Curing Christians' Stats Abuse
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 the number of unbelievers in the U.S., not the number of unchurched people. But someone somewhere changed the language, and thus the meaning.
Three years ago, Christianity Today sister magazine Books & Culture carried a provocative article by Christian Smith entitled, "Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics." Smith, a highly respected professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, declared that American evangelicals "are among the worst abusers of simple descriptive statistics."
He went on to dissect an advertisement for a summit that declared, "Christianity in America won't survive another decade unless we do something now." The summit organizers claimed that only 4 percent of today's teenagers would be evangelical believers by the time they became adults. "We are on the verge of a catastrophe!" the advertisement screamed.
As it turns out, that 4 percent statistic comes from an informal survey of 211 young people in three states conducted by a seminary professor nine years earlier. Smith affirmed the professor's approach but explained that an unwarranted inference was drawn from a small, non-representative sample to reach conclusions about the future faith conditions of entire generations.
Smith wrote, "Why do evangelicals recurrently abuse statistics? My observation is that they are usually trying desperately to attract attention and raise people's concern in order to mobilize resources and action for some cause …. Evangelical leaders and organizations routinely use descriptive statistics in sloppy, unwarranted, misrepresenting, and sometimes absolutely preposterous ways, usually to get attention and sound alarms, at least some of which are false alarms."
My friends at NAMB and my boss, Thom Rainer (the originator of the 4 percent statistic), accurately reported their methods and conclusions. But the research took on a life of its own. Unfortunately, good people who are trying to help the church change its bad habits in order to reach a lost world often misappropriate the research. Evangelical Christianity in the U.S. undoubtedly faces serious challenges, but hyperventilating doesn't help—even when the statistics are accurate. Crying, "The sky is falling!" might sell books, but it never fixes problems.