Friday, August 08, 2014


Conversion and Reversion: The Place of Boundaries
Blogs are too brief to develop ideas fully, so this blog backs up to an earlier idea: The way that religion functions as a pattern for living. Patterns create clear boundaries, so that one can tell if you are in the pattern or outside it. The plain dress that my parents grew up with is an example of such boundaries. Women who wore the headcovering were inside the boundary and could be trusted to follow the pattern of simplicity and obedience that the boundary enclosed.
Now boundaries are good. Although bounded-set thinking has its problems,[1] boundaries—and the pattern they enclose—are necessary to enable us to cope with life. If we had to work out from the beginning what to do in every situation what we should do, we would live paralyzed lives. We would be unable to act, because we would be constantly analyzing each action to decide whether it is right or wrong. Boundaries and patterns serve as a useful shortcut so that we can function according to a high moral and ethical standard.
But boundaries—and the patterns they enclose—fit only the situation in which they were created. A friend described to me the way that her Catholic community responded to her contact with non-Catholic friends. It reminded me of my own BIC background: We socialized with our own and avoided outsiders. That practice of separation (whether Catholic, with its understanding that it is the only true church, the mother church, or BIC, with our understanding that we had regained the purity of the first church) worked within the setting in which it was created. But in a new setting, North America as we know it today, it is simply out of place.
For many years missionaries from widely differing backgrounds have found themselves working as sisters and brothers when they go to countries with no significant Christian presence. Similarly, as Christian faith becomes a minority option in North America,[2] Christians of various backgrounds do not have the luxury of separating from each other in the way that we once did. We belong together, and the old patterning (which promoted separation from other Christians)  is actually destructive.
One can consider a variety of boundary issues (one thinks of the old saying, “Christian boys don’t smoke, drink, dance, or go to movies, and they don’t go with girls that do”) that have lost their relevance as the pattern they enclose has less and less to do with the world we live in today. So boundaries are good, but the centre of the Christian faith (which in the long run creates the boundaries) is essential.
I suspect that one primary source of reversions from Christianity (whether in the sense of moving from one church to another, or in the sense of leaving Christian faith) is the way that we have often substituted the pattern we know (complete with its boundaries) for the Christian faith in itself. That faith is primarily centred on a relationship with Jesus Christ, which is why Bruxy Cavey has emphasized the saying in his own ministry, “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” 

Hiebert, Paul G. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994.

[1] I am working on a paper on bounded-set thinking and centred-set thinking in which I develop these ideas more fully. The terms and their relationship to who belongs in the church were mediated to missiology through the work of Paul Hiebert (1994).
[2] This assertion can be debated. See the work of people like Reginald Bibby in Canada and Christian Smith in the USA for a good picture of religion in North America today.

Negative or Positive?

Reversion: Some Negatives—Some Positives
Reversion, I argue, is often like a new conversion—from the worldview and faith with which one grows up to a new form of that faith, or to a new faith entirely. As with conversion in general, then, reversions take place because the old worldview meets a new context, and the old worldview does not fit that new context very well.
But conversion is always specific.[1] It is a specific person who converts (for example, to Christian faith) or reverts (leaves their religious faith). The general description flattens out the specifics of each case and therefore to some degree falsifies each case.
So a specific person might leave the faith of his/her parents because he/she does not want to live up to the standards (moral and ethical) that their parents did. Certainly in my background those who left the BIC were sometimes seen as simply “backsliding”—turning away from God in a decisive way, and thus condemning themselves forever. Although such a view of reversion is judgmental (and therefore problematic), it is also sometimes correct. Some people do not want to be good, so they abandon a worldview that says they should be good.
This kind of negative reason can also apply when the one who reverts wants to live a moral life according to North American standards[2] (they do not seek to be “bad people”), but are unwilling to commit to the rigour of the high ethical standards of, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. This dynamic is one reason that the BIC have always held that each person in each new generation must come to his/her own true faith in Christ. We emphasize conversion even for those who begin their life with a Christian worldview within a Christian family.[3]
But is reversion simply negative? Is it simply a rebellion against one’s parents, or worse, against God? I admit readily that one of my deepest desires is to pass my Christian faith on to my children, and to see them pass it on to their children in turn. But that desire is not enough to say that reversions are simply bad.
Those who leave the church of their parents, but retain their Christian faith, may indeed have internalized that faith more deeply than those who simply remain—and become increasingly nominal. The fact that reversion is also a kind of conversion suggests that it has a genuinely positive side. (This truth suggests that responding to reversion, or seeking to preserve our children in their own version of our faith, must include some way for the new generation to process and choose—and real choice includes the possibility of saying no.)
Those who leave Christian faith entirely are in a different situation, but again it is not simply negative. I remember a friend who has left Christian faith for a form of agnosticism, while exploring a variety of religious options—from none to Buddhism to others I know nothing about. He could have held on to his Christian faith by presenting his friends and family with a mask, concealing his real self. Such dishonesty tears the soul and in the end does not truly deceive. His choice to state his own stand openly (that is, to revert from Christian faith) is a far better step than the pretense of maintaining a false faith.
The positive effect of reversion is greater than simply embracing honesty. If reversion comes from slippage between an old worldview and a new context, then reversions reveal that slippage to those of us who remain in the church and love the church deeply. We are not stuck with problems that we cannot identify. Reversions reveal the problems that we must deal with to remain relevant and vital. Those who revert are our best friends in dealing with these problems, helping us to see problems in our worldview that we are unable to see without their help.

