It was something I had heard repeated as long as I had been in ministry: “85 percent of all people who accept Christ do so before the age of 18.” I was never exactly clear where that statistic came from, but I had no reason to doubt it either. Everyone I knew considered it an evangelistic axiom.
The good part of the statistic was that it reinforced the importance of reaching children and youth with the gospel. They are receptive. Important decisions are made before adulthood. And we must reach our young people with the gospel.
At my first church, I remember encouraging board members in their personal evangelism. I asked them with whom they were sharing their faith. Marvin spoke up. He was one of my most supportive leaders, but he didn’t sound very hopeful: “Well, pastor, I’ve been talking with Jim who works next to me down at the shop. He just split up with his wife and has been asking some questions. He’s pushing fifty, though, and pretty set in his ways. I know the chances of him changing now aren’t very likely. But I keep praying for him anyway.”
I couldn’t help but wonder: Was it really that dismal? Does “85 percent of all people who accept Christ do so before the age of 18” mean that it’s doubtful that many adults will make a life-changing decision to follow Jesus?
With the assistance of two sociologists from Oregon State University, I decided to test the “85/18 Rule.” I wanted to know when, why, and how those not raised in the church come to faith in Christ. I decided to talk to people who had accepted Christ as adults and stuck. I didn’t want to try to figure out what it meant when someone walked down an aisle but then never came back. I didn’t want to decide how to categorize people who said they believed certain propositions about Jesus but didn’t actually practice their faith. I wanted to find people who had decided to follow Christ and remained active in their faith and church—the exact kind of disciple I would be hoping for if I led someone to Christ.
I compared the faith experiences of more than 3,000 believers from 31 states and a dozen denominations. People from an unchurched upbringing are a clear minority among evangelicals. On a typical weekend, they represent 28 percent of the adult believers in church. Generally, these are people who grew up with parents who were not Christians and with little spiritual activity in their home. They rarely, if ever, went to church. Their exposure to the Bible was limited. They didn’t pray regularly. They were raised irreligiously.
What quickly became apparent in the data was that the large percentage of believers from Christian homes skews not only our evangelism statistics but also our understanding of the situation. While many of us say we are determined to reach “the unchurched,” many of our assumptions are based on the experiences of those who were raised as Christians—for instance, the assumption of when people come to faith.
With research data under my belt, I headed out on a road trip to meet more than 50 people, all who had come to Christ from clearly unchurched backgrounds, and who were willing to tell me the story of their upbringing, their conversion, and their life with Christ since. It quickly became evident that most of them considered themselves “exceptions to the rule.” They all picked up around their churches that the way they came to Jesus doesn’t fit “the normal pattern.” Sometimes they would warn me of this at the outset: “I’m not the best one to talk to, because my story isn’t really typical. I didn’t become a Christian until I was retired.”
“I’m not even sure exactly when it clicked for me. Sometime in my sophomore year of college. I’m sorry I can’t nail it down for you any better than that.”
“To be completely honest with you, I didn’t even understand the part about the cross when I first trusted Jesus. It kind of cleared up as I went along.”
Although they felt like exceptions, the research indicates that they’re not. For someone coming to Christ out of an unchurched background, their experiences were not uncommon at all. They were just different from people who had been raised as Christians—which happens to be most of the people in church.
When Does Faith Come To The Unchurched?
I discovered that when someone from an unchurched background makes a lasting decision for Christ, it happens much later than we have often assumed and is spread out across every stage of life. Of those, a majority (57 percent) accept Christ between the ages of 21 and 50. Looking back, I only wish that I could have encouraged my board member Marvin with this statistic. His co-worker Jim, as an un-churched person, was still in the prime years of receptivity to the gospel.
I must admit that the “85/18 Rule” was partially confirmed in my research. In fact, 84.5 percent of evangelicals do accept Christ before that age. However, the statistic only holds true if they were raised in a home where both parents were Christians with either a high or moderate level of spiritual activity. If, however, they were raised without that benefit, the percentage drops by two-thirds. The rest of the unchurched make their faith decisions throughout the course of adulthood and even into retirement.