Why do some people come to faith and not others?

In our mid-size missional community, from time to time we reflect on some tough questions that others have asked us or that niggle at us ourselves. Last week one of the members asked the question:

Why do some people find ‘faith’ (believing in God) easier than others?

There are several different dimensions to this question. The theological: is it reasonable that some find faith easy, whilst others struggle? Philosophical: is it the case that we actually have free will when factors of situation and personality appear to be so significant? Apologetic: can we believe in a God of justice when contingent decisions might have eternal consequences? Ecclesial: are Christians distinct from others in terms of personality? Missional: what factors actually bring people to faith? But of course the one at the forefront of most people’s minds is the pastoral: why does my spouse/friend/family members find the idea of faith so difficult or unappealing? And is there anything I can do about it?

A quick bit of online research on differences between those who believe and those who don’t yielded nothing much more than atheist websites, who came to the conclusion (not surprisingly) that Christians were more gullible and less rational, though they did also suggest that those finding faith were more sociable. This last point is interesting—though it is difficult to say whether this is cause or effect. Churches remain almost unique in modern society in offering an all-age, multi-cultural social space where there is serious encounter between people from different strata of society. If there is some research out there about why some find faith easier and others harder, let me know in the comments.

To reflect on this issue in the group, we did three things. The first was to reflect on our own stories of finding faith, and on the factors involved, in two stages:

Think for a moment about the process by which you came to faith. What were the factors you were aware of at the time? As you look back, what other factors can you see?

Now compare your story with someone else. How much is there in common, and how much difference?

Doing the exercise for myself, I identified four important factors which were at work.

  1. An immediate sense of welcome and acceptance by those I met. As a struggling teenage boy in a large all-boys public school, where competition was everything (those in the school sports teams even had a different uniform!), this was probably the biggest factor—but it was not something I could have articulated at the time. I only came to realise how important this was as I reflected on my journey several years later in order to share my testimony during a mission week.
  2. The chance to explore questions of faith and the difference it makes to everyday life. This was the most important felt issue at the time; even though I had been brought up church going, it was as though someone had turned the lights on. One of the earliest experiences was watching Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth including the blue-eyed Robert Powell as Jesus (‘plot keywords: resurrection; epic; religious sword and sandals…’)—but there was plenty of exploration of every aspect of what it meant to be a Christian, and how that worked out in practice.
  3. I now wonder how important it was for me to have had a background experience of church and faith, even though that did not connect with my everyday life at all. It meant actually going to a church service was not alien—though I remember thinking how odd, sloppy, casual and unpredictable Anglican services were compared with the Roman Catholic Mass that I was used to, and in which I was an altar server.
  4. My strongest reflection on looking back is not really a human factor at all, but simply a sense that God wanted me to know him, and so the series of encounters just happened without me seeking them specifically at all. A friend from primary school, whom I kept in touch with, was struck by how many of our primary school class came to faith, and wondered whether one of our teachers was particularly praying for us as a group.

When we compared stories with one another to see similarities and differences, some interesting things emerged. Welcome and acceptance were important for many in their faith journey, though not for all. Much more consistent was the importance of some sort of explanation: what did it actually mean to be a Christian, and what did you have to do to become one? I have a suspicion that, for most non-Christians, this is something of a mystery—it just seems to ‘happen’ to some people! (This feeling is expressed in the occasional wistful reflection ‘I wish I had your faith…’) Background understanding was very important for some, but not for others, and my ‘sharing buddy’ Mike came from a completely non-Christian background to faith very quickly—though he was aware of an interest in the ‘spiritual’ in quite specific ways, which suggests factor 4 was at play.

But two additional factors consistently featured. The first was invitation; Mike starting going to church because his schoolfriend (who was bigger than he was!) said ‘Are you coming to church then?’—and it turned out that his friend was only going to go if Mike agreed to come with him! Invitation was important for me too; I only went to the CYFA group because the people I met invited me back to their ‘coffee bar’. The second factor which featured often was noticing change in others (friends, family) who had come to faith, and their sharing of testimony of why being a Christian had made a difference.

Given the differences in experience, as well as some common factors, it was not clear that we had an answer to the pastoral question—but we appeared to have been able to answer the missional one. How can we help people find faith more easily?

  1. Pray
  2. Create a relational culture of welcome and acceptance
  3. Offer clear explanations and explorations of faith and how to become a Christian
  4. Invite people

(One of the striking things about many of the new Church of England church plants is how much more invitational they are than the average Anglican church.) In other words, be spiritual, relational, rational and invitational.

The second thing we did in the group was look at the stories of Nicodemus and the women of Samaria in John 3 and 4. (Actually, we ran out of time to do this, as hearing one another’s stories was so interesting! So individuals did it afterwards at home.) John puts these two stories together in a way which highlights the differences in two very different journeys of faith through encounter with Jesus. The contrasting factors are relatively easy to tabulate—you might want to read the chapters and identify the differences you find before reading any further…

Done that?

Great—here is my list.