Smith, Christian with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford, 2005. 

Smith, Christian with Patricia Snell. Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford, 2009.

[1] In the last blog I said that the next blog would talk about why patterned boundaries are inadequate for passing on one’s faith. Instead I am digressing to some reasons for reversions.
[2] This is what Christian Smith (2005) calls “moral therapeutic deism”, which constitutes the fundamental religion of most American youth of all religious backgrounds today. See also Christian Smith (2009).
[3] Whether or not this emphasis on conversion works is the subject for a different series of blogs.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Who Reverts?

Conversion and Reversion: Who Reverts?
I’ve said that reversion takes two forms. The first is the meaning I think that the organizers of the conference on ex-Mennonites have in mind: One might leave the church of one’s parents, but remain a Christian in one’s general worldview. The second is the way that I think of it missiologically: One might leave the religion of one’s parents, meaning that one becomes non-Christian.
Who then is likely to revert (in either sense)? 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.[1]
What happens is similar to what happened when their grandparents first converted. The religious worldview answers their grandparents learned from their parents were inadequate for new challenges. Similarly, the answers that they now have are inadequate. Why they are inadequate belongs in the next blog.
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.

[1] Missiological research suggests that, if the theological process is not fully contextualized, the fourth generation after first contact with Christian mission will become nominal in its faith, and is ripe for either secularization or embracing a revitalisation of the traditional religion. I do not have a reference here, but simply my memory from missiological studies.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Conversion and Reversion: Two Questions

Conversion and Reversion: Excursus
The first in a series of brief essays on conversion and reversion leads me immediately to two thoughts. One is the need clarify the meaning of reversion. In North America one might leave the religion of one’s parents, meaning that one becomes non-Christian. Or one might leave the church of one’s parents, meaning that one leaves the Brethren in Christ (BIC) Church for (as one example of many) the Evangelical Free Church of America.
The former is what I mean by reversion. The latter is probably what the organizers of the conference on ex-Mennonites (to be held at the University of Winnipeg, October 3 and 4) have in mind. As a missiologist I am less concerned about which denomination people identify with and more interested in what leads people to leave Christian faith entirely.
My own small piece in the conference is to look at the BIC in Zimbabwe, where the question 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.
The second thought is to note that religion and worldview are closely related, but not identical. In many African cultures (such as the Ndebele of Zimbabwe), the people’s worldview is thoroughly supernatural, and to the extent that we think of religion as supernatural,[1] worldview and religion flow together. In North America many people describe themselves as not religious. In fact they are religious, but their religion is some form of secularism, or an individualized form of Hinduism or Buddhism, or atheism itself, or some other individualized variant. In our case, worldview is shared by the members of a society, but they have many religious options. This fact complicates the picture and means that we must be careful not to generalize too quickly from one case or from one set of cases, to say what we think is true of the larger population.


Ellwood, Robert S., Jr. Introducing Religion: From Inside and Outside. Second edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983. 

Smith, Christian. Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. New York: Oxford University, 2003.

[1] Note that religion is not necessarily supernatural. I use the shorthand definition from Ellwood (1983) of religion as “scenarios of the real self”: that is, religion is the story we tell with which we construct our identity—supernatural or otherwise. See also Christian Smith’s Moral Believing Animals (2003).

