Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Are Christians Really….? 1

posted by Scot McKnight

BREWright.jpgAs I mentioned Monday afternoon, I’ve got a new book sitting here that will be a dynamic book to read and blog about. It’s one of the most encouraging and myth-busting books of the last two decades. The book is by Bradley R.E. Wright, and he’s a professor at the University of Connecticut where he teaches sociology. 

Wright’s book is called: Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media
Here’s a big insight from Wright, and it speaks to me about something I know I’ve made a mistake or two about: when you talk about real trends in the Church, make sure your facts are accurate. It is too easy to repeat rumors and apocalyptic warnings, like “the youth are vacating the church so fast if we don’t do something today we may not even have a church tomorrow.”
What is one observation about the Christian church that was being made routinely that has been proven wrong? What is something you hear often that needs to be examined? (Like Christian Smith’s recent book that showed that while 20somethings are the least likely to attend church, their numbers are no different, and perhaps slightly better, than previous generations. So, the apocalyptic warning is not so accurate.)
Wright’s book is about erroneous claims made on the basis of bad or insufficient data. So, in chp one he examines why we hear so much bad news about Christianity. Is the media biased? (How do you answer that question? Got some evidence? Does the evidence square with what the media do?)


Not long ago, as a result of a Barna claim, it was said that in the public’s opinion the only thing worse than being an evangelical was being a prostitute. He chases this down to show that the numbers are probably otherwise (there’s a major glitch here in that so many responded “don’t know” and that might mean they don’t know what an “evangelical” is and this skews the data etc). Anyway, Brad Wright’s using this as an illustration and the illustration needs to stick: be careful with what we claim. That stat was used and circulated it just got worse and worse.

Where do we get our stats? Wright uses the major empirical studies and he’s a professional sociologist and he uses numbers rigorously and his work is checked by peers. Not all numbers meet such levels of scrutiny. Some of us use stats because they help our case.
Newsworthy stuff is stuff that is out of the norm, so negative stuff about the church will show up in the newspaper. We keep repeating them and things get worse and we actually hurt the church by repeating some of this bad information.
His work is comparative: Christians are compared to others. Some measure Christians against perfection; others against their own standard. So, Wright’s stuff will be useful to say things that comparative.
Next post: Is American Christianity on the brink of extinction?


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JM

posted July 1, 2010 at 7:05 am


I think the pro-abortion media is very anti-Christian and incredibly anti-Catholic. I haven’t made a list of the evidence because it would take me forever and I do have other things going on, but just take a look a the language used in reporting stories on Pope Benedict. Look at the way he is photographed. It’s always very negative. The mainstream, pro-abortion media, is very anti-Christian and it’s scary how their agendas are being fostered and promoted.



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Jason Lee

posted July 1, 2010 at 8:16 am


I don’t remember that evangelical/prostitute comparison thing the Barna people… but that’s incredible…incredibly unacceptable. Barna and team (should) totally know that when you have large number of “don’t know” responses or skips on a survey question that you often have to throw that question out and not use it, or at least make a big deal about the “don’t know” respondents and analyze them to death to try to figure out if there’s a pattern for these people. This is stats 101! College students learn this in intro to stats class. What kind of doubt does this cast on the rest of Barna’s “shocking statistics” that pastors and other Christians love to circulate and cite? Hopefully this book will be circulated among Christians as an accessible tutorial on how to watch out for badly collected and analyzed survey data.
I’ll be interested in the other posts that come from this book.



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Jayflm

posted July 1, 2010 at 9:36 am


I read Barna’s early stuff, and quickly grew tired of all the negativity. Social statistics class in college taught me a lot about the ability to manipulate data by the questions asked, and that caused me to approach Barna (and Thom Rainer later) with a great deal of skepticism.



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SDJones

posted July 1, 2010 at 9:45 am


I also read some of Barna’s earlier things and found it abhorrent the complete absence of indexes in the back showing how the questions were asked, data breakdowns and analysis of compiled data. Worse, the information was also unavailable on the website. Since that time, I have always taken a Barna statement with a large grain of salt and some aspirin. It bears remembering that historically, the Christian church and especially the Christian church in America has been at low points before. In early America, up until the late 1700s and into the 1830s only 20-30% of the population attended church.
Thank you, Scot, for highlighting this book. I am ordering it right now.
Peace!



