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By the Power of Signs and Miracles

The role of the miraculous in conversion in Canadian-based Alpha courses.


Introduction

Those familiar with Christianity in Canada will recognize, that for a variety of reasons the Christian church is in serious decline. The majority of Canadians do not regularly attend church. Presently only 19 percent of the population attends church on a weekly basis (see Grenville and Posterski 8-9). George G. Hunter III notes that pollsters such as George Barna believe those who self-report tend to over report. This insight means the actual number of Canadians who attend church on a weekly basis may be as low as nine or ten percent (see Hunter, Church for the Unchurched 178). Hunter has identified that fully 80 percent of churches in North America are stagnated/plateaued in growth or are in serious decline (see Radical Outreach 9, 10, 42). Statistic Canada indicates that over the last ten years, 8.7 million fewer Canadians now identify with Protestant churches (41-42). During the same ten year period, cults and other world religions have grown at staggering rates (Wicca +281 percent, and Islam +129 percent). Three times as many Christian churches permanently close their doors each year in North America, as are opening.

… less than one percent of churches in North America are growing due to conversion growth.

Hunter and many others have pointed out that less than one percent of churches in North America are growing due to conversion growth. Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby cites a 2002 study of growing evangelical churches in Calgary, Alberta that demonstrated 90 percent of their growth came from people circulating from other churches and/or the birth of children. Broadly speaking, Christian churches are not growing as a result of winning unchurched souls for Christ.

Canadian churches have also lost their moral and persuasive abilities. The separation of church and state is a far more pronounced reality than in the United States, as evidenced, for instance, by the absence of any clergy, prayers or references to God during the nation's 9/11 memorial service on Parliament Hill in 2001. Churches are rarely, if ever consulted, as it relates to government policy concerning the legalizing of prostitution, marijuana, abortion, same sex marriages, and gambling. Federal policies now prohibit military chaplains from making specific Christian references, such as the name of Jesus, God the Father, and using the Lord's Prayer as they lead public worship services.

The common sentiment towards the institutional church is at best apathetic, or at worse, openly disdainful. Many church leaders in Canada seem unaware the church is broadly viewed as an irrelevant and marginalized relic of days gone by. Dr. Jeff Greenway states, "The church no longer holds the ear of the state as in the days of Christendom." The church has lost its persuasive and moral authority largely through its own misbehaviours, poor representation, and powerless defense of the Gospel. The church finds itself both officially and unofficially marginalized in society.

Canada is clearly a difficult and resistant mission field and the church's present evangelism methodologies to reach and retain the nation for Christ are failing badly. Frustrated by the church's inability to impact Canadian society, I undertook an extensive biblical study of the factors which contributed to the success of first century Christianity. I discovered seven factors which, taken together, account for every conversion story in the Bible. Two of these factors completely caught me by surprise. The first of these factors was the prevalence and importance of the miraculous, and second the relatively small role that lifestyle evangelism played in biblical conversions stories (see Figure 1.1). My study revealed that fully 50 percent of the conversion stories had an identifiable miracle present. Further research revealed just how important miracles were in validating the existence of God to the unsaved, and the trustworthiness of God's message and His messengers.

Click the image above to enlarge. Figure 1.1 Analyses of the Factors that Contributed to New Testament Conversions.

The second surprising observation concerned the relatively small role that friendship evangelism played in the conversion stories recorded in the Bible. While there are a few instances in the Bible where the good and godly lifestyle of believers played a role in winning others to Christ, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of people who became followers of Jesus did not even know the evangelist, nor did they know many, if any, Christians (see Acts 14:1-3; 17:1-4). The persuasive influence of the Gospel was rarely found in the godly character and actions of believers.

For a time, this second discovery was baffling to me. For most of my adult life I had been taught that lifestyle evangelism was THE biblical and most effective means of sharing the faith, yet biblically it was obvious that lifestyle evangelism accounts for only the tiniest percentage of the conversion stories in the Bible. Popular Christian authors such as Win and Charles Arn, and Joseph Aldrich teach that the most effective method of evangelism is by the attraction of a Christian's character and deeds (see Arn 100; Aldrich 77). Given the popularity and prevalence of this teaching it is not surprising studies reveal the vast majority of Christians (83 percent) not only agree with Aldrich but practice only this approach to evangelism. While all forms of evangelism are to be applauded and utilized, not all forms of evangelism are equally effective. The church's present methodologies are reaping meager results. Lifestyle evangelism, while a good form of evangelism, is simply not the most effective means of evangelism.

