No clear down trend in conversions: study

Jeremy McClung, transitional director of the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College says as much as Christians might like an assembly-line approach to conversions, being part of a more mysterious process creates more opportunities for faith. Photo: Moussa Faddoul
Published April 1, 2024

Survey probes how and why Canadians become Christians

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

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

Plotting the self-reported dates of the respondents’ conversions on a graph showed an unexpectedly small reduction over the last 10 years, says McClung. 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 data services firm Maru/Blue to find and question Canadians who said they had become Christians as adults after not having grown up as believers. The questions were designed to identify what their conversion experiences had in common, whether there was a discernible order in which those experiences typically happened 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 order of events that led to their taking up the faith. For many it was a process that took anywhere from less than a year (39 per cent) to more than 10 years (19 per cent). While the number of conversions hadn’t dropped nearly as much as McClung and Bowen had suspected it would, the average age when they came to the faith did go up, says McClung. A majority of converts were over 40 at time of conversion in the past 20 years, compared to about a third over the survey’s five-decade span.

People who converted in the last 20 years have been more likely to do so after the age of 40. About two thirds of respondents reported becoming Christian in their 20s and 30s in the 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 proportion of the total 7,717 Christians the study’s search reached out to, only about nine per cent of whom came to the faith over the age of 17. As such, he says, “the study is examining a process which applies to less than 10 per cent of all Christians, and probably a much smaller proportion of Anglicans, [who are] anecdotally much less likely to engage in evangelism.” He cautions, therefore, that the study should not be taken to suggest a reversal of the trend of shrinkage in the church as a whole.

McClung, who acknowledges that the study has some limitations, says he and Bowen hoped to find some indications of how the process of coming to faith works. One interesting—though more difficult to conduct—idea for future research, he adds, is interviewing people who had considered Christianity at some point to ask what prevented them from joining and thereby look for clues about how evangelism could be done better.

The survey also asked respondents to rank seven conversion-related events in the order that they happened, ranging from attending church for the first time to having intellectual doubts and questions answered to feeling God’s presence for the first time. The survey showed that these had not happened in any predictable order from one respondent to another, a finding McClung says may disappoint anyone hoping to find 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 through and get a guaranteed conversion, he says.

“People who 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 we could plug them into that and on the other side they’d come out Christian, that would help us feel so much better.”

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

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

And when asked what a Christian they knew had done that had helped them on the path to conversion, the top three things they named were that they had demonstrated the love of Christ (47 per cent), invited them to church services or events (44 per cent) and lived a life that looked attractive (36 per cent).

An unexpectedly high proportion of converts said they had been in contact with the church before their conversions but believed they had come to true faith later in life. Source: Finding Faith in Canada Today

At a time when evangelism is “deeply unpopular inside and outside the church,” McClung says, that news should be a huge relief to people who feel they should be doing more to spread the gospel. “I’m from more of an evangelical, Anabaptist background and even though in our tradition we have to pretend to be excited about evangelism, people are still terrified and don’t really do it,” he says. But if Christians understand those three things are all it takes to get started, he adds, they may feel much less fearful about evangelism.

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

“So when people see faith that costs [Christians] more than it gains them, I think it gains a measure of respect,” she says. “If nobody’s doing evangelism and there’s still [conversions], imagine how much better it would be if we were actually being intentional about being open with our faith.”

It remains unclear exactly what order events will follow once a potential convert’s interest has been sparked, adds McClung, though he stresses there may well come a time when any would-be evangelist will also need to speak articulately about the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

But while not having an assembly-line approach may make it hard to use evangelism as a solution for churches whose Sunday attendance is dropping, knowing that conversion is unpredictable has its own advantages, he says. It reminds Christians that as much as they may want to help, faith formation is something that’s still in God’s power, not theirs.

“Being part of a mysterious process that I’m not in control of—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 relational both with people and with God and to avoid the idolatry of the institution of the church. The goal of evangelism is not to win souls for the church … We love people, not processes.”


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op 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 outlets.

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