A 1955 Gallup poll found that only 4 percent of American adults had changed faiths from their parents’ faith. By 1985, that figure had risen to 33 percent. Fully 40 percent of Protestants have changed church affiliations.
Denominational labels are becoming less important among Protestants, and switching denominations has become quite common. Much of this change stems from marrying outside parents’ faith.
For example, when a Roman Catholic marries a Baptist, they may compromise and attend an Episcopal church. This kind of change within the Judeo-Christian family is common and does not often raise concern.
Studies show that changing faiths occurs most often among young adults, particularly college-age adults who are exposed for the first time to a wealth of new ideas, but without the close watch of parents and church leaders. International students are also more open to new religious ideas on U.S. college campuses where peer pressure and social restrictions are not as strong.
Many Baptists are concerned about groups such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who are well known for door-to-door witnessing. Just how many Baptists become Mormons because of this activity? The answer is not very many.
Most conversions to Mormonism are due to a program called “friend-shipping,” where a Mormon family intentionally befriends a neighboring family with the intention of introducing them to the faith. Missionaries are often invited to present lessons leading to baptism after the non-Mormon family has gained a positive view of Mormonism from friends.
Many more converts are gained when a non-Mormon, especially a female, falls in love with a Mormon male. He stresses the importance of a united family (a major theological teaching requires this), and often insists the female convert to Mormonism before the marriage can take place.
Jehovah’s Witnesses hold “Bible studies” in homes and get to know the individual or family before asking them to attend a Kingdom Hall meeting. By the time a non-Witness attends a Kingdom Hall study, he/she has begun to trust the new friends. Considering their smaller numbers, Jehovah’s Witnesses win a higher percentage of Baptists than Mormons.
Even though the number of Baptists who become Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses is quite small, Baptists win fewer converts from these groups than they lose to them. Baptists are probably not any more difficult for Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses to win than any other Protestant group.
A study by Brigham Young University surveyed a number of former Mormons to learn of their religious connections since leaving the church. Nearly half of former Mormons said they had not joined any other faith. Of those who had joined another faith, most became Roman Catholics. Baptists did not win many more former Mormons than any other Protestant church.
Several reasons may be cited for the high number of former Mormons not joining another faith:
- The stigma against a person leaving Mormonism is strong; it is easier to become quietly inactive. Apostasy, leaving the one true church, is an unforgivable sin.
- The Mormon teaching that other churches are only partially true churches creates a strong climate against joining another church.
- An individual may not desire to break with the strong family unit in the Mormon church. It is not uncommon for a Mormon to divorce a spouse who leaves the church.
I have heard of Mormons accepting Christ as Savior but refusing to make that commitment public because their spouse would divorce them, or they would lose a job because their employer is a Mormon. These reasons are generally true for all faiths.
I know of Jehovah’s Witnesses who no longer believe the teachings of the Watchtower Society and become inactive, but will not make a break with the Society. They feel that someday Jehovah will show them again that the Society is God’s one true organization on earth.
There are relatively few conversions from other world religions to Christianity. Reasons include Christians abusing people of other faiths, or Christians making foolish or ignorant statements about other faiths.
Too often we place our major funding and a majority of our personnel in areas where conversions are most likely to occur. A chasm far more difficult to cross than the theological division is the cultural and social division. Muslims often grow up in a culture that teaches converting to another faith is a crime punishable by death. Jewish families may hold funerals for members who convert to another faith.
Christians have been slow to learn the faith and culture of people they are trying to reach with the Gospel. Para-church groups have been quicker to change strategies than the larger denominational agencies with their bureaucratic structures. If we are serious about reaching non-Christians with the Gospel, we must change our strategy of evangelism.
Like the Apostle Paul in Athens, we must learn how to effectively communicate the Gospel before genuine witness can occur.
Gary Leazer is the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc.