The reporter's question was one of the best I had ever been asked. "Why do you evangelicals love to make up and say such bad things about yourselves?"

Great question, I thought. But I'm here to talk about social science research, not abnormal psychology.

I was facing a room full of reporters in a Religion Newswriters Association session at the Washington Post building in D.C. They had invited me to explain the difference between good religious research and bad. It's a real problem. News reports are always batting around some new bit of bad research. And sometimes a snippet from good research gets pulled out of context, then mangled, garbled, and spewed all over.

Research Gone Wild

Once a choice morsel of misinformation gets out, it multiplies faster than dandelions in the spring. We have all heard these soul-seizing yet false factoids. Some of us have even repeated them:

"Christianity will die out in this generation unless we do something now."

"Only 4 percent of this generation is Christian."

"Ninety-four percent of teenagers drop out of church, never to return again."

And perhaps my favorite: "With its 195 million unchurched people, America has become the new mission field. America has more unchurched people than the entire populations of all but 11 of the world's 194 nations." The "195 million unchurched people" statistic is all over the place—from books to blogs to church bulletins. And those who quote it often attribute it to researcher George Barna.

The problem is, it isn't true. That's not what the research showed, and Barna wasn't the one who conducted the study.

The original stat came out of a project I was a part of while working with the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board (NAMB). We researched ...

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