Important Update

One of the best and worst things about blogging is that you get immediate feedback for everyone to see. Sometimes this feedback helps me see where my own arguments were mistaken or less than careful. One commenter pointed out that the study in question, in the end, weighted blacks and Hispanics according to their actual proportions in the population, thus undermining my point about a skewed sample. I think he is right. Second, the commenter argues that the refusal rate for this study is actually pretty normal and those interviewed probably weren’t told ahead of time what the survey was about, thus mitigating my concern about some Christians refusing to participate. Although, the data shows that some did not complete the survey and it is possible some refused once it became clear what the subject matter was about, but I nevertheless overstated my case on that point. All that to say, thanks to Ron Sellers for pointing out these nuances of the study. The other points in my post, including the broader argument about hyping bad stats, are still appropriate (as even this commenter recognizes). But on those other two points, my arguments were not careful enough. I’m glad to be corrected.

******

Evangelicals love to believe bad things about themselves. And often what they believe about themselves is not true. That’s the thesis of Bradley Wright’s excellent book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told (Bethany House 2010). It’s an important thesis to keep in mind when considering a new and frequently cited article from Relevant magazine.

In the September/October issue you can find Tyler Charles provocative piece entitled “(Almost) Everyone Is Doing It: A Surprising New Study Shows Christians Are Having Premarital Sex and Abortions As Much (or More) Than Non-Christians.” The article has been referenced in numerous places on the web (and in pulpits no doubt), especially the opening paragraph:

Eighty percent of young unmarried Christians have had sex. Two-thirds have been sexually active in the last year. Even though, according to a recent Gallup Poll, 76 percent of evangelicals believe sex outside of marriage is morally wrong.

The article goes on to suggest a smattering of action steps in light of these findings, everything from being more realistic about sexual promiscuity, to talking more about why Christians should wait, to doing more to value marriage. Many reading the article will find reasons to be alarmist (“Oh no, Christians are just as bad everyone else!”) or smug (“See, Christians are just as bad as everyone else!”). Everyone seems to love stats about bad Christians. Non-Christians like to see that we really are fakes. Christians like to think the sky is falling.

The journalistic approach to such studies is troublesome in itself. When our first instinct is always to play up the “scandal” we not only contribute to the secular impression that Christians are all fakes, we also contribute to our own impression that the Christian life is bound to end in failure. We need to find better ways to motivate toward holiness than utter, shocking shame.

Just as important, we need to examine whether our alarming conclusions can hold up under close scrutiny. We need to ask: are these stats about bad Christians themselves bad stats?

Or to ask the question more clearly: what should we think about the claim that “Christians are having premarital sex and abortions as much (or more) than non-Christians”?

A Closer Look

Let’s dig deeper into the numbers of premarital sex. The Relevant article includes a graphic taken from the “National Survey of Reproductive and Contraceptive Knowledge” which shows that 42% of unmarried evangelicals ages 18-29 are currently in a sexual relationship compared to 52% of everyone else. Ten percent of young, unmarried evangelicals have had sex but not in the past year, while 20% have never had sex. The percentages go down to 6% and 12% respectively when looking at the sexual patterns of all other unmarried 18-29 year-olds.

The National Survey can be found in a report called “The Fog Zone” published by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy. The specific chart cited in the Relevant piece can be found here.

There are several reasons we should be cautious about touting the 80% statistic and even more cautious about revamping our ministries around it.

  • For starters, it’s worth noting that the study was conducted by the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute which has deep and historic ties to Planned Parenthood. There is every incentive, then, for this study to find that almost everyone is having sex and is in need of contraceptives (or abortion rights). Conversely, there is no incentive to present their findings in a way that make evangelicals look good.
  • Moreover, if you look at the “Survey Methodology” in Appendix 1 you will see that the study intentionally over-represented African Americans and Hispanics. In the 2010 census whites made up 63.7% of the U.S. population, blacks 12.2%, and Hispanics 16.3%. Yet, in the study cited by Relevant (and others) whites account for 50% of the sample, blacks 20%, and Hispanics 22%. Given the fact that 24% of white children are in single-parent homes, compared to 67% for African American children and 40% for Hispanic children, the disproportionate sampling in the National Survey likely has the effect of skewing the numbers toward indicating greater promiscuity.
  • We should also take into account the large number of persons who refused to take the survey. According to page 10 of this report over 100,000 phone calls were made to get a sample size of 1800. At least 12-15% of those “missed” surveys were refusals. Could it be that many sexually inactive young singles were uninterested in taking a survey almost entirely about contraceptives?

