Do Christians Rely Too Much on Statistical Research?

By Daniel Darling

With a title like that, I’m sure to stir up some controversy. But lately I’ve been reading through Bradley Wright‘s magnificent book, Why Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. In this book, Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut and an evangelical Christian, looks at major polling data on evangelicals and debunks many of the myths we’ve come to believe. Among them is the well-worn warning, “Christianity will be dead in a generation.” This is a common premise in a lot of well-meaning books and seminars. The idea is that we’re doing church all wrong and if we don’t get our act together, we’ll lose all of our kids to the world. And there are estimates ranging from 70-80% of young evangelicals will walk away from the faith.

Wright looks at every major poll that supposedly predicts this, compares them to historical trends, and says, “Not so fast.” In fact, the rate of dropout may be consistent with history and may even suggest that today’s young evangelicals are more solid in their faith and get serious about their faith once they get older and have children, etc. I’m not going to analyze all the data here. I’m not a sociologist. But all of this has had me thinking about our reliance, in the evangelical church, on research.

I’m not necessarily poo-pooing research as an effective tool, but it seems we have become so dependent on it. And it seems we only use research that makes Christians look bad. We like spouting facts and figures that tell us the Church is doing poorly, America is in decline, and younger generations are less pious and more worldly. We seem to do this because we feel it will scare us or motivate us into being more earnest in our evangelism/discipleship/child-training. But is this the best approach?

It seems to me that we employ fear as a motivator. And it works well. If you scare enough people to the problem, they will buy you’re proposed solution. Its an effective marketing tool. I can’t tell you how many times a week some Christian company selling a product begins with some scary statistic, trying to motivate me toward some action. And Christians buy in. So as a result, we’re scare of the rising Muslim population, we’re scared of Hollywood, we’re scared of our own incompetence at raising another generation of Christians. If you’re conservative, you’re scared of the emergent movement (which is largely fading). If you’re progressive, you’re scared of the rigid folks who believe in orthodoxy. If you’re conservative politically, you’re convinced Obama is some version of the anti-Christ whose actions are ushering in the 2nd Coming. If you’re liberal politically, you think the tea party is a bunch of angry anarchists.

This fear works well. It sells books, packs conferences, moves products. And I’m not implying that those who produce the stuff have a selfish motive of selling stuff. I think many are well-meaning and their ministries serve a valid purpose. But I wonder if Christians should be motivated by fear. Or, should we be motivated by faithfulness? In other words, do we really need to cite questionable stats to motivate us to do what Christ has already told us we should do? Shouldn’t we obey the Great Commission to evangelize and disciple and teach simply because we have been bought with a price and we are now servants of the One who redeemed us? 

Why do we need a scary poll from Barna to get us started? And, has our research-intensive emphasis subtly led us into a man-focused, results-oriented approach to the Christian life, eliminating God’s sovereign rule over all of life? Yes, the next generation might reject Christ. But maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll pursue Christ with more fervor than past generations. And, isn’t God in charge? Doesn’t His Spirit reign in the Church?

Sometimes I wonder, sarcastically, What did the early church do without all of this cutting edge research? The answer, of course, is that they did quite well. Empowered by the Spirit, they simply lived out the gospel every day. And they turned the world upside-down.

Should we bury our heads in the sand and not pay attention to rising threats? No, we shouldn’t. But at the same time, let’s not manipulate statistics and create a false sense of alarm simply to force people to do what Christ has already commanded us to do. Let’s be motivated by love for Christ and not fear. And let’s stop having to change everything every ten years because of new, questionable research. Yes, the Church is clumsy at times. Yes, pastors often don’t preach as clear as they should. Yes, parents should parent better and often fail. But, there is a God above whose grace flows in those areas where we fail. And ultimately, His Kingdom will come, despite our failures.

How are we going to convert people to Christianity if we’re so self-loathing, anyways? Nobody wants to join a losing team. At least I don’t. We may be flawed, fallen, and inept at times. But Jesus isn’t any of those and it us upon “this rock” that God’s Church is built.