Christianity Today: “Evangelicals Behaving Badly”

Will They Have "Ears To Hear?"

Jim Burroway

January 22nd, 2007

The January edition of Christianity Today has a very worthwile commentary that everyone should read. Titled “Evangelicals Behaving Badly With Statistics“, Dr. Christian Smith writes:

American evangelicals, 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, credibility with outsiders, and effectiveness in the world. It is an issue worth making a fuss over. And so I write.

Dr. Smith examines one simple statistic that went out in an ad for a national leadership summit that screamed “Christianity In America Won’t Survive Another Decade Unless We Do Something Now”. According to the summit’s organizers, “only 4 percent [of teenagers] will be evangelical believers by the time they become adults. Compare this with 34 percent of adults today who are evangelicals.” Dr. Smith looked into it and discovered something that our regular readers can well anticipate. That statistic was based on a convenience sample, not a nationally representative one. We’re not surprised, and neither is Dr. Smith:

I find the misuse of statistics described above appalling. If this were an isolated incident, it might be excusable. But, having been a watcher of evangelicalism for many years, I know that this is not an aberrant case. Evangelical leaders and organizations routinely use descriptive statistics in sloppy, unwarranted, misrepresenting, and sometimes absolutely preposterous ways, usually to get attention and sound alarms, at least some of which are false alarms. The widespread influence of much-cited evangelical pollsters, who do not actually come entirely clean on their methods, does not help matters either. It seems that one of two situations pertains. Either statistically reckless evangelicals are somewhat aware that they are playing fast and loose with numbers. Or they are not, they simply do not know better. Either is unacceptable.

In Proverbs 14:5, we read, “A reliable witness always tells the truth, but an unreliable one tells nothing but lies.” That proverb, like all of them, is profoundly true. When someone is caught in a lie, it destroys their credibility and from then on everything they say is treated with suspicion –a suspicion that is reserved for one who “tells nothing but lies.” After all, who has “ears to hear” once you discover someone has been caught playing fast and loose with the facts?

John wrote his followers, “I write you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it and know that no lie is of the truth.” (1 John 2:21). St. Augustine expounded on that verse, saying, “Therefore, it is not true that sometimes we ought to lie. What is not true we should never try to persuade anyone to believe.” And yet so many evangelicals who oppose gay rights do exactly that. And knowing that they do that, some observers are left to wonder whether the fruit by which we know them (see Matthew 7:18, 20) is rotten to the core. Dr. Smith is very tough on his fellow evangelicals on that very point:

The real question is not whether evangelicals can clean up their statistical act. 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. 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.

A very pertinent wake-up call for those with ears to hear.

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