That’s the question that missiologist Daryl Climenhaga is asking over at his blog, A Climenhaga Home. Daryl is a professor at Providence Theological Seminary in Manitoba, Canada. As part of a research paper he’s presenting at the upcoming “X-Mennonite” conference sponsored by the University of Winnipeg, he’s posted a series of short blog articles, all focused on our title question.
Here’s Daryl’s own description of his research project, in a nutshell:
My own small piece in the conference is to look at the BIC in Zimbabwe, where the question [of conversion and reversion] usually involves leaving Christian faith for some kind of revitalisation movement, based on traditional religions, or for some form of Pentecostal faith. People in the church in Zimbabwe debate among themselves whether or not these new Pentecostal churches are truly Christian.
He began his series of posts with a brief reflection on the whole notion of conversion — what it means, and why people do it. (Interesting thoughts here!) A second post offered some clarifying thoughts on defining conversion and reversion. A third post tackled the question, “Who reverts?” Here’s how Daryl answered it:
Who then is likely to revert . . . ? When people think of the church in Zimbabwe, they might think that we are looking for someone who leaves a traditional religion (such as the worship of Mwari vaMatonjeni at the shrines in the Matopo Hills) for Christian faith. Then after trying Christianity he/she might return to the traditional religion.
I suspect that this is the less typical case. More typically (I suspect) the one who reverts is the child or grandchild of Christians, and then rediscovers some form of the traditional religion renewed for today. Similarly in Canada, I suspect that those from a Christian background who “revert” and embrace some form of First Nations spirituality are not themselves first generation converts.
. . . When we think of those who leave the church they grew up in, but remain Christian, I suspect a similar dynamic is at work. The Brethren in Christ (BIC) of my youth had a strong group identity which tended to keep members in the church, even when they moved to a part of the country where the BIC were not. One of the ways that we exerted pressure to keep people in the group was through the use of boundary behaviour. We were separate from the world, and we used clear markers to maintain our separation.
So my mother wore a covering until I was 15 years old, and my father wore a plain vest with no tie. Over time, as one generation learned from their parents how to live, the patterns we learned (represented by but not limited to these boundary behaviours), came to be seen as irrelevant.
So those who leave the church of their youth, while remaining generally Christian, are generally not those who paid the price to become part of the church. My maternal grandmother, for example, came from a Lutheran background. Becoming BIC meant that she had to embrace the plain dress and give up the fine clothes and jewelry enjoyed in her life before belonging to the BIC. It is unlikely that, having made that choice, she would go back on it. But the same issues are experienced quite differently in the lives of her children and grandchildren (and so on).
To some extent, the choice that someone from the new generation makes to leave is a kind of conversion, embracing a new worldview, with new religious commitments.
I’m fascinated by Daryl’s research findings. I think I largely agree, especially with his assertions about North American “reversions” among the Brethren in Christ. I haven’t studied this topic intentionally, although that might be a promising avenue for some future research.
I’m also interested in how these assertions relate to my own research on the Brethren in Christ and Evangelicalism. In a sense, mid-century American Evangelicalism was a different kind of Christian faith than that which many Brethren in Christ experienced in their homes and sanctuaries. It was more ebullient, more culturally conversant, less socially isolating, and — at least in some instances — more successful (in terms of converting non-Christians). I know for a fact that before the gradual “Evangelicalization” of the Brethren in Christ after 1950, a number of Brethren in Christ young people left their churches for Evangelical faith communities. This reality even tempered the zeal of some Brethren in Christ leaders in embracing Evangelicalism. As mid-century bishop and church leader Henry Hostetter once wrote, pushing back against a plan to bring Youth for Christ founder Bob Cook to a Brethren in Christ youth gathering, “[There is] already a current problem among many of our youth in that the outside looks so much better [that the Brethren in Christ Church].” Could it be that much of this “reversion” to Evangelicalism was for the exact reasons Daryl is arguing above?
Fortunately, Daryl doesn’t appear to be done blogging about this topic. Check out his blog for future posts in the series.