The Case for Less Credulity

Statistics like the 80% need to be taken with a generous grain of salt. I don’t doubt that fornication is a big problem, bigger than most pastors realize. But when figures like 80% get thrown around we are led to believe (or flat out told) that Christians behave no different than anyone else.

And yet, consider two points.

1. Even using the numbers quoted in Relevant, it’s still the case that the percentage of celibate singles is almost twice as high for evangelicals and for everyone else. But that will not make headlines.

2. The National Survey, like most surveys, simply measures those who self-identify as evangelical. As you can see here, Question 80 of the study asks, “Do you consider yourself to be a born-again Christian, evangelical, or fundamentalist?” Only 476 of the 1800 said yes. Of these 476 unmarried 18-29 year-olds, apparently 80% have had sex before (although only 42% say they are currently in a sexual relationship). But we do not know what sort of “evangelicals” these 476 persons are. The next question in the survey (Q81) asks about frequency in attending religious services. It would be interesting to see the percentages of fornication among weekly churchgoers. Still too high no doubt, but probably much lower. As Bradley Wright argues in his book, there is a strong correlation between church attendance and more faithful sexual behavior across the board (Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites, 138-142). There are lots of nominal Christians in this country whose commitment consists of putting on a religious label for a survey. Looking at what people actually believe and examining their actual engagement with the church is a better mechanism for making claims about the rights and wrongs of Christian behavior.

Here’s the bottom line: don’t believe every stat you read. They are sometimes false and often kind of true, but the real shocking figures are rarely quite as much as meets the eye.

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Comments:


47 thoughts on “Premarital Sex and Our Love Affair with Bad Stats”

  1. Michael says:

    Even if it is 42%, that should be concerning. When in history have we ever seen such a high amount of fornication as we do today? It would be more helpful to discuss why this is occurring in our churches Thant to worry about the exact number. Is is lack of teaching, bad parenting, a dating culture gone wild, locoing the world too much, lower moral standards at public school, etc.?

  2. Paul says:

    I’d be interested to see how this study, as well as the oft-quoted study claiming that 50% of Christian marriages end in divorce, words the question to define someone as Christian. Often people who align themselves as Christians in quantitative studies are choosing that because that’s the prevailing national religious identity. Do they probe to determine who has saving faith in Jesus Christ?

  3. Austin says:

    Great analysis. I rarely believe those types of stats, so it is fun to read someone tear down a study and find all the holes for me. Usually I have to do the digging.

    I don’t really know what use I have with stats like that anyway, even if they were somehow perfectly true. Maybe if I was a pastor or something?

  4. Ted Bigelow says:

    Helpful analysis! Thanks!

    Lots of people self-identify as evangelicals who beleive almost anything under the sun, from Joyce Meyer to Tony Campolo to Eddie Long to Joel Osteen to R.C. Sproul.

    The term has no meaning except what you want to give it. And even then you probably can’t give “evangelical” a definition that even you will be happy with!

  5. Lindele says:

    Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

  6. Mike says:

    I would really like a survey to ask, when did you become a born-again believer and have you had sex outside of marriage since becoming born again? I bet the result would be different if this was asked.

  7. Annie says:

    I totally agree with Mike: When did the participant become a Christian? Furthermore, the notion that being a Christian defines us as no longer human is the recurrent proof that society has to declare Christianity hypocrisy. Over and over again you see people point out the continual sins of the church body as reference that Christianity doesn’t work. But nothing about being saved by the blood of Christ makes me less human in that way. Nothing about being in a church declares us clean. The relationships we have with our savior is what gives us hope and sights to be clean in God’s eyes. We move closer to His love and because of that move further from sin. It isn’t the other way around. And I’m not sure any phone survey could really identify that ultimate relationship with accuracy…

  8. Phil says:

    Those interested further in this phenomenon may be interested in a new work by two Texas sociologists: *Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying* (OUP). In it, Uecker and Regnerus present a detailed account of sexual behaviors among “emerging adults.”

  9. Joe Maniglia says:

    “Conversely, there is no incentive to present their findings in a way that make evangelicals look good.” the incentive is that they’re findings will be found inaccurate.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with this article but I know that when it comes to matters of sex and faith and interviewing youth, we can often get findings of what they think we want to hear. I, myself, have often used the CDC stat that statistically only 50% of teens are having sex. However, we must take into account the percentage of teens that, like Pres. Clinton, do not consider certain activities sex.