John 3 John 4
Who is involved? A respectable named Jewish man An outcast unnamed Samaritan woman
Who initiates the encounter? The person themselves Jesus
When does the meeting occur? In the evening In the broad daylight
What is the literal significance of this? In a hot climate, it would be natural to meet to discuss things in the evening—and Nicodemus might have been wanting to keep the meeting secret or at least discreet. In a hot climate, you would normally collect water in the morning or the evening. Only someone avoiding the company of others would come in the heat of the day
What is the symbolic significance of the timing? Despite his learning and high office, and even meeting the ‘light of the world’, Nicodemus is still dwelling in the shadows of understanding Despite being marginal in her social context and evasive in her conversation, the woman comes to see things as clear as daylight in recognising who Jesus is
Who asks the questions? The discussion is led by Nicodemus’ implied question in his opening statement, and is given movement by his two subsequent questions Almsot every turn in this conversation is led by Jesus’ questions or his challenging statements
What is the nature of the conversation? It focuses on theological ideas and questions It focuses mostly on practical questions of thirst, worship and relationships
What is the immediate result of the encounter? The conversation disappears into what seems to be John’s own reflection, and the narrative is never concluded. Nicodemus remains in his shadowy understanding The woman comes to a startling realisation about both Jesus and herself
What is the longer term result of the encounter? Nicodemus is mentioned on two further occasions, both of which refer back to this encounter. In John 7.50, he tentatively questions the opposition to Jesus, but by John 19.39 he accompanies the women to Jesus’ grave The woman is a model witness (a key theme in John) in that she goes back to those in her village who had shunned her, tells her story, and invites them to come and meet Jesus too

The contrasts here forbid us from offer any kind of formula for how and why people come to faith, and illustrate the diversity of situations and issues that are involved.

The third thing we did in the group (and we did do this!) was to watch some of the testimonies on the excellent EA website Great Commission. We picked several at random, and it was interesting and inspiring to hear the different perspectives; in most of the ones we watched, change was quite sudden, though that is not true for all of them, and the testimony of others featured quite strongly. The site also include reflections on sharing faith, as well as testimonies of coming to faith.

So, what factors were important for you? What factors were important for those you know? And can you answer the question as to why some find faith easier, and others harder?

9 thoughts on “Why do some people come to faith and not others?”

  1. “Shadowy” is a good term for the encounter with Nicodemus. If we read from the end of chapter 2, it gets even less trusting.

    223 Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.[d] 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person. 3.1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night

    This is saying Jesus was cautious with people for he knew what was in the heart of each man, and there was a man who came at night. This is not an auspicious start. And, as you say, it ends vaguely. So I’m always astonished that Nicodemus ends up spoken well of. How did that change happen? John doesn’t say. All we know is that it took time, and Nicodemus responded out of a desire for justice.

  2. I think the four ‘prerequisites’ are spot on as a shape for evangelism as well as in public worship generally… though God does not always fit in and do it differently.

    “God wanted me to know him” as a summary that would be me at around 17. It was on the issue of Jesus death and the penny dropping (I had a church/chapel child background) that it was ‘for me’. I dont know the date the penny dropped but I remember exactly where in my walk to where I lodged that I handed my life over. Certainly clear explanations of ‘essential’ scripture was key and ‘social acceptance’ formed part of the foundation. Aldo I think that God, somehow, shaped events up to that moment but this begs lots questions…. ‘In all things God works for good….’

    Presumably some people just need more time to process things…but how does that fit in with God’s call to faith on which eternal life itself depends? It’s got to be more than speed of thinking else (putting it in an extreme way) the bright get life and the slow witted might not understand in time.

  3. Ian, this is a really worthwhile debate; do thank your community for working on these 4 factors.

    I do however think the odd numbered factors are “nice-to-have” environments, or in your old language, “neither necessary nor sufficient”, but 2 and 4 are getting close to being a sufficient invitation to a commitment to Jesus.

    You seem to have taken it as read that the idea of a creator God is accepted, as probably a majority do (and as I did). There are those though for whom their knowledge of modern science gets nowhere near any bang, large or small, so life as you put it “just happens to them”. Or they believe they know more than they do and reject a creator God as unknown, unproven, or irrelevant. But for those who suspect a creator and think there may be a case for a historical Jesus, maybe they will ask as I did “Why was I created?”. I believe I was far from unique in being unable to both accept that we were created, and yet to have no purpose. If there is a creator God, and I was created, I must therefore exist for a reason in God’s plan. Why therefore do most people reject suicide if they do not think something like this? The attraction of having a God who created you for a purpose and thereby attributed you value is massive. It ought to be increasingly appealing in our present times, where the public world view in the liberal West is that we are going to hell in a hand basket left to our own sensual and utilitarian motives, that we live purposeless and unfulfilling lives and that our selfish consumption and social and moral anarchy are driving us to a toxic, expensive and chaotic death as a species.

    My response was very much a move from Psalm 21 v. 9a, to both vv. 9 and 10. If accepting Jesus as Lord is the moment of Christian commitment, then the realisation that I was made for a valuable purpose by God was the door to faith.

    • That’s interesting…though I would be cautious about making ‘welcome’ optional. My sample is biased, in that is only looking at those who came to faith. I wonder how many others might have done, but received a cold shoulder or were made to feel stupid, unwelcome and awkward when actually meeting Christians…

  4. For me it was the example of an older man’s obvious devotion in relating to God in what was a fairly liberal pew warming Methodist church. As a teenager I wanted the reality of his experience to the point of standing out as being different from the crowd. It put me in touch with my thirst!

  5. I think Alister McGrath (The Genesis of Doctrine: Bampton Lectures, 1990 – a volume which looks into the more mundane reasons why doctrine may differ between times and places) intimated that Calvinist or Beza-ite fundamental double-determinism may have its roots in the puzzlement that travelling evangelists feel when, as at Mars Hill:
    (a) some of their hearers come so gladly to faith,
    (b) others say ‘we will hear you again on this’, while
    (c) others who heard exactly the same message somehow remain entirely unmoved.

    In recent years this determinism has taken the form of analysing people’s differently-configured brains. The temporal lobes seem to be the locus both of epileptic experiences and of ‘religious experiences’, so the idea is that people are ‘religious’ partly because they are born with a certain type of brain (the polymath Charles Foster among others has examined this line of thinking).

    I must admit that I think the brain explanation cannot be fully adequate. What about the fact that younger children do not have world-shaking conversion experiences? So: age and prior experience are also important factors.

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