In the latest Books & Culture, Christian Smith (professor of Sociology at Notre Dame) contributes an oustanding article, "Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics." Dr. Smith documents then laments the generally pathetic manner of evangelicals and statistics. His example is an advertisement for a ministry conference heralded by these words: "Wake Up Call - Christianity Won't Survive Another Decade Unless We Do Something Now." What proof could be marshalled to support such an appalling view of the future? "...current trends show that only 4 percent [of teens] will be evangelical believers by the time they become adults. Compare this with 34 percent of adults today who are evangelicals." Of course, Dr. Smith did some digging and found that this "statistic" came from a book on youth ministry wherein the author recounts an informal survey of 211 teenagers in 4 states, finding that only 4% of them were, at that time, born-again believers. Smith believes, and I concur, that this is one example among many of "Evangelical leaders and organizations routinely [using] 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."
He then goes on to dig a little deeper - the band-aid prescription is for the leaders of the church to simply be wise about how statistics should be gathered and use. But the deeper prescription has to address the deeper problem - why is this a trend in the evangelical church? "Evangelicals, by my observation, thrive on fear of impending catastrophe, accelerating decay, apocalyptic crises that demand immediate action (and maybe money)." I have, in past conversations, labeled this tendency as "fear-mongering"; peddling platitudes and statistics designed to scare someone into committing themselves to extra-Biblical doctrines and commands. Keep your eye open for it and you'll see it in many different ministries from many different corners of the church.
Ironically, just today I read that good-for-a-laugh Pat Robertson has made his yearly prediction, that God has told him of mass killings in America in 2007, perhaps even nuclear attacks. Putting aside, if we are able, the theological problems and sheer silliness of Robertson and his club, what's the point of his prediction? Isn't it to scare people into (1) greater Christian service [the best option] or (2) giving more money to the 700 Club so they can get the word out [the more probable reason]?
This isn't a problem only among the theologically wayward like Robertson. Fear-mongering and alarmism can be heard from many parachurch ministries and many churches themselves. Every time a Christian leader prophesies and proclaims that this is the doomsday, this is the worst generation ever, we are facing a moral decline unlike any in the history of Western civilization, etc., we need to name those platitudes for what they are: rubbish. Is our country in a sorry state? Yep. Is it the worst country ever? Nope. More importantly, are we, the children of God, to be operating from the assumption of pessimism and fear of the world or from the foundation of optimism and confidence in Christ our King? When we make decisions based on fear of anything/anyone but God, we are foolish and have our head in the sand, Biblically speaking - whether that decision is about what ministries to support or how and where to educate our children, fear-based decisions aren't Christian decisions. Not that we don't take into account possible downsides of certain decisions, but that our decisions must ultimately be motivated by confidence in the promises of God, not fear of what man can and is doing.
May God grant for His church to begin operating on confidence and certainty in the kingdom of Christ and her King. May we be alarmed at what is truly alarming: the prospect of eternal punishment for those who refuse to bow their knee to the King. Beyond that, let's meditate and act upon God's promises and not oft-repeated predictions of doom. Serve in the church, not because the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but because Christ promised to make all things new and we get to take part.
My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"