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Professor and Former Student Explore Conversion Experiences in New Book

Finding Faith, Losing Faith

CHICAGO, IL (September 9, 2008) – Scot McKnight’s new book on conversion, Finding Faith, Losing Faith, is a first for the North Park University New Testament professor and prolific author. It is the first for which he has a coauthor—a North Park Theological Seminary student who also was a student of McKnight’s while working toward her undergraduate degree.

McKnight says he doesn’t view Hauna Ondrey as a former student, however. “She is a colleague in the fullest sense of the word.” He asked Ondrey, who was once his student assistant, to co-author the book because of her research skills and the results she was finding.

The authors explore the patterns of conversion from one faith to another. The chapters focus on Jews becoming Messianic Jews, Roman Catholics converting to Evangelicalism, and Evangelicals to Roman Catholicism. The book also examines why people leave the church and their faith altogether.

The authors build on a conversion theory— McKnight says all conversions involve a similar process: “Each person emerges from a context as a result of a crisis of some sort that leads them to a conversion. That crisis prompts a quest to find a solution to that crisis. Converts then encounter and interact with those who advocate a new faith, leading them to a new commitment and to consequences for life.”

The authors examined previous studies and interviewed numerous people who had conversion experiences.

Individual reasons for conversion are different, but distinct patterns do emerge, says Ondrey, who grew up attending Zion Covenant Church in Jamestown, New York. She wrote the chapter, “Leaving Rome, Finding Wheaton,” which focuses on why Catholics become evangelicals.

Although McKnight had done previous studies on the issue, “She went beyond what I was seeing, and I knew she had it figured out.”

Ondrey discovered that Catholic laity convert to evangelicalism for different reasons than do priests. Priests convert because of issues related to the authority of scripture versus the authority of tradition. Laypersons tend to convert because of Evangelical’s emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus.

“When I first began charting and developing these patterns, it was somewhat tentative,” says Ondrey, who was surprised by the finding. “But the more stories I read, the more evident the patterns became until I reached a saturation point.

“I was surprised by the intensity of the anti-rhetoric I found among former Roman Catholics,” Ondrey says. “This wasn't universal— I spoke with several people who had deep appreciation for their Catholic upbringing, but I generally found that former Catholics regarded Catholicism suspiciously. This surprised me because I have had several quite positive experiences with Catholicism.”

McKnight, who has previously published articles on conversion in academic journals, explains, “The degree of trauma involved in one’s conversion often will be matched in one’s rhetoric.” And conversion can be traumatic.

“A lot of the conversions involve deep trauma in families, and at the level of the perception of the self,” McKnight says. “People reconstruct their own identity in conversion. This is a serious thing.”

Although McKnight was not surprised by the anti-rhetoric, he was surprised by some of the reasons people convert. He did not expect to learn that Jews convert to Christianity because they are looking to answer the question “Is Jesus the Messiah?” and not “Is Jesus my Savior?”

McKnight also studied why evangelicals convert to Catholicism. “They want to have a cognitive certainty that they are part of the true church,” he says.

Theological questions on issues such as the role of Mary and the nature of the Eucharist play little role in conversion. “Dogmas fall into place when converts become convicted of the magisterial teaching role and authority of the church,” McKnight says.

McKnight says the conversion theory also worked well in focusing on how and why people leave a faith entirely. Generally, people walk away from faith because they can’t make intellectual coherence of life with the scriptures and don’t have a place to address questions.

“The emerging people will tell you that is what led to the growth of the emergent movement,” says McKnight. The movement enables people to ask questions, he explains.

The authors believe the book can be helpful to churches. “Recognizing what causes people to abandon one faith in favor of another should prompt self-examination for those being left,” Ondrey says. “For example, in response to this study, the evangelical church should be questioning what often amounts to our disregard for the breadth of church history. In response to the apostasy chapter, all Christians can test their own faith to see whether it stands to the critiques leveled by those who leave the faith.”

McKnight says he hopes the book will help pastors recognize the benefits of conversion theory for understanding what is happening in their churches. The insights into conversion patterns can give guidance in providing pastoral care.

“I suspect Roman Catholics will benefit from Hauna’s study,” McKnight says. “They’ll be very interested in what she found.”

For her part, Ondrey says the experience of writing the book will help her as she pursues a doctoral degree after completing her studies at North Park. “Scot offered— and continues to offer through this process of post-publication business— helpful advice that is direct and succinct and so is effective and sticks with me.”

Covenant News Service, Copyright 2008, Evangelical Covenant Church