Authors such as John Wimber, Stephen Hunt, Charles Hummel and C. Peter Wagner and many others postulate that in Gospel-hardened areas of the world, "proclamation" of the Word of God needs to be substantiated with a "demonstration" of the Word in order to be fully effective (see Hummel 203). Aldrich calls this the "visualization and verbalization" of the truth (31). Wagner was the first person that I had encountered who used the descriptive phrase "persuasion evangelism" to define the effect of the miraculous on an unsaved individual (see Wimber 10). John White believes that a society-wide spiritual awakening can only occur by "an extraordinary outpouring of God's Spirit" (226).

Church history is replete with examples of the converting influence of miracles. A multitude of voices can be found who substantiate the important role miracles play in bringing about local, regional and even national revivals. Many of the early church leaders, such as, Augustine, Chrysostom, Eusebius of Caesarea, Bishop Gregory, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian. Origen, all highlight the critically important role miracles played in evangelism efforts. Authors such as Wagner and Ramsay MacMullen conclude the New Testament clearly attributes the combination of persuasive preaching and the presence of the miraculous as the two primary reasons for the rapid expanse of Christianity in the first century (see Wagner 16, 24, 107; MacMullen 29, 32). Edward Gibbons states the best explanation for the remarkable missionary endeavors of the first three centuries, was the persuasive influence of miracles (see MacMullen 25, 40). The Welsh revivals and the revivals of Finney, Edwards, Rees Howells, and the Wesley's, to name a few, all contained strong elements of the miraculous.

Present day experience also lends credence to the importance of miracles in church growth. Wagner states the most successful and rapidly growing churches world-wide are those marked by the presence of the miraculous (see Spiritual Power 11). The three largest churches in the world are congregations marked by God's miraculous interventions (see Wagner 11). Peter Jenkins has documented the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and noted the correlation between church growth and healings and exorcisms (see The Next Christendom 4). David Cho and John Arnott also point without hesitation to the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit as being the reason for the amazing evangelistic results in Seoul and Toronto respectively (see Cho 32; Arnott 9).

Dissertation purpose

The purpose of this study was to determine if the probability of conversion increases when the presentation of the Gospel message is substantiated by an accompanying miracle, as opposed to a presentation of the Gospel without a miracle.

… lifestyle evangelism … is simply an inadequate means to bring about the large scale re-Christianizing of Canada.

My hypothesis was that the most popular evangelism method, (lifestyle evangelism) while a valid and biblical method of evangelism, is simply an inadequate means to bring about the large scale re-Christianizing of Canada. I theorize the persuasive influence of miracles is needed to effectively reach large numbers of Canadians for Christ. The thesis was that supernatural events typically break apathy and indifference and tend to make the unsaved receptive towards belief in the existence of God and the message of the Christian church. The study explored the role of the miraculous in the conversion process and identified implications for evangelizing in Canada. Specifically I investigated whether or not miracles are related to the process of awakening people to their need of a Saviour. My underlying motivation was to inquire whether evangelism efforts in Canada would benefit from an increased openness by Christian churches to the supernatural ministry of the Holy Spirit, which, in turn, would help authoritatively, objectively, and persuasively to re-establish the validity of the Christian message in Canada.

Method:

I surveyed and interviewed participants in 13 Alpha courses offered in Canada. These 13 courses were offered by nine different denominations. The 13 courses represented three degrees of openness to, and made provision for experiential aspects of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. Six Alpha courses were enthusiastically open, five were moderately open, and two were cautiously open to the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit. The difference in the results of these three test groups, were then compared.

This project was an evaluative study in the experimental mode utilizing pre- and post-test questionnaires. I used the standardized Spiritual Well-Being Scale, a researcher-designed Confidential Spiritual Walk Survey, and a semi-structured focus group interview protocol to measure the change in the subjects' relationship with God. A pre-test was administered to the participants in 13 Alpha courses to establish a (self-assessed) baseline of the subjects' current relationship with God. A post-test was administered at the conclusion of the 11 week Alpha course to determine any improvements in their relationship with God.

The leaders of each Alpha course were invited to rate the openness of their course to the miraculous activity of the Holy Spirit.

The subjects who indicated they had experienced or witnessed a miracle were invited to participate in a semi-structured interview. I paid particular attention to two issues. First, whether an appreciable difference in the spiritual progress of those who attended Alpha programs most open to the miraculous occurred, over those who attended Alpha programs less open to the miraculous. Second, I noted the difference in spiritual progress of those who personally experienced a miracle over those who did not experience a miracle.

