Thursday, May 14, 2009

Misleading Statistics and Evangelical Self-Loathing

Evangelicals love statistics. There's no doubt about that. But there's a problem. Some of evangelicals' most beloved statistics are more than a tad misleading. Statistical and missiological guru Ed Stetzer addresses this issue in a recent Acts 29 presentation. Stetzer is disconcerted by the evangelical infatuation with misleading information. Moreover, he sees a tendency among evangelicals to mercilessly beat themselves with such misinformation.

So why do evangelicals pummel themselves with erroneous statistics?
Stetzer thinks it's a great marketing technique. Create a huge problem, and then people will be interested in whatever book/gimic/program/video series/bracelet you happen to be peddling.

I'll admit it...I love using scary statistics in sermons. And I know exactly why I do it. Such figures instantly create a crisis in the mind of the listener, plus they give your words an air of objectivity. Tell a group of High Schoolers that 80% of them will deny Jesus in college, and they just might listen to what else you have to say.

Christian Smith has some good things to say about this. In a 2007 article for Books and Culture he says,

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. And to sacrifice what is actually true for the sake of immediate attention and action is plain wrong. It should be redefined as a very un-evangelical thing to do.

I can't think of another movement engaged in such aggressive erroneous statistical masochism. I know I've used statistical scare-tactics, and have employed facts and figures sloppily. Smith and Stetzer offer a good reminder that zeal devoid of knowledge is helpful to no one.


Bill Faris said...

32% of us agree with this blog, but, tragically, 68% of us don't!!

Norman Jeune III said...

Bill, you forgot to mention the 18% statistical error margin calculated into this favoribility poll, which actually means the data is inconclusive as to whether or not anyone either agreed or disagreed with this blog

Anonymous said...

The N. American brand of Evangelical Christianity has long seen itself as battling for survival with its culture, something it finds resonance with in the early church. There is a 78% chance this is in fact that case (ha), and that self-awareness plays right into the point you are making. I wonder about solutions. What would it look like for those of us who see ourselves as evangelicals (of one stripe or another) to resist this in concrete ways?