How Outsiders Find Faith
What I discovered was different from what I had always been told.
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.
The good part of the statistic was that it reinforced the importance of reaching children and youth with the gospel. They are receptive. Important decisions are made before adulthood. And we must reach our young people with the gospel.
However, when I made the transition from ministry with students to adults, I quickly saw the downside of the statistic. Now I wanted to help adults reach their friends and neighbors for Christ. Though most were willing to try, I could see they didn’t have much expectancy. They assumed that once people got past a certain age (the axiom indicated it was 18) the odds of them responding to the gospel were dismal.
At my first church, I remember encouraging board members in their personal evangelism. I asked them with whom they were sharing their faith. Marvin spoke up. He was one of my most supportive leaders, but he didn’t sound very hopeful: “Well, pastor, I’ve been talking with Jim who works next to me down at the shop. He just split up with his wife and has been asking some questions. He’s pushing fifty, though, and pretty set in his ways. I know the chances of him changing now aren’t very likely. But I keep praying for him anyway.”
I couldn’t help but wonder: Was it really that dismal? Does “85 percent of all people who accept Christ do so before the age of 18” mean that it’s doubtful that many adults will make a life-changing decision to follow Jesus?
I could understand if someone was raised with faith, they would likely make up their mind before they left home, but what about someone who didn’t have that advantage? Were the odds forever stacked against them?
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?
It wasn’t merely a theoretical question for me. My life, my calling, was about reaching people for Christ in a culture increasingly distanced from the gospel, the church, and all things Christian. So I set out to find answers.
Search and Research
I’m a pastor, not a researcher, but with the assistance of two sociologists from Oregon State University, I decided to test the “85/18 Rule.” I wanted to know when, why, and how those not raised in the church come to faith in Christ.
I decided to talk to people who had accepted Christ as adults and stuck. I didn’t want to try to figure out what it meant when someone walked down an aisle but then never came back. I didn’t want to decide how to categorize people who said they believed certain propositions about Jesus but didn’t actually practice their faith. I wanted to find people who had decided to follow Christ and remained active in their faith and church—the exact kind of disciple I would be hoping for if I led someone to Christ.
I found lots of people like that in evangelical churches across the country who were willing to share their stories. They worshipped in rock-and-roll mega churches and quiet roadside chapels. They lived out their faith in little towns in Wisconsin and sprawling cities of Southern California. Eventually, through surveys, personal interviews, and statistical analysis, I compared the faith experiences of more than 3,000 believers from 31 states and a dozen denominations.
How Many Adults Make It From Outside In?
People from an unchurched upbringing are a clear minority among evangelicals. On a typical weekend they represent 28 percent of the adult believers in church. Generally these are people who grew up with parents who were not Christians and with little spiritual activity in their home. They rarely, if ever, went to church. Their exposure to the Bible was limited. They didn’t pray regularly. They were raised irreligiously.
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.
With research data under my belt, I headed out on a road trip to meet more than 50 people, all who had come to Christ from clearly unchurched backgrounds, and who were willing to tell me the story of their upbringing, their conversion, and their life with Christ since.
It quickly became evident that most of them considered themselves “exceptions to the rule.” They all picked up around their churches that the way they came to Jesus doesn’t fit “the normal pattern.”
Sometimes they would warn me of this at the outset: “I’m not the best one to talk to, because my story isn’t really typical. I didn’t become a Christian until I was retired.”
“I’m not even sure exactly when it clicked for me. Sometime in my sophomore year of college. I’m sorry I can’t nail it down for you any better than that.”
“To be completely honest with you, I didn’t even understand the part about the cross when I first trusted Jesus. It kind of cleared up as I went along.”
Although they felt like exceptions, the research indicates that they’re not. For someone coming to Christ out of an unchurched background, their experiences were not uncommon at all. They were just different from people who had been raised as Christians—which happens to be most of the people in church.
When Does Faith Come To The Unchurched?
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. Looking back, I only wish that I could have encouraged my board member Marvin with this statistic. His co-worker Jim, as an un-churched person, was still in the prime years of receptivity to the gospel.
I must admit that the “85/18 Rule” was partially confirmed in my research. In fact 84.5 percent of evangelicals do accept Christ before that age. However, the statistic only holds true if they were raised in a home where both parents were Christians with either a high or moderate level of spiritual activity. If, however, they were raised without that benefit, the percentage drops by two-thirds. The rest of the unchurched make their faith decisions throughout the course of adulthood and even into retirement.
I interviewed those who came to Christ as teenagers in the midst of losing a parent or battling drugs. Others had wrestled through the decision in college. Young married couples in their twenties had come to faith, as well as new parents in their thirties. There were career people in their forties and grandparents in their fifties. The oldest person we talked to who’d made a decision for Christ was a woman named Karen, who in her mid-sixties, simply felt that after all those years, something was just missing.
It took me back to when I was first a pastor, new in town, and out to make a home visit on an elderly widow in the church. When Irene saw me at the door, she looked delighted and welcomed me in. Stepping into her little home, I was surprised to see an older gentleman sitting on the couch. I quickly discovered I had been mistaken. Irene was not a widow at all. She simply had attended church alone for 61 years of marriage. Lyle, her husband, wasn’t against religion; he had just never been interested. He was a good husband, and for six decades the arrangement worked just fine.
Lyle was quite a character, and I liked him. He had spent years playing the guitar in dance halls across the state and, though now in his eighties, he still liked to pull out his red electric Gibson guitar. We had a common love of music, and out of that a friendship grew. Finally one day I mustered up the courage to ask him what was stopping him from being a believer. It turns out there was nothing significant. He asked me to explain to him what exactly it meant to be a Christian, and as I shared I was utterly amazed at how naturally he trusted Christ.
