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Debating Reversion

Do 90% of Muslim converts to Christ actually return to Islam?

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Do 90% of Muslims who convert to Christianity eventually revert to Islam?

This claim resurfaces occasionally among Christian missiologists studying the evangelization of Muslims, including John Span’s 2020 article entitled: “Reversion: Why do ‘Christian converts’ from Islam return to their old religion? What can be done to prevent it?”

Some Christian leaders say they hear the claim from time to time, but don’t know who is making it—or if it is accurate. And one scholar cited as supporting the 90% reversion claim says he’s never seen one single case of it.

Here’s what we found out.

Questions of time and place

Years ago, it was not uncommon to hear missionaries to Muslims say that after decades of devoted service only a few Muslim believers came to Christ, cementing a mental image of global Islam as an impenetrable fortress raised against the spread of the Gospel.

But times change, says veteran missiologist David Garrison, and growing numbers of converts add up. Plus, not all Muslim countries are created equal.

“Look at present-day Iran, where there’s widespread discontent with the Islamic Republic, and the Islam that goes with it,” said Garrison, who retired from the ministry Global Gates last year. “There has been a massive turning away from Islam, with people turning not just to Christianity, but also to hedonism and drugs.”

Garrison is among the growing number of proponents of “movements missiology,” which focuses on church planting movements and disciple making movements among populations. When such movements grow to significant size, they can provide new converts with social support systems that can help them remain faithful, even in some of the most closed countries with anti-conversion laws.

Garrison says some critics of movements missiology use the 90% claim as a weapon.

Debating conversion

Mateen Elass is an executive with Voice of the Truth and a former pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He’s highly skeptical of the 90% reversion claim.

“Most Muslims who become followers of Christ know in advance the cost they could pay for their convictions, and so consider them very carefully before taking the step to leave Islam and enter the Church,” said Elass.

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“I would guess that of those who say they are converting to Christianity and then later return to Islam, their ‘conversion’ was for ulterior motives rather than spiritual convictions…to pursue a romantic relationship, to gain refugee status, or to benefit from a ‘Western lifestyle.’”

Elass remembers only one case of reversion among “true converts” to Christ. The new believer sought fellowship in a church but was shunned by some and rejected by others over fear he was a mole spying on them. He wound up becoming disaffected and returning to the Islamic fold where he still had family connections.

A scholar misquoted

Kevin Greeson is a veteran missionary church planter and author of the book, “The Camel: How Muslims Are Coming to Faith in Christ.” He has never encountered a single baptized Muslim convert to Christianity who returned to Islam, yet his book has been misquoted to make this claim. Greeson actually rebuts the claim if read in context:

“Throughout the history of missionary outreach to Muslims, reconversion has been a persistent problem, with as many as 90 percent returning to Islam. This is in stark contrast to the movements in South Asia, where reconversion has been minimal.” (See 2010 edition, page 172).

Article’s sketchy evidence

John Span’s 2020 article on reversion cites the 90% claim and argues that “reversions are occurring, and perhaps at a much higher rate than has been admitted by the Christian mission enterprise before.” But Span’s “evidence,” cited from two sources, is less than compelling:

  • British missionary Ken Wycherley claimed in a 1991 article that 80-90% of the people who experienced “incomplete conversion” in Muslim-majority cities returned to Islam;
  • Span also references a man named “Paul” who is cited in a college student’s paper, claiming that “70-90%” return to Islam when “social, cultural, political and also spiritual” issues are not addressed by the church.

MinistryWatch contacted Span at Mukhanyo Theological College in South Africa but received no response.

Bottom line

Experts on all sides of the debate agree that reversion is a valid subject that merits real research—but nobody seems to be doing such research, which is why the old and seemingly inaccurate 90% figures regularly resurfaces.

“I’m aware of no global research on the subject,” said Garrison.

They also agree on the need for effective discipleship when people convert from another faith to Christianity.

Main photo: Muslims praying in Dubai / Photo by Levi Meir Clancy / Unsplash

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.