Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Another statistic bites the dust

I'm always interested to see whether stats are as true as they're claimed (see my earlier post on Bradley Wright's book on this topic).   Mike Fleischmann has written an article in the Leadership Journal called How outsiders find faith, which deals to a widely-held statistic, as follows: 

It was something I had heard repeated as long as I had been in ministry: "85 percent of all people who accept Christ do so before the age of 18." I was never exactly clear where that statistic came from, but I had no reason to doubt it either. Everyone I knew considered it an evangelistic axiom.

He goes on to show that there's an element of truth in it: around 85% of those brought up in a Christian home with two Christian parents who are actively involved in their church will become Christians before the age of 18. That doesn't leave just 15% of people who become Christians after this age, even though at first sight it looks as though it should. Fleishmann writes:

Interestingly, what I was seeing in my own ministry didn't match up with that. I was watching unchurched people at every stage of life respond to the gospel. Were these just anomalies to the pattern, or was there something more?

He determined to check the statistic out, and not surprisingly proved it was only partially right. 

What quickly became apparent in the data was that the large percentage of believers from Christian homes skews not only our evangelism statistics but also our understanding of the situation. While many of us say we are determined to reach "the unchurched," many of our assumptions are based on the experiences of those who were raised as Christians—for instance, the assumption of when people come to faith.

I discovered that when someone from an unchurched background makes a lasting decision for Christ, it happens much later than we have often assumed and is spread out across every stage of life. Of those, a majority (57 percent) accept Christ between the ages of 21 and 50.

Another point he makes is that while those brought up in Christian homes tend to become Christians as a result of an 'event' - often the rather inappropriately-named 'outreach'  - those who come to faith later in life (and this can even be well into the sixties or seventies) usually come to faith through a friend - not necessarily a close friend, but someone who cares about them in some way.  

When you ask someone raised Christian, "How did you come to Christ?" they typically answer by telling about an event. They'll describe a time and a place where they made their decision, often mentioning who they were with.

People from unchurched backgrounds, however, answer the same question differently. They typically tell about an extended process, life circumstances, key relationships, and significant issues they were working through.

Often their actual point of decision is less defined. For instance, 11.4 percent of committed Christians from unchurched backgrounds cannot identify a specific time or place where they accepted Christ. For those of us raised as Christians, this can make us a little uncomfortable. Their less defined and sometimes unconventional turning points are not what we're used to.

If you want to read about someone who became a Christian in a stationery cupboard, check out John Shore's (somewhat hilarious) blog post: I, a rabid anti-Christian, suddenly convert.

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