DLGP

Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Maybe the Sky Isn’t Falling

Written by: on October 28, 2021

In a world in which attention-seeking headlines sell, it appears as if scientists and psychologists are not immune from fudging the numbers to make a little dough or rise to the top. Already a natural skeptic, Chivers and Chivers have paved the way for me to second guess many attention-seeking stats. The cousins refer to this as “p-hacking,” stating, “Scientists continually chopping up their data and rerunning their studies until they found statistically significant results, not realizing that by doing so they were rendering their work meaningless.”[1]

And it is not just reading the numbers to garner what might get you published but the misuse of the statistics and the correlation method to make them significant. The authors argue, “As someone trying to make sense of the world, and trying to understand how to navigate the risks and difficulties you face in it—whether there’s a statistically significant link between two things isn’t, of itself, of more than intellectual interest.”[2] 

Therefore, we, the consumers of statistical analysis, need to be more vigilant in reading information at face value. Instead of merely accepting the bold statistical overview of a study, we would be wise in examining the context, the source, and the broader reporting. 

There is a myriad of ways that statistical analysis affects congregational organizations, leaders, and members. Recognizing that “sexy” sells too in the religious world helps us take a closer and more honest examination of the information floating out, especially from denominational offices and the leading voice of church-centric data. 

Take, for example, Barna Group. For nearly four decades, the evangelical polling organization has provided data to denominations, clergy, and lay leaders alike. For many, they are a trusted voice on what people are honestly saying, what they genuinely believe, and the trends we ought to consider. 

           Based on the polling organization’s reporting, I recently picked up a copy of Barna’s “Reviving Evangelism” after an attention-grabbing article in Christianity Today about a drastic shift away from people sharing their faith. Right out of the gate, the Barna Group reports that one of their significant findings is of “Evangelism Erosion: The forces of cultural and religious change are eroding the landscape of evangelism,” while at the same time admitting that Christians’ perception of the landscape and themselves are often hazy and wide of the mark. [3]

           As you dig deeper into their data, you begin to discover that people are reporting themselves to be highly spiritual or seeking more profound spiritual significance. Still, they do not identify as churchgoers, more specifically, church-going Evangelicals. So, are people “Lapsed Christians” to borrow Barna’s language, or are they post-Evangelical? And if they are post-Evangelical, does that not also mean that their understanding of evangelism does not fit into the paradigm of a traditional Evangelical institution? 

           As a faith leader who hears nothing but the equivalent of the sky falling (mainline denominations are dying, thousands of churches are closing, etc.), I am beginning to pause to reconsider the facts and source of the facts. Yes, many denominations are purging members faster than they can replace them. Yes, many churches are closing their doors each year. But, at the same time, do traditional denominational polling metrics consider the voice and growth of non-traditional or non-denominational church starts? As a former church starter who always threw the annual reporting forms in the trash, I know that the church’s voice was never added to the statistical equation. 

           Yes, something is happening to the faith tradition we have inherited. Is it scary? Absolutely. Do I want to attempt to predict what is next? Nope. 

           However, I still believe that God is God, and this is Jesus’ church. Something beautiful, new, and transformative is just around the corner if we have the faith to follow the Spirit’s leadership. 

 

  [1] Chivers, Tom, and David Chivers. How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them). (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021), pg 41-42. 

 [2] Ibid, pg 45. 

[3] Springer, Craig, ed. Reviving Evangelism: Current Realities That Demand a New Vision for Sharing Faith. A Barna Report. (Ventura: Barna Group, 2019), pg 18. 

 

About the Author

mm

Andy Hale

CBF Podcast Creator and Host, Senior Pastor of University Baptist Church (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), & Professional Coach

7 responses to “Maybe the Sky Isn’t Falling”

  1. mm Eric Basye says:

    Excellent post. First, I couldn’t agree with this more:
    “Therefore, we, the consumers of statistical analysis, need to be more vigilant in reading information at face value. Instead of merely accepting the bold statistical overview of a study, we would be wise in examining the context, the source, and the broader reporting. ”

    Two, fascinating thoughts regarding Barna and the church. This would be a great conversation to have with you (not via email, however; sorry!). I have some similar thoughts, especially as we think about the church in England and Europe (sorry Jason!). Have you ever read JC Ryle? Not sure what you think about him, but one of the many things I enjoy about him is the way in which he address the church in Practical Religion (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/38162). While some may say that the church did die in Europe, I would argue that the true church will never die. Did the format of “religion” change? For sure, but maybe that was for the best. I believe that we are undergoing some similar realities now in the the US.

  2. Andy, I like how you’re thinking about the metrics churches use which create a narrative of “sky fallage”. Metaphorically, it’s as though evangelicalism is tracking the number of apples that have fall from the apple tree rather than how many apples have been eaten, made into apple sauce or nourished the earth, bees which pollinated the surrounding vegetation. As long as we thinking apples are for the tree, then it will look like the tree is in decline.

  3. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Working with the rising generation of 18-24 year-olds, it has been fascinating to watch in the last decade the erosion of theological and denominational understanding. On our application, it asks students their denomination and often students have no clue what that word even means that they fill it in with ‘Christian.’ The university I’m connected to is denomination-connected and it has been such an interesting time to observe the generational distinctions in the importance of a denomination. While that doesn’t bother me much as a non-denominational follower of Jesus, it does concern me the lack of foundational biblical knowledge students have when entering college. Perhaps there’s been a greater emphasis on growing a church and not in making disciples? Interested on your thoughts on that as you sit in an entirely different seat than I.

    • mm Andy Hale says:

      Kayli,

      Oh, I totally agree. Unfortunately, the elevation of celebrity pastors and the growth of their church does not translate into disciples being made and actual spiritual development.

      Of course, my thoughts on these matters could be a semester-long paper unto itself.

  4. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Andy, I cannot agree with more about the narrative around the Evangelical church in this day. All we hear is doom and gloom. Recently, our staff read through Tod Bolsinger’s “Canoeing the Mountains” and his call was for leaders to rephrase the questions that signal an end to the future of the church. He proposed a question that asks, “Is a Christendom form of the church dying and post-Christendom church rising?” We lead at an uncertain transition time in the history of the church in America, but as you said so well, “God is God, and this is Jesus’ church.” I wonder what it is about human nature that loves to grasp onto the negative over the positive? Maybe it’s just about the struggle to change, which is always hard for all.

    • mm Andy Hale says:

      Roy,

      I love that book. I had the privilege of interviewing Bolsinger about that book, along with his new book “Tempered Resilience.”

      If you enjoyed “Canoeing the Mountain,” I’d suggest adding “The Infinite Game.”

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Andy, it is clear your post has inspired others to ponder. I, like Eric, appreciate the quote you shared from the book. I think it is easier to pluck statistics out as the “gospel” than to put effort into sifting through research, observations, prayer, and discernment. Admittedly I probably go to the other extreme…I look at statistics with great skepticism. Every time the senior pastor at the previous church I served shared statistics in his sermon, I would roll my eyes.
    Does this book give you pause in how much weight you put on the “sexy” knowledge that comes from “sexy” authors?

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