I will never forget the next Sunday morning when Irene walked into church for the first time in 61 years on the arm of her husband, a testimony to the patient grace of God and the persistent faith of a praying wife. To her delight, Irene was never again mistaken for a widow at church.
I’ve become increasingly optimistic about who can believe and when. I can’t predict who will receive Christ, I’ve just learned that people—especially unchurched people—come to Christ at every stage of life.
Who Helps Them Find Faith?
In the surveys, when I asked people to identify those who had influenced them in their decision for Christ, some of the statistical differences were expected. For people raised in Christian homes, 80 percent identify their parents as one of the most important influences. Almost never does an unchurched person say that.
Other differences, however, were more surprising. For instance, I assumed that pastors—”the professionals”—would have a greater impact on unchurched people. Not so. Statistically, a pastor or youth leader is more likely to nudge someone from a Christian home toward a decision than to help an unchurched person find faith.
What made the real difference with the unchurched were personal relationships. The majority who find Christ, look back and say that it was a friend who influenced them toward faith. In my interviews, over and over again, people shared about someone in relationship with them.
This friendship may have been for a lifetime or just a season, but it was the right person at the right time that helped bring them to faith.
Denise was befriended by a teacher at her daughter’s daycare. Tom had a surfing buddy who came back after summer vacation totally changed by Jesus. John had a neighbor who loaned him tools and helped him in the yard. Phyllis was new in town and met another mom at the park who invited her to an Easter service.
I place much more confidence in the people of my church than I used to. I understand now that most of them are far better situated to lead unchurched people to Christ than I am. And I’ve learned that if I do lead someone to Christ, I will likely be wearing the “friend” hat and not the “professional minister” hat.
How They Describe Coming to Faith
I discovered that when unchurched people wrestle with faith, it normally takes them longer and is more of a process.
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.
Mark only had two memories of church—once attending a Mormon ward and another time a Buddhist chapel. But with the encouragement of a Christian friend, and after a summer of soul-searching, his moment came when he had to identify his faith preference in a comparative religion class. He heard himself say “Christian.” That’s all. However, 20 years later, he embraces that moment as his defining confession of faith.
Marie said she can’t narrow it down to any specific time. She just knows that in the midst of a terrible divorce, she joined a women’s Bible study with her neighbor, came to understand God’s love, and was baptized a year later.
Susan was an alcoholic who started dropping her daughter off at church. Eventually she went in also, and for the first three months would respond every week to the altar call. I asked her which time she considers the beginning of her life as a Christian.
“None of them,” she responded. “Six months later I went to Costco and bought myself a Bible. Sitting in the car, I took it out of the box and wrote the date in the front, May 11, 1997. That became my flag in the ground, the day I became a Christian.”
I’m far more flexible than I used to be about what constitutes a conversion event. Today I’m far more interested in what authentic, ongoing faith looks like in a person’s life. As someone who spends a lot of time helping irreligious people find faith, I can’t begin to explain some of their faith stories. What I can’t deny, however, is their confession of faith, the fruit in their life, and their ongoing growth in Christ.
Unchurched people are far less hung up on the details. I’m trying to be, too.
What Points Them To Faith?
My final discovery was that, of those Christians with an unchurched background, most (56 percent) report coming to faith in the midst of a significant transition or crisis. Most often it’s family-related—either transitioning into parenthood or coping with a marriage crisis. But other times the crisis may relate to addiction, illness, death, finances, even world catastrophes. The transition may be into a new relationship, a new community, or a new career. These circumstances often are the open window of opportunity for the gospel to take root.
When that window is open in an unchurched person’s life and they are surrounded by the truth and people of God, the Spirit works remarkably through things that might not even look evangelistic on the surface. A broken man in a 12-step group suddenly finds himself getting saved. A desperate couple at a marriage seminar unexpectedly embraces faith. A hurting woman in a prayer group surprisingly finds herself believing.
I’ve learned to pay attention to the person’s life, to be sensitive to what is happening, and ready to share when the window opens. Someone who has been closed to faith for their entire life may become inexplicably receptive when circumstances change.
Jeff is a new friend of mine. At age 39, religion had never been part of his life. He never read a page in the Bible. He never attended church. It simply never mattered before.
Last fall, after 12 years of marriage, he found himself a widower and a single dad. His wife had contracted swine flu and suddenly died. The next week he was walking through town almost in a daze when he wandered into the store of Bill, a man in our church. The two soon discovered they had several things in common, and before long Jeff revealed his tragic circumstances. Bill had no idea what to say other than to ask if he believed in God. Jeff said he wasn’t sure. Bill told Jeff that he should come to church with him. It really wasn’t much of a presentation, but for the first time in Jeff’s life, the window was open.
Three days later Jeff came to church for the first time. I don’t want to speak for him about where he is on his faith journey, but God is undeniably at work in his life. When I see Jeff and his young son walk into church each Sunday, Bibles in hand, praying, learning, growing, bringing along family and friends, it’s clear that he’s on the way. I’m just the lucky guy who gets to watch the Father draw him in.
When a heart opens, even the tiniest seed can take the deepest root and the simplest relationship can make the biggest difference.
Despite what many have assumed from the “85/18 rule,” adults from unchurched backgrounds are still what Jesus calls “good soil.”
Mike Fleischmann is pastor of Inland Hills Community Church in Oceanside, California.
This article “How Outsiders Find Faith” written by Mike Fleischmann, was excerpted from www.christianitytoday.com, August 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”