The population of this study included all participants attending Alpha courses in Canada (primarily in the province of Ontario). The sampling may be considered to be middle class, English speaking Canadians, living in or near major urban centers in Canada.

Variables:

The dependent variable in this study is the change and improvements that took place in the subjects' relationship with God, as measured by the Spiritual Well-Being Scale and the Confidential Spiritual Walk Survey.

The independent variable in this study was the openness of the Alpha groups to the miraculous and experiential aspects of the Holy Spirit.

Research questions

To determine the impact of the miraculous upon the subjects' attitudes and receptivity to the Gospel message, I sought to answer the following four questions.

Research Question #1: What was the subject's spiritual condition prior to and after attending the Alpha Course?

Research Question #2: What component(s) of the Alpha program positively impacted the subject's attitudes toward the idea of becoming Christian?

Research Question #3: What differences were observed among those who attended Alpha programs with varying degrees of experiential openness to the Holy Spirit?

Research Question #4: What was the impact upon those in the Alpha programs who experienced or witnessed the miraculous activity of the Holy Spirit?

Findings

A total of 256 people participated in the study. Ninety two of the 256 respondents self-identified as being non-Christian. Of the 92 non-Christians who took part in the pre-test surveys, 69 completed the Alpha courses and provided sufficient information to be helpful to this study.

Close to 80 percent of the participants reported the Alpha course had a positive effect on their spiritual condition.

Survey Results for Research Question #1:

The participants in the study provided sufficient data to determine that the average pre-test Spiritual Well-Being Score was 82.8 (moderate sense of connection with God, and a moderate sense of purpose and satisfaction with life). The same participants scored 93.1 at the conclusion of the Alpha courses. The change of 10.3 is statistically significant (p <.001). Close to 80 percent of the participants reported the Alpha course had a positive effect on their spiritual condition. Most notably, 31 of the 50 participants (62 percent) reported that during the Alpha course they had become Christian.

Click the image above to enlarge. Table 4.2 SWBS: Pre- and Post-test Results/Changes for All Alpha Courses

Alpha courses generally have a positive influence upon non-Christians relationships with God.

Survey Results for Research Question #2:

I identified the ten different components of a typical Alpha course and surveyed the participants to determine the effect those components (individually and/or collectively) had on improving their relationships with God. The participants rated all ten components at or above 3.16 (on a scale of 1 to 5), yet three components emerged as having the greatest positive influence on their spiritual progress. Miracles, the conduct/attitude of the Alpha leaders, and the content of the Alpha videos had the most positive influence upon the non-Christians attending the Alpha courses.

Click the image above to enlarge. Figure 4.1. CSWS: Evaluating Alpha Components (descending order)

All ten components of the Alpha course need to be retained and utilized, but non-Christians find miracles, the conduct of the Alpha leaders, and the teaching videos to be the most beneficial aspects of the program.

Survey Results for Research Question #3:

I organized the results of the surveys according to the openness of the Alpha courses to the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit. Three test groups emerged. Alpha 3 courses were the least open to miracles. Alpha 4 courses were moderately open. Alpha 5 courses were enthusiastically open to the transrational. The author was not able to convince any Alpha 1 or Alpha 2 courses to cooperate in this study (Alpha 1= against the miraculous, Alpha 2 = semi-closed to the miraculous).

Statistically there were no differences between the improvements in a participant's spiritual progress, nor in the improvements in their confidence levels in their relationship with God, regardless of whether the non-Christian attended an Alpha 3, 4 or 5 Course. On average, all participants progressed equally well and at relatively the same rate in their Spiritual Well-Being Scores (Alpha 3= +7.4, Alpha 4= +10, Alpha 5= +11.3). The differences were not statistically significant.

There was however one unexpected and significant difference observed between the three types of Alpha courses: the difference in the percentage of people who became Christians. 60 percent of the Alpha 3 participants became Christian, 58.3 percent of the Alpha 4 participants became Christians, while surprisingly only 26.5 percent of the Alpha 5 participants became Christian. I was able to surmise why the Alpha 5 courses yielded such a lower conversion rate (see page 16).

The three different types of Alpha courses all had equally positive effects on the participants' spiritual outcomes.