  10. Steve says:

    Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best. Great book on the misleading and misrepresenting conclusions drawn and inferred from statistical studies. Came across it in doing research for a masters project

  11. Mja says:

    The other question is, of the 80% who have had sex, were they believers at the time it have they since come to Christ? Especially since only 42% are currently in a sexual relationship.

  12. Emily says:

    I agree with Mike, I think the statistics would be much different if they asked have you had sex since becoming a Christian? Many of my friends have been sexually active, but since Jesus has redeemed them their lives have changed.

    Somethings you really just can’t quantify. And I think life changed caused by the Gospel is one of those!

  13. Gerald Van Iwaarden says:

    Statistics and surveys should be only believed with great caution. As one wag put it, “43% of all statistics are made up on the spot.” If you are a pastor, the best thing to do is love your people by knowing them, teaching them life principles from God’s Word and discipling them with God’s love.

  14. Francisco says:

    Thank you for this information!! I’m so annoyed lately with all the books and articles trying to show how badly the church is behaving. I know we are far from what God would want us to be, but He’s still building His church and refining His people…making a show of all our weaknesses is not always smart. The world doesn’t interpret things the way we think they do or even hope they would.When I hear 80% of evangelicals are having premarital sex, I think, God we need your help! We need guidance, and direction, we need to repent and be more biblical in approach to this matter. The world thinks…”you guys are idiots!”

  15. Wesley says:

    One of the best quotes i’ve heard re: these type of stats is form Piper’s book “Finally Alive”. He writes, regarding similar confessions, “In other words, in this research the term ‘born again’ refers to people who say things … the Barna group then takes them at their word, ascribes to them the infinitely important reality of the new birth, and then slanders that precious biblical reality by saying that regenerate hearts have no more victory over sin than unregenerate hearts.” (Piper, J. “Finally Alive”, p.14)

  16. Great post! I have at least three friends who would call themselves Christians, but don’t live their lives accordingly. I think just asking someone “would you identify yourself as a Christian,” isn’t a very legitimate way of conducting a survey.

  17. Mark says:

    Stats shouldn’t concern us. Are members of your church involved in premarital sex? THAT should concern you. Slandering the church isn’t a new concept, even if using statistics to do it is. Labour in the gospel to show yourself and your own church worthy of the name of Christ.

  18. Luke says:

    Mark Regnerus,a sociologist who wrote the Forbidden Fruit and Premarital Sex in America, is right to point out that church attendance isn’t really the best indicator of sexual integrity. Really, the best indicator, which is much more difficult to measure, is religious salience. In other words, if God and his people genuinely matter to somebody, it has a MASSIVE impact on sexual behaviors, and divorce rates for that matter.

    Jesus does actually change people and can actually create communities that live as though they belong to him. But that is significantly more difficult to measure.

  19. ChrisB says:

    I really wish they’d publish the raw data or the data on sex vs church attendance. The famous 50% Christian divorce rate falls apart when church attendance of just once a month is factored in; I’ll be the pre-marital sex rate does too.

  20. Peter Ong says:

    despite the methodology, I believe that it is safe to say that there is a general anecdotal experience working with youth and young adults, this is rings true that Evangelicals are in the same boat as the mainstream when it comes to premarital sex. I think that one of the core issue is the church being a discipleship focused ministry. This is where we can move towards a shepherding of people towards union with Christ in transparency. To experience the profound gospel driven call to purity.

  21. Sarah Moon says:

    Honestly (and I wouldn’t normally comment on a blog of this nature, but it hurts me to hear this coming from a Christian site)this sounds like blatant racism to me.

    “Given the fact that 24% of white children are in single-parent homes, compared to 67% for African American children and 40% for Hispanic children, the disproportionate sampling in the National Survey likely has the effect of skewing the numbers toward indicating greater promiscuity.”

  22. Sarah Moon says:

    And, dammit, maybe if we stopped arguing about statistics, hoping to save face, and starting being open and honest about our short comings, maybe…just maybe, the world would stop feeling the need to throw us smug looks. Maybe, just maybe they’d feel safe in Christianity. Maybe, just maybe, they’d give our Jesus a chance, knowing that he doesn’t require them to pass a rigorous holiness exam before he welcomes them into his arms. And that he doesn’t abandon us, no matter how many times we wander out of those arms.

