Takeaway: Statistics are important. And if you are a Christian that believes in truth, you need to be even more careful with numbers.
I like numbers. My day job is being a
nanny stay at home Dad, but my part time consulting job is evaluating an after school program. I track grades, school attendance, program attendance, home and school visits, behavior, test scores, and a variety of other statistics. In a previous life, one of my jobs was demographic research for church plants and I was statistician for a local Baptist association. I was a sociology major as an undergrad and even went to a sociology paper competition (and came in 3rd) for a sociology paper about the relationship between believe in rape myths and matriculation in a Christian college campus.
If you know me in real life, then you have probably heard me quote a stat (or 50) about something or other. So I should have jumped at this book. But I did not. Frankly, I am a bit negative about a lot of Christian’s use of numbers. A couple weeks ago two different times in the same Sunday, from the pulpit and in a private meeting I heard a similar statistic about divorce that I knew was wrong. My church is about 60 percent single adults. So when people talk about marriage, I want it presented in a fairly positive light, not to be fake, but to not compound the negative feelings that many in my church have toward marriage. So when I hear the same statistic about divorce rising, I get frustrated. I did not say anything, but I was frustrated.
You see, divorce is not rising. In fact it is dropping. In part because many people are just choosing to not get married, or at least get married much later. And divorce among highly educated, upper income people (like most everyone in my church) has fallen off a cliff. So when we talk about divorce as being a major and increasing issue among Christians, we are actually wrong. We should be providing support for marriages, that is why my wife and lead a small group for newly married couples. And we should be providing support for those that facing or recently completed a divorce. But in my church, telling people (most of whom are single) that divorce is increasing, does not really address either reality, or the issue most in the congregation are facing.
Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media is a very good remedy to the many poorly presented statistics that are floating around in and outside the Christian world. Dr Wright, spends a significant amount of time addressing why so many bad statistics are being used. And really it comes down to two major areas, attention and authority. We are trying to get people’s attention, so pastors (and many others) troll around for the worst statistics to try to prove their point. (This is also why we get so many topical sermons that do not seem to fit the broader context of the passage.) It is not that pastors (or others) are trying to mislead, but rather, they start from the end and find support for their position. The second major issue is that many people are misled because they saw something in print. If it was printed, it must be true. Christians, as people of the book, may be more influenced by the authority of something being in print.
Dr Wright hits significant areas of bad stats and shows good data about why that belief is either true, not true or the answer is more difficult. A prime example is the many bad statistics about how Evangelical youth are running away from the church. One stat asserts that 94% of all Evangelical youth will leave the church after high school never to return. Wright ends the book by saying if a stats seems wrong, it probably is. This is a good example. From a variety of sources through a number of surveys Wright shows that youth are not running away, in fact, this may be one of the most religious (and orthodox Christian) generations in the last couple hundred years.
Wright does the same for Christian behavior (Christians divorce at higher rates than non-Christians, etc.), Who Christians are (all Evangelicals are poor, uneducated Southern Whites), Do Christians love others and how non-Christians think of us. This is a very number heavy book. But it is definitely written for the lay person, not the sociologist or statistician. I read it on Kindle and some of the graphs on Kindle were a little small, but still readable. (Note: there is a new Kindle edition of the book, which I have not read and may have fixed some of the graphics problems of the previous edition.)
One of the significant areas of disappointment in the numbers was that Evangelicals have a higher rate of distrust of people outside their racial group than average, or the non-Christian. Almost twice as high as the average non-Christian. But even in this area of disappointment, there are two points of good news. One, regular attenders have lower rates of distrust than occasional attenders. And two, the rate of distrust is dropping and it is dropping quickly.
Another area of disappointment is that Christians, especially Evangelicals, seem to distrust non-Christians and non-Evangelicals at a much higher rate than those non-Christians and non-Evangelicals distrust us. So those of us, who have been charged by our savior to reach out are actually more afraid of the other, than the other is afraid of us. This is an area of concern. But it has been, at least partially, an protection method. The stronger “the enemy” the closer the bond to one another. So Evangelicals have tight bonds to the church and to other Evangelicals (which is good) because they distrust outsiders (which is bad.)
What should we be doing? Wright tries to stay out of advice giving mode. He veers off a little into advice, but mostly just does his job of “presenting the facts.” This review is already too long, but my take away from this book is “present it positively.” It may take longer, you may not rile people up as quickly. But if you present it positively, based on what you think, not on fear, you will make a longer term impact. If you want people to give, don’t show them the starving child or the stat about how little people are giving. Show them what can be done when God is glorified through positive giving. If you want people to pay attention to youth and volunteer in your youth program, don’t tell them this may be the last generation of the church or that all the kids may be sleeping around, tell them that you have the chance to be Christ to a group of youth that really are interested in what older Christians want to say to them.