One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read lately is Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media, by Bradley R. E. Wright. Wright is a sociologist — and one of the rare sociologists who understands statistics reasonably well. (I have a son studying to be an engineer. The engineering professors mock the statistical ignorance of the sociology professors!)
Now, I guess I’m a little odd in that I enjoy books about and filled with statistics. But I do. And in this case, I think most readers will agree, because Wright does an excellent job of avoiding the jargon and equations, resulting in a very accessible, understandable book.
In his first chapter, Wright asks why there’s so much bad news about Christians in the press. Part of the reason is the many bad statistics put out by Christians to further an agenda. He gives as an example a statistic published by George Barna. In 2002, Barna conducted a survey and found that while “born again Christians” had a good image, “evangelicals” had a very poor image.
One reason why evangelical churches across the nation are not growing is due to the image that non-Christian adults have of evangelical individuals. In a nationwide survey released by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California among a representative sample of people who do not consider themselves to be Christian, the image of “evangelicals” rated tenth out of eleven groups evaluated, beating out only prostitutes. The non-Christian population was not as dismissive of all Christians or religious people, however, as ministers and “born again Christians” were among the three highest-rated segments evaluated.
The secular media picked this up and gladly trumpeted the fact that evangelicals have an image nearly as bad as prostitutes. But Wright concludes that the results are bogus.
* Wright notes that respondents were twice as likely to respond “don’t know” to the question about evangelicals vs. born-again Christians. It’s quite likely that secular respondents were unfamiliar with the term, as Barna asked about “evangelicals” not “evangelical Christians.” Born-again Christian were third-highest in the group. How many among us can cogently define the difference? Is there a difference? Lots of people use the terms interchangeably.
The first time I heard “evangelical” as a category of Christians — well after graduated from college — I thought the term meant “evangelistic.” And Wright suspects many respondents may have thought they were being asked about people who knock on their door and stick tracts in their faces.
* Barna treated the “don’t know” respondents the same as those with negative impressions. He compared evangelicals to prostitutes based solely on the raw number of favorable responses, ignoring the fact that nearly everyone has an opinion on prostitution and far fewer had an opinion on evangelicals. If you back out the “don’t know” responses, evangelicals jump to the middle of pack — far from next to last.
* Once you back out the “don’t know” responses, most responses cluster very tightly around 23% to 25% favorable. They’re too close to each other to rank because of the uncertainty inherent in such a small sample.
Wright found that web sites that reported the statistics frequently subtly distorted the results to make this look even worse — and this was often at the hands of Christian web sites!
Wright offers this example because it illustrates several problems —
* Much of the negative “news” about Christians comes from the Christian community — often due to poor methods or simply a desire to pursue an agenda. If a pastor or preacher wants the church to do better, maybe he needs to announce a statistic about how terrible things are!
* The blogosphere, even the Christian blogosphere, is capable of distorting the message — to gain shock value, to pursue an agenda, or just due to sloppy work.
* The secular press will always pursue the “man bites dog” story first. So the corrupt pastor, the promiscuous priest, etc. will always be reported long before the many good and noble works of the church…
Wright is concerned, as we all should be, that all this negative publicity is bad for the church and bad for Christianity. It surely hurts evangelistic work, and it surely takes away some of the motivation of members to volunteer and donate. And yet much of the bad “news” is from the church itself. We are a self-destructive people.
There is no shortage of irony here. Christian teachers and leaders might focus on the failures of the church to motivate their members to do better; but in taking a negative approach, they might actually hinder the success of the church. These well-intentioned might do more harm than good. Just imagine if we used this kind of fear appeal in our everyday lives. Let’s say that you didn’t like your wife’s cooking. You could say, “Honey, tonight you served us jarringly inedible tofu again, and if this continues, we will cease to function as a family unit. However, I have truly good news, for I have prepared a series of menus centered on steak and pork chops. …
Well, that family unit will be in trouble from the husband’s tactics long before it falls apart from the tofu. People quickly tire of such tactics and either leave or tune them out.