    Friends, we aren’t perfect. I’ll tell you a statistic that I know is true: 100% of us mess up. Every single day. And 100% of us are still totally and completely loved by God. So, stop freaking out about statistics and rejoice! :)

  23. Justin F says:

    Another point of view about this book posted in a blog by Richard Beck. Richard Beck is quoted in Wright’s book.

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2011/12/are-christians-hate-filled-hypocrites.html

  24. Dan Edelen says:

    Folks, regardless of what the actual figures are or how they are computed, the fact remains: Our discipleship programs are not returning the desired results. Period.

    Let’s be honest with ourselves. Anecdotal evidence or not, we’ve been in ministry long enough to know that too large a number of our young people, raised in the church or not, are not virgins when they get married. (Newsflash: Our singles group members are having sex too.)

    But what we’re not asking is whether there is something fundamentally wrong about the assumptions we make about the Christian’s response to typical American societal norms and culture. Should we instead encourage our young people to marry younger? Should we buck convention and encourage our young people NOT to go to college (where, face it, our youth group kids yield to temptation more often than not), instead launching our own work apprenticeship programs to help young couples find decent work? How can we do more as a community to help young, married couples succeed? What are we doing wrong and how can we make it right?

    Our entire culture is geared to setting people on fire with lust. Even the apostles acknowledged that this is a tough fight! Better to marry than burn, right? Fighting this battle while wallowing in the standard American socio-cultural responses has failed miserably, yet I see almost no one in the American Church standing up to propose a different way. Truth is, we love our American Way more than we love the Lord, plus we hate to be seen as weirdos for bucking the system. And bucking that system will take a massive mindset overhaul and complete redo of the way we live. Problem is, too few of us are willing to go that route because it is so demanding.

    So we can debate whether the numbers are correct or not OR we can man up and stop lying to ourselves about our failure to work out better solutions, ones that keep the millstones off of the necks of our young people and ask a little more of us who should know better.

  25. TWC says:

    I think that Sarah Moon (above) is on target. I’m not sure if it is more concerning that possibly people who confess to be Christians are as sexually promiscuous than those who don’t make such a confession, or over the apparent belief by Christians that they are less prone to actions that go against God’s will than those who are not.

  26. Laurette says:

    Sarah Moon, Kevin’s comment about the number of white, black and hispanic kids living in single parent homes is far from racist. It’s simply a sad fact that more black and hispanic kids grow up in single-parent homes, and it is because of the broken home factor that Kevin is assuming that such kids may be more likely to behave promiscuously (which is quite reasonable); he is NOT assuming that on the basis of their race per se.

  27. Melody says:

    Laurette, while children from single parent homes may be more likely to behave promiscuously, I think Kevin’s point is actually that if they’re in a single parent home its very likely that their parents (the people taking the survey) behave promiscuously. Of course that’s not the only reason kids end up having only one parent, but it is a big one.

    Other that that, I agree with you. It’s not racist, its a fact, one I’m sure saddens Kevin as it does the church at large.

  28. Ken McIntyre says:

    Thanks for the helpful, excellent analysis and guidance on how to approach such cultural debates. Those interested will find loads of related, reliable findings and charts at FamilyFacts.org, sister site of The Heritage Foundation.

  29. Ron Sellers says:

    Unfortunately, this blog mixes valid criticism of the study with misinformation. I reviewed the study itself, and the complaint that Blacks and Hispanics are over-represented in the study (thereby skewing the findings) is bogus. Those numbers are clearly presented as UNWEIGHTED numbers; the final sample weighted Blacks and Hispanics according to their actual proportions in the national population. Therefore, no skew or bias.

    Also, the complaint that the study is biased because such a small proportion of the 100,000 calls participated shows a fundamental lack of understanding of research. The vast majority of those 100,000 calls reached people who did not qualify for the study because they were not single and/or not of the required age. The response rate was actually quite good. Further, people are not told up front the nature or content of the study, so “sexually inactive Christians” would not refuse to participate based on that knowledge if they don’t have that knowledge.

    It’s unfortunate that this misinformation obscures a highly valid criticism: the definition of “evangelical” used in the study. Grey Matter Research has done substantial studies that people who call themselves evangelical sometimes hold few or none of the beliefs that are often considered part of evangelical orthodoxy. In addition, many people who hold those beliefs don’t use this term to describe themselves. The definition also mixes evangelical, born again, and fundamentalist, which are three entirely different things. And, as Mr. DeYoung rightly points out, the definition used says nothing about actual church attendance or religious participation.

