|dc.description.abstract||While academic projects investigating religious conversion are not uncommon, specifically New Zealand-based work on this subject is rare. Moreover, examinations of religious conversion come from a variety of academic disciplines. A discussion of conversion to Christianity from a theological perspective offers a lens through which individual experiences can be understood, thus deepening the body of knowledge that exists within Christian theologies of conversion. A focus on the conversion experiences of young people means that this project makes a meaningful contribution to current theologies of Christian youth ministry. Problematically, the absence of such knowledge in church settings can lead to discussions of conversion that are ill-informed and largely based on anecdotal evidence and conjecture. In my own experience as a former youth pastor in an evangelical church, I heard many Christians share their perspectives on how and why secular young people might decide to become followers of Jesus, and the discussion of these issues motivated the re-design and modification of the ministries of the local church. The present project aims to provide a greater body of data to aid both academic and ecclesial understanding of how and why secular young people are coming to faith in Christ in New Zealand today.
Three sub-questions are used in this project as a means of investigating facets of the conversion experiences of young people: how secular young people might best engage with a church or Christian youth group; how spiritual experiences function in conversion; and the question of the nature and duration of the conversion process. The primary body of data for this project comes from my interviews with thirty-two young adults in Canterbury, New Zealand, each of whom had converted to Christianity in their adolescent years. In every case, these participants’ parents were not practising Christians at the time of their children’s conversions. I used a process of inductive thematic analysis to analyse the interview data. The themes that emerged from the collected data shed light on all of the three sub-questions. In addition, an unexpected finding emerged in the data analysis process. I called it “the match,” and this finding is discussed in a separate chapter.
Analysis of the interview data led to unique and valuable findings related to each of the three sub-questions. For those I interviewed, the church or youth groups were experienced as a place of connection, where key relationships and a supportive, warm environment were experienced as something deeply significant, and even counter-cultural. Spiritual experiences evoked a wide variety of personal consequences in the lives of those I interviewed, and some of these were not entirely positive or expected. I heard how many participants struggled with the reactions of their parents, the various emotions they experienced during their conversion journeys, as well as the doubts and questions that accompanied this time for some. Also, most of those I interviewed experienced conversion as a process that took months or years to complete, although three participants described more punctiliar experiences.
The key unforeseen finding, “the match,” relates to the way that many participants described moments in their conversion journeys where they encountered an unexpected degree of congruity between one of their own emotional or practical needs and something that they encountered in the Christian world. Many participants were quite surprised by this congruity. In fact, analysis of the interviews indicates that they found what they were not looking for at church or youth group. This indicates something as to the relative social position of the church in New Zealand today, as well as how religion in general is perceived in this largely secular nation. Implications from this and other findings are offered at the end of this thesis. These implications can inform both the academy and the Christian world, in that they reveal key dynamics of the relationship between the church and society, between young people and local expressions of Christianity, and between God and those who are not explicitly embarking on a religious search.||