Evangelical Christians have been smitten by the numbers bug. Missionaries, evangelists, pastors, and laypeople now absorb statistics like their daily dose of vitamins. Yet, a blind acceptance of stats, can be fatal to one's faith.

Years ago, a Christian friend lost her faith after reading the classic study Hellfire and Delinquency. The data showed: "Religion does not cause people to refrain from delinquent behavior." As a result, many scholars, including my friend, concluded that Christianity makes no difference in people's lives.

Ironically, one of the study's authors today uses Hellfire and Delinquency to illustrate faulty research because other scholars found that church attendance significantly reduced delinquency rates. Author Rodney Stark says, "What counts is not whether [an individual] is religious, but also the proportion of religious people in their environment."

Among Christians, sociological findings may be wrong because they confuse numbers with statistics. In 1984, one South African study claimed that members of independent charismatic churches supported apartheid. Yet, the study was invalid because it was based on a nonrandom sample of 30 people belonging to one congregation, from which the authors made completely invalid generalizations.

A similar misuse of statistics and sociological research may be found in some church-growth research. In a research thesis I have seen, conclusions were drawn about missionary strategy in a Latin American city on the basis of a sample of successful church leaders.

What the author did not recognize was that his sampling technique did not support the type of generalizations he was making. Instead of setting out to test a hypothesis scientifically, the author sought to prove his case by gathering statements that supported his own views.

The misuse of statistics may also have a devastating effect on missions evaluations. Some contemporary writers on missions and church growth claim that nineteenth-century missionaries tried hard but, for many reasons, were really failures.

In Preachers, Peasants and Politics in Southeast Africa, 1835-1880, Norman Etherington says, "The wonder was that this host of Christian soldiers won so few recruits. . . . By 1880 the African Christian population of Natal did not exceed 10,000 souls." Actually, this is a remarkably good growth rate.

Consider the person who launches a new religious movement and after 20 years of hard labor has just under 4,000 converts. At that point, the founder and his or her early converts may essentially lose hope. This is because they project past growth onto the future and falsely assume that in another 20 years they will only have 8,000 members. Actually, if the early growth continued at its previous rate, which was around 30 percent, the membership in 20 more years might be more than 70,000.

Real growth rates might be somewhat less because, as movements mature, they pour their energies into building institutions and nurturing a second generation. But this example illustrates the importance of focusing on growth rates rather than merely the raw numbers.

Christian leaders using statistics need to employ professionals trained in survey research, statistical analysis, and other methods to produce valid findings.

As a first step for evangelicals, top seminaries ought to begin developing social scientific literacy among theological students. Evangelicals should draw on established scholars within the social sciences in order to obtain the most reliable data possible.

Evangelical Christianity requires informed leaders who have mastered the social sciences, not enthusiastic dilettantes who misuse social science. Unless we meet this challenge, our credibility will be lost, and with it, the coming generation of believers.

By Irving Hexham, a professor in the Religious Studies Department, University of Calgary, Canada. Speaking Out does not necessarily reflect the views of Christianity Today.


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