Survey Results for Research Question #4:

I did not investigate the legitimacy of the participants' assertion they had experienced a miracle. I was content to accept that if a person believed they experienced a miracle and was willing to say so by means of the survey sheets and the Focus Group interviews, then the subjects' perspective on the matter would be accepted as valid for the purposes of this study. I was particularly interested in noting the differences in spiritual outcomes between those who experienced a miracle and those that did not.

Miracles and supernatural events were reported in Alpha 4 and Alpha 5 courses, but no miracles were reported in Alpha 3 courses. In total 14 people (20.3 percent) reported experiencing or witnessing something miraculous. The participants reported such events as divine intervention in helping to find employment, miraculous avoidance of accidents, hearing the audible voice of God, cured infertility, unusual "direction" provided, physical healings, speaking in tongues, a complete "death bed" healing, and an "emotional" healing.

Click the image above to enlarge. Figure 4.3. SWBS: Impact of Miracles on SWBS scores.
Click the image above to enlarge. Figure 4.4. Impact of Miracles on Conversions Rates.

The differences in spiritual outcomes between those who experienced a miracle and those who did not, were profound and significant. Those who experienced a miracle reported an average improvement in their Spiritual Well-Being Scale of 23.5 percent, while those who did not experience a miracle reported only a 7 percent improvement. Similarly those who experienced a miracle reported a 27.7 improvement in their confidence level in their relationship with God, while those who did not experience a miracle reported only a 13.1 improvement. Most significant of all, the conversion rates were dramatically different between those who experienced a miracle and those that did not. 69.2 percent of those who experienced a miracle became Christian, while only 36.4 percent of those who did not experience a miracle became Christian (over two times the difference). Additionally, those who experienced a miracle reported a higher appreciation for the Word of God (4.6 vs. 4.4).

This study revealed that miracles often inspire faith, but amongst a few miracles inspired fear. While miracles brought many to faith in God, there were some who found supernatural events unnerving, and thus resulted in less favorable spiritual results. The author notes that the miracles of Jesus had the same results (faith and fear inspiring; see Luke 8:37-38).

Discussion

While acknowledging that a large majority of those who attend an Alpha course are already Christian (often taking a refresher course or bringing an unsaved friend to the course), I believe that there are few evangelism programs having a better track record than Alpha. This study revealed Alpha operating at a conversion rate of 62 percent (similar studies found as high as 77 percent conversion rates).

This research project suggests the type of Alpha course non-Christians attend does not appear to significantly determine the spiritual outcomes a non-Christian will experience. The study concludes, attendance at any of the three types of Alpha courses will likely result in persons experiencing significant progress in their relationships with God.

… a non-Christian who has a firsthand encounter with a miracle, will likely experience greater spiritual outcomes …

The results of this study demonstrate, however, that a non-Christian who has a firsthand encounter with a miracle, will likely experience greater spiritual outcomes than those who did not experience a miracle. Specifically, I discovered that those who experienced a miracle had far greater improvements in their Spiritual Well-Being Scores than those who did not (23.5 vs. 7.0). Additionally those who experienced a miracle experienced more than twice the confidence in their relationship with God, than did those who did not experience a miracle (27.7 vs. 13.1). Most important of all, those who experienced a miracle were almost twice as likely to make a decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ, than those who did not experience a miracle (69.2 percent vs. 36.4 percent). The participants themselves revealed, of the ten components of Alpha, that miracles had the greatest positive influence on their relationship with God.

Those who downplay the importance of the miraculous do so at the expense of disarming the church of one of its most important and powerful tools of evangelism.

Unexpected Findings

Two unexpected items of note emerged from this project. First was the reluctance of non-charismatic Alpha courses to participate in this study. Close to 30, non-charismatic Alpha courses (Alpha 1 and Alpha 2) were approached and asked to be involved, yet all of them refused to be involved despite my best efforts to solicit their support. I can only speculate as to why I experienced this refusal to participate. My best speculation is that leaders of non-charismatic Alpha courses know that they are not offering the course as prescribed by the Alpha organization, and thus feel awkward when approached and asked if they would allow their courses to be studied.

The second and even more puzzling observation is why the Alpha 5 courses had dramatically lower conversion rates than the Alpha 3 and Alpha 4 courses. Upon further investigation I believe the reason to be: the Spiritual Well-Being Score pre-test results reveal that the participants in the Alpha 5 courses had noticeably lower pre-test scores than those who attended Alpha 3 and Alpha 4 courses (Alpha 5=80.2, Alpha 4= 85.7, Alpha 3= 82.9). This observation means that those participants who began to attend the Alpha 5 courses were, on average, much further away from a relationship with the Lord, than were the participants in the other two types of Alpha courses. While the participants in all three type of Alpha courses progressed equally well, and at approximately the same rate, those who attended Alpha 3 and Alpha 4 courses were, at the beginning of the course, much closer to being ready to make a decision for Christ than were those attending Alpha 5 courses.