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Rick

posted July 1, 2010 at 9:58 am


What is interesting so far in this discussion is that, with the exception of JM #1, the criticism has been directed at another Christian(s).
I am not saying the criticism is not justified, but I wonder if much of our PR problem is self-inflicted. Do we pile-on too much? Barna may need to fix some things- ok, got it. But is Barna the only guilty party in this regard?
Or are we, just as much as the media, responsible for “why we hear so much bad news about Christianity?
Just wondering.



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Kenny Johnson

posted July 1, 2010 at 10:24 am


I think a lot of the bad reputation that Evangelicals have is from the “spokepeople” of Evangelicalism. Which, like it or not, according to the media is/was Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, etc. And often times these Christian brothers had foot in mouth disease. :)
I can’t speak for all media, but most of the news I consume (NPR) does not strike me as anti-Christian. And it seems that since the 2000/2004 election when Evangelicals were supposedly the “values voters” not much has been said, except when a prominent Evangelical falls (Haggard, etc.)



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AHH

posted July 1, 2010 at 10:26 am


What is one observation about the Christian church that was being made routinely that has been proven wrong? What is something you hear often that needs to be examined?
There’s a stat that gets thrown around that says something to the effect that (I’m probably not remembering the numbers exactly) with current trends 95% of youth will be unchurched 20 years from now. I think it has been debunked a few places, but it often gets cited (including in my own church) when somebody is trying to increase the priority of youth ministry.
Is that one of the myths Wright covers?



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Julie Clawson

posted July 1, 2010 at 10:32 am


From my experience it is Christians who feed this stuff in order to keep up the victim mentality. When the culture war is based on the idea that they are under attack, there has to be a steady stream of stats that they can quote to drive fear into congregations.
I’ve participated in some of these stat gathering exercises. It is general obvious from the questions that the conclusion has already been determined. One recent one an author was doing on Facebook on happiness was so slanted that I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it. And often if one doesn’t hold to very very strict ideas of what it means to be evangelical or reformed then one’s answers get skewed. It’s like that Barna study a few years back that reported that some ungodly high amount of Christians don’t believe in the Bible. But from the way the questions were asks most Christians with half a brain couldn’t answer his questions with a 100% yes, and so therefore were classified as not believing the Bible. That one study caused me to lose all trust in such studies.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 1, 2010 at 10:38 am


AHH, yes, Wright gets after that one.
And, Rick, I tried to make it clear that I was using one illustration, and it was from Barna that Wright examines and scrutinizes. Barna gets critique; I know some folks there and they are good workers and intelligent researchers, so I suspect some of the criticism will melt over time. But, having said that, the refusal to put out its data and questions makes suspicion higher.



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Kenny Johnson

posted July 1, 2010 at 10:45 am


@Julie
Good call on the victim mentality. I even remember once arguing with a friend about how the ACLU does actually represent Christians on many occasions. I won’t defend whether their representation is ever lop-sided, but I argued that the ACLU is really more a strong proponent of the separation of church and state, not anti-Christian. He didn’t believe me, so I sent him several articles where the ACLU defended Christian’s rights to religious expression. He had believed this never happened, and I was able to with a quick search give him dozens of examples.
I think his position was formed from this victim mentality. Not just from this case, but many of the things he would say to me. Very much a “they’re coming for us” frame of mind. I could never figure out who “they” were though.. I even asked him. :P



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Naum

posted July 1, 2010 at 11:28 am


@Scot (#9)
What is stated about youth and the church? Is Barna completely off the reservation? Or is it more nuanced than that? Or is this fodder for another day’s post?
Also, I think the distinction (#6) between “leaders” (or at least the leaders frequently identified in popular media and/or those with flourishing flocks of followers) is an important note. Dobson and the legions of TV shouting fundamentalists, for many (including many Christians) cast a negative image of Christians, one not in alignment with the typical Christian today.
Numbers can fluctuate wildly depending how question is worded, how the issue is framed, etc.? ?simply impossible to declare an objective pronouncement, but I think we’re all interested in looking at the numbers.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 1, 2010 at 11:37 am


Naum, I can’t say I know what Barna says about the youth. That “quoted” remark is a typical statement that we have been hearing for a decade or so. Yes, this theme will be addressed by Wright.



