In our mid-week church community, from time to time we reflect on some tough questions that others have asked us or that niggle at us ourselves. Recently 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (in the group meeting we exchanged our stories in pairs) 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 mention of ‘bar’ sounded quite alarming to me at the time…). 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?
- Actually think that this is important. That might seem an odd thing to say, but research has shown that ‘intention to grow’ amongst leadership in the local church is the single biggest factor correlated with actual church growth, that is, seeing people come to faith.
- Pray. If the work of God in an individual is key (!) and if prayer makes any difference (and there are some big philosophical and theological questions raised here) then actually praying that people come to faith might be rather important.
- Create a relational culture of welcome and acceptance. With the culture of most churches, and the things many Christians take for granted, now at such a remove from wider culture in the UK, lower the cultural barriers in terms of our assumed expectations of behaviour and social norms is more important than ever.
- Offer clear explanations and explorations of faith and how to become a Christian.
- 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, if we are going to see people come to faith, we need to be intentional, 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…
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.
There are two further things to reflect on alongside noting this diversity. The first is that the preaching that we find in the NT (and especially in Acts) appears to be very different from much of the appeal that we tend to make in contemporary preaching. John Stevens, questioning the centrality of the contemporary message ‘God is love…‘ notes:
Both Jesus’ kingdom proclamation and the apostolic gospel message have the same basic call to “repent and believe” ahead of the coming judgement. Both Jesus and the apostles perform signs and wonders of healing and deliverance from demons which reveal the liberating power of the in-breaking kingdom, and in both cases the new community of the church (nascent in the gospels and inaugurated in Acts) is a hermeneutic for the gospel in the care for the poor and needy. The apostolic preaching in Acts is not in a vacuum but against this broader background. Even when he performs miracles of compassion and deliverance he turns back to challenge personal sin and the need for forgiveness (eg Mark 2.5; John 5.14).
Much of Jesus ministry is amongst people who already know that the are “unclean” and unacceptable to God and are outsiders to Jewish society (eg skin diseases, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, Canaanites), so his focus with them is the unexpected possibility of God’s compassion in mercy/cleansing/salvation, whereas his message to the self-righteous religious people is a warning of judgement. Overall it is striking that Jesus does not seem to speak of the love of God as the basis of his proclamation – I can’t find any verses where this is directly the case.
The question then is how we integrate this perspective with the felt importance of relational connection, which appears to be a consistent feature of effective engagement and seeing people come to faith.
A second challenge is how we handle the idea of being ‘lost’ and ‘found’ in coming to faith. Many people have a strong sense of this—but only retrospectively—whilst the idea of being lost and needing to be found could well be quite alienating to many outside the church.
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?
(Previously published in a shorter form in 2018.)