Sociologist Bradley Wright's recent work is earning him a reputation as an optimistic contrarian. In Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You've Been Told, he shattered "myths from the secular and Christian media." In his recent book, Upside, he offers "surprising good news about the state of our world." Churches and Christian ministries, it turns out, are just as guilty as the media of propagating a grim, bleak—and often inaccurate-view of the world. Leadership Journal's Brandon O'Brien spoke with Wright about what this means for ministry leaders.
What motivated you to write Upside?
I was getting discouraged watching and reading the news and hearing pastors describe the world from the pulpit. The common assumption seems to be that everything is getting worse in America. I'm old enough now to have heard these same fear messages 10, 20, 30 years ago—and they didn't come to pass. At some point I realized there are a lot more fear messages than bad things actually happening. So I started looking at the evidence and realized the common assumptions were wrong.
What motivates the media, and ministry leaders, to report so many negative statistics?
Cable TV gives us hundreds of channels and that motivates news outlets to sensationalize their messages for fear of being lost in the crowd. Fear is a powerful motivator. For example, recently a researcher came up with a better way of counting infant deaths worldwide. It turns out that when you count the deaths more accurately, the number drops about 15 percent. So the researcher presented this finding to a conference of people who research these things. In one fell swoop he adjusted their perceptions of the number of infant deaths worldwide, a number they were all working to reduce. You would think this news would cheer them up, but it didn't. They were upset that this statistic might lessen support for their efforts. They viewed the more accurate statistic as potentially harmful to their efforts.
Do you get the sense that any one group-liberals or conservatives-is more likely to do this?
I can't tell any difference, but they make us afraid of different things. Conservatives will talk, for instance, about erosion of family values or religious liberties. Liberals will talk about what's harming the poor and the environment. They're both pretty good at generating fear.
What mistakes do you see preachers commonly make?
The most common mistake I see is selecting statistics because they're frightening. That is, selecting the bad because it's bad—but useful. The rhetorical strategy seems to be, "If I scare people enough, then they'll listen to me and we can do some good."
The next most common mistake is simply not doing due diligence to vet the information they're giving out. Pastors have authority and they should be careful to speak accurately about the world, just as they would if they were translating a Greek verse or interpreting a passage of Scripture.
Do pastors need to be discriminating about the sources of the statistics they cite?
Reputable sources or agencies are not usually wrong, but often they are misreported or selectively reported. Once you get to the original sources, or even The New York Times sourcebook or an almanac, you get really solid information. But don't quote statistics just from an email source or a comment you heard. Look up the original study for yourself.
Is that time consuming or hard to do?
It shouldn't take any more than five minutes to research any statistic. If you Google a question, you'll usually find a good discussion of it. There are lots of government sources. Wikipedia is surprisingly helpful and accurate on these things, so that's a great starting point.