In Christian communities, it is custom to bear witness of spiritual experiences and share conversion stories. However, members of subscribed faiths also experience deconversion and fall away from the practices of religion. While working on the Faith is Not Blind Project, Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée and Eric d’Evegnée, English Department faculty members at BYU-Idaho, saw a need to focus on an aspect of conversion that is often overlooked — the phenomenon of reconversion.
Using their English skills of story-telling, research, and analysis, the d’Evegnées endeavored to find patterns in coming-back-to-the-fold faith narratives within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their findings are summarized in a recently published Deseret News article titled “The untold stories of Latter-day Saint ‘reconversion.’” In an interview with BYU-Idaho Radio, the couple explained what started their journey to uncover real-life revivals of faith.
“Doing the podcast interviews for Faith is Not Blind, we started to realize there were a few (not many but a few) people that had actually left the Church and then returned, and we thought, ‘We want to see if there are more of those out there,’ because it’s such a hopeful story and I think a lot of people don’t know that they even exist,” Sarah said.
As outlined in the article, the d’Evegnées made five distinguishable observations that were consistent across falling-away narratives — language choice shaped faith expectation, a straw-on-the-camel’s-back moment challenged strong-held belief, feelings of banishment characterized inactivity, reconversion was often motivated by a desire to personally reconnect with God and people had direct influence on both loss of faith and eventual return to religion.
Falling away experiences seem to begin with a disconnection between expectation and reality. For example, a young missionary may expect preaching in a foreign language to be easy until standing on the doorstep of a stranger unable to utter a word. Unmet expectations give room for doubt and wavering. Eric personified doubt as the twin to disappointment. Sarah elaborated on this thought.
“With expectation and expectation failure, I think if the expectation is that you just grab onto your faith and hold onto it and it will never change, we will always be disappointed because God’s plan for us is a plan that is based on the idea of progression. We are trying to become like him and that will involve some shifting of our expectations and hopefully shifting of our faith, shifting of our development to get closer to Him,” Sarah said.
Sarah described that many people she has encountered did not know it is “okay” to believe, then doubt, and choose to stay in the Church of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the converts in the return-to-faith narratives also demonstrated a need for consent or permission from the community to come back after a period of absence. Sarah reasoned that one way to “give permission” is to offer a listening ear and a loving heart to the returning member.
“That love, that feeling of unconditional love from us, that is a way to grant permission to people who might feel like they just need someone to tell them, ‘You’re welcome here. We want you in the pews with us,” she said.
The couple continues to log conversion experiences through podcasts on their website. The d’Evengées want people to realize that having questions is perfectly normal and conversion is allowed to be a process of a lifetime. In addition to their efforts to compile a trove of resources for people who are at various stages on the conversion spectrum, they acknowledge the ultimate source of reconversion.
“The ultimate source is our relationship with Heavenly Father…[Faith] is a bond that stands between the radical indeterminacy of the future and that we may not know all of the answers to all of the questions...but that with faith as we encounter questions...to hold onto those questions and to make them apart of your prayer and a part of your relationship with God,” Eric said.