Beware the Over-Hyped Stat
Please, please read Bradley Wright’s new book Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. After that, pick up Joel Best’s Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data. Christians have to quit believing every statistic they read and spinning them in the most sensational ways.
For example, see Brett McCracken’s article yesterday in the Wall Street Journal on The Perils of “Wannabe Cool” Christianity. Overall the article makes some fine points. It’s a distillation of Brett’s new book Hipster Christianity. I’m three-fourths of the way through the book and I really like it. Brett (he’s younger than me so it just feels like I can use his first name) is a good writer and has written an important book. I hope to say more about his book in the weeks ahead. But the language in the WSJ article is misleading.
Here’s how the article starts:
‘How can we stop the oil gusher?” may have been the question of the summer for most Americans. Yet for many evangelical pastors and leaders, the leaking well is nothing compared to the threat posed by an ongoing gusher of a different sort: Young people pouring out of their churches, never to return.
As a 27-year-old evangelical myself, I understand the concern. My peers, many of whom grew up in the church, are losing interest in the Christian establishment.
Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.
This is a classic example of a good statistic gone bad. For starters, as Brett acknowledges in his book (but probably didn’t have space to explain in the article), the Lifeway study found that 70 percent of young adults 23-30 who attended church for at least a year in high school stopped attending church regularly for at least a year from age 18-22.
And to make matters more confusing, here’s a blog post by Sam Rainer, son of Thom Rainer and co-author of Essential Church (the book based on this Lifeway study), where the statistic morphs into “70% of those that leave the church do so between the ages of 18 and 22.” This is quite a different stat entirely. But in the book the Rainers use the original version of the stat, so we’ll stick that.
The problem is that Brett’s WSJ article takes the Lifeway number about young people leaving church for a year and turns it into this alarm: “Young people [are] pouring out of their churches, never to return.” This is simply not true. If 70% were dropping out never to return, we’d see a huge dip in the next demographic. After all, the Lifeway research was conducted with those ages 23-30. So we should see a 70% dip in church attendance and Christian affiliation among older twentysomethings. But we don’t. In fact, Wright shows (what should be common sense) that religious affiliation increases with each bump in the age demographic. Gallup has found the same trend (and, interestingly enough, that church attendance has increased slightly in 2010).
Just as importantly, we’ve seen over the past decades that the lower percentages among youth increase as the twenty year-olds become thirty year-olds, the thirty year-olds become forty year-olds and so on. Simply put, young adults (especially during their college years) are the least likely to be involved in church, but over time more and more of them (especially the ones with children) come back. Or, as the case may be, they never really meant to leave; they just drifted away for a time. Now, there’s no reason to celebrate 18-22 year-olds dropping out of church for a year, but making things sound worse than they are doesn’t help either.
Here’s how Wright summarizes his research on young people and the church:
So back to our original question: Is the church really losing the young? on the negative side, the number of young people who do not affiliate with any religion has increased in recent decades, just as it has for the whole population. Furthermore, to the extent that religiousness has changed, it has trended slightly toward less religious. On the positive side, the percentage of young people who attend church or who think that religion is important has remained mostly stable. Also, the percentage that affiliate with Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, and Black protestantism are at or near 1970 levels. What I don’t see in the data are evidence of a cataclysmic loss of young people. Have we lost the young? No. Sure, terrible things could happen in the future, but so could great things. (66)
It seems that Christians are, of all people, most eager to believe the worst about themselves. But don’t believe everything you read. There are lies. There are damned lies. And then there are statistics.