Practical applications

This study originated out of a deep concern for the rapidly diminishing percentage of Canadians who regularly attend church and identify themselves as being Christian. In part, I have come to believe that the church has lost its persuasive influence in society because of a misguided over-emphasis on forms of evangelism that biblically and historically have not proven to be as effective as the persuasive ability of God's Holy Spirit manifesting Himself in supernatural ways. Friendship evangelism is simply not the primary method used by God to win large numbers of people to faith in His Son.

… churches will continue to reap pathetic evangelistic results, so long as they steadfastly refuse to engage the Holy Spirit …

I believe many churches will continue to reap pathetic evangelistic results, so long as they steadfastly refuse to engage the Holy Spirit in the church's evangelism efforts. I am convinced that, as with ancient Israel, the answer is not more biblical preaching, nor even a greater emphasis on bridge building to our non-Christian friends and neighbours. Another and more powerful persuasive influence was needed in ancient Israel (in the time of Elijah) and is needed again today.

My hypothesis was that the persuasive influence of miracles is needed to enable the effective Christianizing of Canada. This study demonstrates that miracles do break apathy and indifference in people who have been culturally indoctrinated to accept relativism, secularism, pluralism and non-judgmental acceptance as mind-sets to be believed and valued. I believe the application to be obvious.

When the preaching of the Word is substantiated by an accompanying miracle, significantly more people will come to know and love Jesus. The positive results of this study give hope to those who are concerned about the dismal state of Christian evangelism in Canada. This research demonstrates that miracles can and do powerfully substantiate the message of redemption to those outside of Christ's kingdom. The church has at its disposal (within the sovereign providence of God) methods and resources that can potentially result in large numbers of unsaved people coming to faith in Jesus.

End notes

Aldrich, Joe. Lifestyle Evangelism. Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1993.

Arn, Win, and Charles Arn. The Master's Plan for Making Disciples: How Every Christian Can Be an Effective Witness Through an Enabling Church. Pasadena, CA: Church Growth, 1982.

Arnott, John. "The Coming Increase of Signs and Wonders." Spread the Fire Magazine 6–(2004).

Bibby, Reginald. "Bibby Holds Hope for Church." Western Catholic Reporter,23 June 2004.

---. "Restless Gods: Implications for Restless Evangelicals." ChristianWeek,30 Apr. 2002. 17 Feb. 2005

Cho, Paul Yonggi. Church Growth Manual Eleven. Seoul: Church Growth International, 2000.

---. The Fourth Dimension. South Plainfield, NJ: Bridge,1979.

Greenway, Dr. Jeffrey. "Six Winds of Change."e-mail to the student body. Asbury Theological Seminary. Wilmore, KY. 23 Sept. 2004.

Grenville, Andrew, and Don Posterski. "Like Thy Neighbour? The Religious Differences between Canada and the U.S." Envision Magazine. 8 February 2005: 8-9.

Hummel, Charles E. Fire in the Fireplace. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Hunter, George G. III. Church for the Unchurched. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.

---. Radical Outreach. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.

Jenkin, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford, 2002.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire AD 100-400. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Statistics Canada. 2001 Census: Analysis Series: Religion in Canada. Minister of Industry. Ottawa, Canada: 13 May 2003.

---. Selected Religions, for Canada, Provinces and Territories—20% Sample Data. Minister of Industry. Ottawa, Canada: 21 March 2007.

---. Crime Comparisions between Canada and the United Status 2000. 18 December 2001.

Wagner, C. Peter. The Acts of the Holy Spirit. Ventura, CA: Regal, 2000.

---. Spiritual Power and Church Growth. Altamonte Springs, FL: Stran Communications, 1990.

White, John. When the Spirit Comes with Power. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988.

Wimber, John. Power Evangelism. Rev. ed. Anaheim, CA: Vineyard Doin' the Stuff, 1992.

Stephen Elliott completed his Doctor of Ministry degree at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is teaching at Bethany Bible College, Sussex, New Brunswick.

This article is a condensed form of a doctoral dissertation presented at Asbury Theological Seminary, April 11, 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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