    You all may be interested in a couple of other reports that deal with this critical issue: How the various definitions of “evangelical” impact research findings (http://greymatterresearch.com/index_files/Grey_Matter_Report_Defining_Evangelicals_in_Research.pdf), and How Americans define the term “evangelical” (http://greymatterresearch.com/index_files/Grey_Matter_Report_Americans_Define_Evangelical.pdf).

  30. Michael B. says:

    “The National Survey, like most surveys, simply measures those who self-identify as evangelical”

    The no-true Scotmans fallacy.

  31. jason taylor says:

    Michael, when something hinges directly and obviously on definition it is no longer “No True Scotsman”. The statement “No true Scotsman is bereft of ancestral, territorial, and/or cultural connection to the area between Hadrian’s Wall and the North Atlantic” is true. As is the statement that “No true member of a given religion is totally bereft of conformity to it’s beliefs and practices.”

    For No True Scotsman to be a Fallacy it must refer to claims that are irrelevant to the definition of Scotsman.

  32. Michael B. says:

    This wouldn’t be the first time however somebody reported some unflattering facts about the church. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians comes to mind.

  33. Angie Marie says:

    I agree with Sarah Moon that the author’s comment about Black and Hispanic Americans is offensive in sound, if not intent. As a senior in college (a private, secular, top-20 university) who has a wide and diverse social circle, I can tell you that just as many (if not MORE) of my black friends and fellow students are saving sex for marriage as my white friends/acquaintances. Among white students at campuses across our country, getting drunk and “hooking up” with strangers is increasingly the norm. While certainly many non-white students participate in such activities, frat parties and similar events are primarily attended and hosted by white students. The “hook-up culture” that our media is always mentioning is driven by young, white 18-21-year-olds. This is a phenonemon that I have had verified by fellow students at universities and colleges across the country. I by no means intend to condemn white young adults by my statements (I have many white friends who are committed to living sexually pure lives; besides, we are all sinners saved by grace) but I do feel compelled to point out how distasteful I find the author’s assumption about the lifestyles of black and hispanic young adults. As an unmarried young woman of mixed racial background who fights daily to think purely and make wise choices about how I interact with men(and yes, is a virgin no matter how you define “sex”) I feel that Christians who make flighty assumptions about race do more to cause division in the church than those who rely on potentially false statistics to preach against premarital sex.

  34. Ron Sellers says:

    It is highly unfortunate that pointing out valid, existing statistical differences among races or ethnicities is now considered by some to be racism. The data on some things is quite clear, and pointing them out is not racism.

    For example, according to the United States government Department of Health and Human Services: “Black and Hispanic women have the highest teen pregnancy rates (126 and 127 per 1,000 women aged 15–19, respectively); non-Hispanic whites have the lowest rate (44 per 1,000).”

    One can use these numbers in a racist manner (e.g. to demean Black and Hispanic women). One can claim (rightly or wrongly) that racism is part of what is causing the racial/ethnic gap shown here. One can use these numbers to judge individuals in a racist way (e.g. assuming that because someone is Black or Hispanic that he/she is sexually active). If the author were doing any of these things, a label of “racist” might be appropriate.

    But simply pointing out the statistics and their potential impact on the overall findings if certain groups of people are incorrectly over- or under-represented is simply not racist, nor is it fair to hang that powerful label on the person who pointed out those statistics.

    It might be racist and offensive to claim that Black men are good at basketball or that Asian or White men are not. How it is racist to point out that 76% of NBA players are Black? That’s a provable statistic, just like the statistic cited by the author.

  35. victoria says:

    Umm.. soo are people really saying that there are just more fake black and Hispanic Christians? Cause isn’t the point of the survey is the number of people who claim to be Christian having sex outside of marriage. Well.. this would include Black and Hispanic Christians too? So if the percentage of Christians having sex are screwed high because of these Hispanic and Black Christians… doesn’t that point out a problem in these communities of believers? That there is a large percentage of Hispanic and Black Christians who say they are Christians but live like the world? Cause to be honest.. if they claim to be a Christian, why would their overall racial group fornication even matter? All Christians should live holy lives no matter their racial/ethnicity. Maybe it points out how has a body of Christ we need to reach out to our fellow brother and sister in these community.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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