THE BLOG
01/02/2014 10:30 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2014

How People Come to Faith

I don't recall meeting a person who had reasoned her way to faith.

Surely some people do. The great C. S. Lewis claimed to have come to faith through an intellectual journey. Augustine's Confessions weaves his own philosophical quest with relationships and personal experiences. For my part, I've probably forgotten conversations with intellectual converts.

By and large, however, the vast majority of believers come to faith through relationships.

The other day I was reminded of a popular Christian apologist -- that is, a person who promotes Christianity by means of rational arguments. His website prominently proclaims his academic affiliations. Indeed, he's written many books and some essays. But I noticed something odd: Evangelical publishing houses have printed all of his books. I searched, and it appears he's never published an article in a peer-reviewed philosophical or theological journal. Now, this man is highly respected, and I'm sure he's very smart. But isn't it odd that a professional apologist publishes books that only fellow believers are likely to see?

I do admire some serious intellectual apologists. I'm no professional philosopher, but I've benefitted from my encounters with John Polkinghorne, Richard Swineburne, John Cobb, Douglas John Hall, George Murphy and Alister McGrath, among others. Their contributions help me imagine faith in more reasonable ways. Still, I don't believe I would have encountered them were I not already a believer. (And why is this field so populated with men?)

Back in the '80s Josh McDowell was extremely popular among evangelicals. Maybe he still is. Unfortunately, I can remember reading his stuff as a relatively uninformed college freshman and thinking, "This stuff looks like Swiss cheese." McDowell would pile one argument upon another, but he'd shape the facts to make it look like he had a compelling argument. I sensed then, and as a professional scholar I know now, that McDowell was rigging the game. His arguments would never satisfy someone who knows the material he covers. Instead, they were better designed to encourage Christians than to convert unbelievers.

Christianity may be reasonable, but few Christians have reasoned their way into faith.

My daughter and I attended a funeral a few weeks ago. A dear friend had died, too young and too suddenly. The funeral required a large church, and still the service was standing room only. As we ate our dinner that night, I reflected with my daughter, who is a deep thinker.

Think about the people you admire the most, and how important faith is for many of them. I know you know awesome people who aren't into faith, and I'm not saying religious people are better than other people. But isn't it remarkable how important faith is for the coolest people we know?

Just this week my daughter and I had another conversation. I'd experienced an odd moment one day. I was feeling restless in a lot of ways, and I felt an intuitive sense that I needed to spend that day being still and quiet. I don't have these experiences often. That evening a friend called, and the conversation required my most mature, centered self. Had I lived the day at my usual irregular pace, I doubt I would have been helpful in that conversation. I shared the experience with my daughter, and she said, "That's the kind of thing that makes me think of God."

Sociologists have long known the crucial role relationships play in religious formation. Back in the 1990s Rodney Stark examined Christianity's remarkable growth during its first three centuries. Stark, who specialized in the sociology of modern religion, applied his methods to ancient Christianity. He found that Christianity spread at the unremarkable rate of 40 percent per decade. Like compound interest, that rate grows a lot more impressive when it holds steady for 30 decades. Stark also found that people came to Christianity not primarily because they were hearing great sermons. Rather, they entered the church through relationships, through the daily practices by which Christians cared for one another, looked out for the sick and the vulnerable, valued women, and so forth. And their neighbors noticed.

I didn't grow up going to church. When I was 12 I spent a week in the hospital with a hip injury. While I was there I received two visits. One visitor was a retired pastor who served part-time in my aunt and uncle's rural Presbyterian church. I barely knew him. He had absolutely no pastoral obligation to look in on me. The second visit came from a small group of church kids who made cute little animals out of soap and washcloths. Funny thing: After I did convert in high school, those two visits stood out in my memory. At our best, that's the kind of thing Christians do. I suspect that's how it works for most of us who come to faith.