Sermon illustrations often rely on bad stats

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NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Reporters who attend church face an occupational hazard. They know when the preacher is wrong—not theologically but factually.

For instance, consider the preacher who delivers sermon on marriage. To make his point, he claims no difference between people sitting in these pews and everyone else when it comes to divorce.

bradley wright300Sociologist Bradley WrightIt makes a great sermon illustration. Only it’s not true, said Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut and author of Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told.

Wright looked at marriage statistics from the General Social Survey, a national random survey of Americans, taken since the 1970s. Half of the “nones”—people who claim no religious identity—were divorced. Only 42 percent of self-identified Christians—and members of other faiths—were divorced.

Catholics (35 percent) were least likely to divorce, followed by mainline Protestants (41 percent) and evangelicals (46 percent). Believers who show up to church every week were even less likely to divorce.

Wright, who has been writing about faith and divorce rates since 2006, found only about a third of evangelicals (34 percent) and mainline Protestants (32 percent) and a quarter of Catholics (23 percent) who go to church are divorced. Still, the myth persists that churchgoers divorce at the same rate as everyone else. Wright thinks it’s because bad news captures attention.

“We pay a lot more attention to things that are dangerous,” he said. “If I’m driving down the road, I can pass 200 parked cars and not notice them. But if I see an accident—I will stop and look.”

Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas in Austin, said something called “confirmation bias” might be at work. In other words, people like statistics that reinforce their beliefs. If people fear marriages are in trouble, he said, they tend to believe statistics that confirm those fears—even if those statistics aren’t exactly right.

truth divorce425Regnerus noted using bad statistics about marriage is appealing—because bad news can motivate people to action. But it also can undermine the credibility of a pastor’s message.

“I am glad pastors want to strengthen marriages,” he said. “And bad news can be galvanizing. … But we trust our pastors to tell us the truth.”

Marriage isn’t the only subject where perceptions about Christians don’t match statistics. It’s also the case with tips believers leave servers.

Last year, a trip out to eat turned into a nightmare for Alois Bell, minister at World Deliverance Ministries Church in Granite City, Ill. Bell and a group of friends went to a casual dining restaurant. Following company policy, their server, Chelsea Welch, added an automatic tip to the bills.

Bell was not pleased.

“I give God 10 percent,” Bell wrote on the bill. “Why do you get 18?”

Welch posted the check on Facebook, and it went viral. She eventually was fired, while Bell apologized (indicating she’d left a cash tip) after her note made headlines.

Painful memories

It turns out Welch isn’t the only server to have a bad run-in with church folks. Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, worked her way through college as a waitress. Christians were notorious for being bad tippers, she wrote in a piece for Christianity Today’s website.

“My fellow servers called them the ‘Holy Rollers,’” she wrote. “Knowing there would be little, if any, tip left at the end of their meal, the servers saw the Christians’ robust attempts at ‘friendliness’ instead as pushy and arrogant. The memories still pain me now.”

But a study from Michael Lynn of Cornell University and Benjamin Katz of HCD Research showed, overall, Christians are pretty good tippers. Their online survey of 1,068 Americans found the average Christian tipped 17 percent for good service. Only 13 percent of Christians left a smaller tip for good service. 

The problem is that there are a lot Christians out there. And since people tend to remember bad news, a few bad tippers give all the other Christians a bad name.

Youth dropping out?

Statistics about the future of the church also give pastors and other church leaders a hard time. Like this one: “94 percent of Christian young people leave the church never to return,” which was used to promote a major Christian conference several years ago.

It’s partly true. Young people do tend to drop out of church.

A 2009 LifeWay Research study of 1,000 young Protestants found seven out of 10 stopped attending church for a time after high school.

A few more details: The students surveyed all had attended church for at least a year in high school. Most dropped out because of a life change—such as going to college—and just over a third had come back to church by age 30.

The idea of anyone dropping out of church is a concern, but there’s no sign young people are forsaking the church in droves.

A megachurch pastor used another bad statistic to promote a Christian conference: “There are more left-handed people, more Texans, and more pet cats than evangelicals in America.”

Actually, one-third of the claim is true. There are more cats (and dogs) than evangelicals in the United States, but not Texans or southpaws.

While there are about 95 million cats in the United States, according to the Humane Society, there are between 50 million (Religious Congregations & Membership Study, 2010) and 75 million evangelicals (Pew Research).

That’s more than the estimated number of southpaws—between 30 and 45 million Americans—and Texans (26.6 million, according to the U.S. Census).

Going one for three might be good in baseball, but it’s bad for preachers.

Bad stats persist

Bad statistics persist because they work—at least in the short term. They help sell books and tickets to conferences, make good sermon illustrations and get people in church fired up.

The problem, said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, is that bad statistics don’t solve real problems. It’s difficult to solve a problem when you don’t understand it, he insisted.

Too many bad statistics can also undermine a leader’s credibility. Get too many facts wrong, and it’s harder for people to trust you.

Stetzer suggested Christians should view all statistics with healthy skepticism—especially a statistic in an advertisement. Also, beware any statistic that can’t be verified.

“Ask, how do you know that?” Stetzer said. “If you can’t think of a way to verify a statistic, it’s probably not true.” He also said to be wary of stats that don’t match reality.

“It’s OK to apply your own censor, to say this doesn’t make sense,” Stetzer said.

It’s important to realize all research is imperfect, and context matters. Researchers don’t have unlimited resources. They can’t interview or poll everyone. Instead, they interview a representative sample of people, asking a few questions.

Go to the source

So go to the source. Find out who did the research, how many people they interviewed and what specific questions were asked, before assuming the research is valid.

For example, a poll from professional researchers using a large sample likely will be more reliable than an informal poll taken by a professor of the students in class.

Finally, look at more than one study.

“To understand the whole picture, responsible researchers look at various studies, their methodologies and their results,” Stetzer wrote in a 2010 story about bad statistics for Christianity Today. “We reach bad conclusions when we latch onto one finding of one study, drag it out of context and proclaim it from the rooftops without knowing whether our interpretation is justified.”

Facts are our friends, Stetzer stressed. Just make sure the facts are true.

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