January 15, 2007
Christianity Today wonders why evangelicals lie so much:
icals, who profess to be committed to Truth, are among the worst abusers of simple descriptive statistics, which claim to represent the truth about reality, of any group I have ever seen. At stake in this misuse are evangelicals’ own integrity, credi-
bility with outsiders, and effectiveness in the world.
… Why do evangel-
icals 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. In a world awash in information and burdened by myriad problems, some evangelicals may justify the problematic misuse of statistics to get people to pay attention to what they think are good causes. But this is inexcusable. Such desperation, alarmism, and sloppiness reflect the worst, not the best, in evangelicalism.
Let me here give one specific illustration of the larger problem I am talking about, although examples could be multiplied many times. In a recent issue of American evangelicalism’s flagship magazine, I found a glossy, four-page, centerfold advertisement for a national leadership summit, announcing this:
Wake Up Call
“Christianity in America Won’t Survive Another Decade.”
Unless We Do Something Now
Anyone who gives this claim a moment’s thought should realize immediately that it is preposterous. Unless we act now, U.S. Christianity will be dead in ten years? Please. I hope somebody will let God know. Still, the quotation suggests that some authority has determined this, so let us explore further. Inside the ad we are greeted by “A Call to Arms,” and are informed that, “This generation of teens is the largest in history—and current trends show that only 4 percent will be evangelical believers by the time they become adults. Compare this with 34 percent of adults today who are evangelicals. We are on the verge of a catastrophe.” This is really incredible. But still, specific statistics are staring up from the page: 4 percent compared to 34 percent. Plus, the ad shows a lineup of evangelical heavyweights endorsing this summit, including Chuck Colson, Ted Haggard (before his fall), Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jack Hayford, and many more. Not only was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (Haggard) backing this, but a recent official NAE resolution on youth ministry is also reprinted in the ad, suggesting a general NAE endorsement of this program.
It turns out not to be possible from the ad to determine who is quoted saying that “Christianity in America Won’t Survive,” but the statistic that only 4 percent of today’s teens will grow up to be evangelicals does have a reference. The fine print shows that it comes from a 1997 youth ministry book about “the bridger generation” written by a professor at a significant evangelical seminary. Having read nearly every book on youth ministry published in the last 15 years, I realize that I own the very book. I take it off my shelf and find the source of the 4 percent statistic. It turns out, as reported on pages 165-66, that this professor had done an “informal survey” of 211 young people in three states over seven months in the mid-1990s. No information about the methodology in sampling these youth is given—most likely it was a convenience sample. Based on this evidence, the author writes, “The vast majority of bridgers today have not accepted Christ. In a recent and informal survey of 211 bridgers, only 4 percent responded that they were born-again Christians who had trusted in Christ alone for salvation.” Older Americans are then said, based on another similar “informal survey,” to have accepted Christ at higher rates. The conclusion: “According to present trends, we are about to lose eternally the second largest generation in America’s history.”
… [B]ased on such erroneous conclusions, a national movement is now being organized to re-educate 20,000 youth pastors in 44 cities around the nation. Tickets for the three-hour event are $39 each, $99 for a church’s entire pastoral staff. Pastors who attend this “high level briefing” in which “top voices” will “present the hard facts,” the ad states, will be doing their part to avert the catastrophe of dwindling church attendance, increase in peer pressure, a growth in porn and violence on TV, and the decay of “our Christian nation.” By implication, those who don’t attend are enabling the catastrophe.
… The deeper question is whether American evangelicals can learn to live without the alarmism that is so comfortably familiar to them. Evangelicals, by my observation, thrive on fear of impending catastrophe, accelerating decay, apocalyptic crises that demand immediate action (and maybe money). All of that can be energizing and mobilizing. The problem is, it also often distorts, misrepresents, or falsifies what actually happens to be true about reality.
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