Conversion and Reversion -- 1

Conversion and Reversion

The title for this brief essay comes from the topic for a conference being held October 3 and 4 at the University of Winnipeg, titled “X-Mennonite”. The topic implies a search for reasons that people have for leaving the Mennonite Church, or abandoning their Mennonite identity. I have been asked to look at one piece of the larger topic: “Why do people leave the Brethren in Christ (BIC) Church in Zimbabwe?”
I am trying to answer the question with the help of a friend in Zimbabwe, who is interviewing a number of people there who have been BIC, but have left the church for some other spiritual identity. In this essay I ask a preliminary question: Why do people convert to Christian faith in the first place? We can then guess at the answer to the further question: Why then do people revert (or de-convert) from Christian faith?
Why do people convert? One can ask this question in general, not just of Christian faith. While giving a general description, one acknowledges that every person’s story is different, and the description that follows may apply to a greater or lesser degree. Conversion involves (in my view) a change of worldview. In conversion, one weighs one’s worldview against a new religious option that involves adopting a new worldview.[1]
Ian Barbour’s term for worldview is a paradigm (Barbour 1974). We see all of reality within a basic paradigm, or through a particular worldview. Worldview, the centre of culture, is an ideational phenomenon that is learned by children (much of it within the first five years of life), shared by the members of a particular society, consisting of symbols and rituals, and making sense of reality for the people who hold that worldview.[2] These characteristics are critical: learned and shared. We learn our worldview from our parents and community, within the first years of life, and we use our worldview throughout our life to make sense of reality.
What happens when we face new situations? Data that our worldview cannot account for is presented to our senses. This is the case whenever two cultures meet, especially if one of them is dominant in a colonial setting. So Ndebele people at the end of the 19th Century in southwestern Zimbabwe were faced with a colonial expropriation of their country. As part of the larger social-political movement that engulfed them, missionaries arrived with a religious worldview that provided a new set of answers. Older Ndebele tended to hold on to their traditional worldview, while younger people considered the clash of worldviews that they faced. Traditional explanations for life proved inadequate to make sense of colonial realities. They could embrace the new whole-heartedly, reject the new and try to remain completely traditional, or look for some sort of synthesis of old new (within or without the church). In this setting many people converted to Christian faith. Now, over 100 years later, we are faced with the question of why some of their descendants reject the Christian faith that their grandparents adopted.
The answer, I suspect, takes a variety of shapes. One person might return to a revised traditional faith, what Wallace calls a “revitalisation movement” (1966). Another might abandon spiritual faith entirely and become a modern secularist. Yet another might remain Christian, but embrace one of the newer Pentecostal churches that are an important part of the African landscape. One might turn from the church because of a perception that Christian faith is required to be non-political, and the problems Zimbabwe face include the necessity of social and political change.
Beneath all of these I think that a common thread is the same dynamic that led their grandparents to convert to Christian faith. If they grew up in the BIC Church in Zimbabwe, their parents taught them a worldview that is both Zimbabwean and Christian. But the realities that face people in 21st Century Zimbabwe are noticeably different from those that faced the people in the 1960s, or even in the 1980s. If their worldview is not able to make sense of, or provide coherent answers to the questions of how to live in the new setting, then one can expect such people to revert from Christian faith. In effect, they experience their own conversion to a new faith, one which makes sense of the new situation and gives more satisfactory guidance for how to live.


Barbour, Ian G. Myths, Models, and Paradigms. HarperCollins, 1974. 

Ellwood, Robert S., Jr. Introducing Religion: From Inside and Outside. Second edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983. 

Hiebert, Paul G. Cultural Anthropology. Second edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983. 

Kraft, Charles, H. Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 

__________. Worldview for Christian Witness. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2006. 

Wallace, Anthony F.C. Religion: An Anthropological View. New York: Random House, 1966. 

Whiteman, Darrell L., editor. An Introduction to Melanesian Cultures. Goroka, PNG: The Melanesian Institute, 1984.

[1] Note that this statement involves a view of religion as being at the centre of culture, in a way that is similar to worldview. Ellwood’s phrase (1983) is that religions are “scenarios of the real self”. We use worldview and religion as a way to construct our essential identity.
[2] I take my basic understanding of culture and worldview from Darrell Whiteman’s opening essay in Whiteman (1984). I draw extensively also on Charles Kraft (1997; 2006) and Paul Hiebert (1983).