I’m an engineer so numbers, charts and colourful pictures are my language of choice. Let’s take a look at religious affiliation trends in Canada over the past century. The following chart shows what percent of Canadians claim to belong to which religious category, and how those percentages have changed with time.
A second observation; there are more Canadians with no affiliation than there are Canadians with any other non-Christian affiliation combined. In other words, if you are speaking to a non-Christian in Canada it is more likely that they are a former Christian (or child of a former Christian) than that they were born and raised in some other non-Christian religious tradition.
What does this mean for Evangelism? If we intend to reach those who are not Christian then we should better understand why they are not Christian. In the case of the “no affiliation” crowd, why did they leave? For this we need to turn to “deconversion” research, such as this study. The authors summarize other research that has been done, as well as putting their own interpretive spin on the data, and they conclude that there are five common themes to why people deconvert from Christianity.
- Loss of specific religious experience
- Intellectual doubt, denial or disagreement
- Moral criticism (of the church’s moral standards)
- Emotional suffering
- Disaffiliation from the community
That strikes me as a pretty weighty list, and addressing the issues may seem overly daunting. However, it seems inevitable to me that if we want to draw non-Christians to Christ then facing these specific issues is unavoidable, given that so many non-Christians are, in fact, deconverted Christians (and their kids). We should find some comfort in the fact that some of the factors are, ultimately, beyond our control; those are God’s job, not ours. We can be welcoming and do our best to include people, but if they choose not to participate then what more can we do about point number 5? We most certainly can comfort people who are suffering (and we need to!) but there is just no way that we can prevent most of the emotional suffering in the world, so we cannot directly address point number 4. And far be it from me to think that it is within my control to create any kind of religious experience (as though I can demand that God show up on my schedule) so point number 1 is hardly within our jurisdiction.
But what about points 2 and 3? From my own experience interacting with former Christians it is very common to hear challenges to the veracity of Christianity (existence of God, corruption of the Bible, etc), and criticisms of the Church’s moral stance on various issues (abortion, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, etc). These points, however, are certainly within our reach to address, and I would suggest it is our responsibility to address them. God will do his job; will you do yours? As I describe in Arguing with Friends it is vitally important that we take these questions seriously and provide the best answers possible. What if we don’t know the answers? Study! What if our answers are shown to be wrong (i.e. some Christians get way to strict on moral issues – don’t ever go to the movies, drink beer, etc)? Then correct them. Humility is a virtue after all; what could be more humbling than admiting we are wrong?
The conversations will not be easy, but if the Church hopes to ever increase the newcomers through the front door, or stop the exodus of ex-Christians through the back door, these are the issues that need to be addressed and they need to be addressed seriously, scholarly and respectfully. The big questions of life are vitally important, but talking about them can be scary if you are unprepared. It is possible to have the conversations in such a way as to effectively describe and defend Christianity, and also keep your friendships in tact (even improve them!). But it is also difficult. Get studying and get practiced talking with people!