they had influenced some people, none of these options were chosen by more than 9% of our respondents, and most were chosen considerably less.
When it came to helpful non-personal resources, the one that came out on top by far was “reading the Bible” (30%). This lines up closely with the 28% of people who said that one of the things their friends or family members did for them was help them to understand the Bible. This is a gentle reminder to those who think of the Scriptures as old-fashioned, difficult to understand, or even potentially offensive: God still speaks through this book.
Evangelists and churches should find ways to introduce non-Christians to the Bible, the oldest and most effective written resource we’ve been given.
Our research offered a number of other insights that are helpful to churches and individuals who want to become more effective at evangelism. You can access the full 20-page pdf report by clicking the link below to learn more about:
- the background of our respondents who became Christians
- what they value most about the churches they attend
- how churches supported their newfound faith
- how their lives have changed since they became Christians