The One Thing We Might Overlook in Someone Becoming a Christian

What does it take for a person to become a Christian? Certainly a recognition of one’s need for grace and forgiveness, and an understanding and acceptance of what Jesus accomplished. But we might overlook another ingredient that’s often necessary:

Time.

Several years ago, I ran across a revealing statistic: from his or her first serious contact with a believer, the average American takes 2-4 years to become a Christian. Why is that? Though no two stories are completely alike, I’d suggest that this period of time allows for any number of things to happen:

  • the development of relationships with people who have a genuine faith in Christ
  • seeing how those people credibly (if imperfectly) live their lives
  • growth in the understanding of the larger biblical story and important biblical concepts, especially the core story of the gospel
  • the opportunity to address questions and objections
  • the experience of challenges and difficulties that spark a person to think about what is true and important in life
  • the ability to “test drive” beliefs, i.e., seeing if they make sense of our experiences and help us in important ways

All this is backed up when we look at the time frame for people to come to faith in other countries: in England, it’s 4-5 years. In Japan and France, it’s 10.* That stands to reason. Per capita, there are fewer Christians and less Christian influence in each of those countries.

What are the practical takeaways from all of this?

Respect the process. We’ll need to have the mindset that coming to faith should be seen as more of a process and less of an isolated event. And that means we’ll need to develop patience—though it should be the kind of patience that is hopeful and engaged. Just because someone hasn’t indicated much interest in Christ at one point, doesn’t meant that will always be the case.

People are in different places, and therefore have different needs. The best way to make an impact in a person’s life will depend upon that person’s specific situation. For example, someone who has a church background and values the Bible may have a basic understanding of the gospel but still has doubts or disappointments that need to be addressed. But a conversation with that person will likely look very different than one with, say, someone who doesn’t believe God exists in the first place.

Our immediate goal may change. Of course our ultimate hope for people should be that they believe the gospel. Jesus is every person’s greatest need, and he is the only way any of us will find lasting joy and satisfaction. So it’s always appropriate for us to hope that those around us would trust in him. But given the above, not everyone will be in a position to do that immediately or all at once. That means our mindset should be something like this: Is there an opportunity for me to help this person take at least a small step closer to Christ? What does that look like in this particular situation? Does it mean simply being a good neighbor or coworker at present? Helping that person connect some biblical dots they already believe? Showing love in concrete ways? Inviting that person to church? Talking about a shared challenge like parenting? Addressing a significant challenge to Christianity? The potential possibilities are almost endless.

Realize that you are not God’s only means of influencing someone. Again, it’s a process. Each of us who has come to faith in Christ has done so because God used any number of different people and circumstances in our lives to draw us to himself. And while we want to be faithful in the opportunities that God calls us, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we’re God’s only way of reaching someone. That approach usually involves an inflated sense of self, and insufficient sense of God’s wisdom, power, and commitment reach those who don’t know him.

Pray. It’s not the only way we’re called to participate in the process, but praying that God would “open a door for our message” (Colossians 4:3) may sometimes be the best way. After all, though he does it through an almost limitless variety of people and situations, God is the one who changes people’s hearts.

 

*These figures are mentioned in the free online course “Apologetics and Outreach,” available from Covenant Theological Seminary here.

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