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Kristen

posted July 1, 2010 at 11:49 am


When did “Christian” and “evangelical” become so intertwined in the popular mindset.
When I was a kid (in a churchgoing home but not an evangelical one) I was reared to have all sorts of fear and suspicion towards evangelicals — but had no baggage whatsoever with “Christian” and I didn’t realize that anyone else did. (The televangelist scandals of the mid-80s were during my late elementary and junior high years. It never occurred to me that these would be considered anything other than fringe nutcases, and the thought that anyone would connect this with “nice normal Christians” would have been utterly foreign to me.)
Now, my perceptions were overwhelmingly shaped by my family, my church, my school — I was a child that’s the way it works. And when I was in high school or so and becoming more aware that evangelicals existed I would have estimated that the mainline/evangelical split was sort of 95% to 5%. Once you get south of the Mason Dixon line maybe it might be more like 10%. That was never anywhere close to accurate. So a big factor of what’s going on is simply a correction of my childhood misperceptions — but I wonder if that’s all of it. Partially my perceptions were warped, but also it seems as if the world has changed to some extent too.
I was in my late 20s before I realized that many other people — both evangelical Christians and nonreligious types — routinely meant “evangelical” when they said “Christian.” What I’m curious about is when did this become common parlance?



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The Upshot Is . . .

posted July 1, 2010 at 12:12 pm


this book is next to useless. I can’t see how it would be of any value in evangelism or even discussing with believers or nonbelievers whether the general public has a correct perception of evangelicals and/or Christians. Christians can’t agree on definitions about these terms. People, Christians and non-Cs, can’t agree about statistical analyses.
About the only help this may provide is to people who feel the need to “defend” Christians and Christianity with statistics–which is a pretty pathetic defense. Who cares if nonChristians don’t like Christians, are biased against Christians, etc.? Jesus makes clear that Christians would be persecuted (although bias and dislike are nothing close to persecution). This just seems silly. If people follow the Lord of heaven and earth who loves them and gave himself for them, why whine about being misunderstood?



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Jason Lee

posted July 1, 2010 at 12:14 pm


About Barna #1…
I’m sure the people who work there are nice, intelligent, and mean well. But they have to produce regular findings. They can’t live on thin air. They have to sell things and make a living. The people who use their stuff don’t want to hear “guess what, trends are usually very gradual and differences are rarely dramatic…” No, the consumers of Barna stats want shock and awe statistics that they can use to jolt people. Many pastors want people to feel embattled and mobilized. It may be that the employees of Barna are good people, but their business model may also force them to be shocking and to use survey questions that generate extreme results, and present data in a way that produces regular shock-stats. Isn’t this still a problem? How does “they’re good Christian people” change this problem?



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Jason Lee

posted July 1, 2010 at 12:16 pm


About Barna #2…
You can probably see this pressure to produce shock-stats on demand to some degree in other popular surveys that come out frequently (eg, Pew, CNN). These groups have to produce for the masses who want sexy stats, and so they collect shoddy samples and don’t do things like tell you about “don’t knows,” missing cases, or response rate problems. Their business model can’t afford non-findings. But this doesn’t excuse Barna et al. They should include footnotes or web appendices and come clean on question wording, excluded cases, and response rates. If they really want to be good transparent researchers they should also include a brief layperson’s guide to understanding why things like response rates are so problematic and may actually invalidate their results. Again, this is stats 101. Barna knows better …. so how does giving them a “pass” help anyone or serve anyone except the Barna group?



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Jason Lee

posted July 1, 2010 at 12:26 pm


#14:
Christians and non-Christians agree on a great many statistical methods. Look at an intro to stats book. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have a lot of modern medicine! It only seems like there’s no agreement if you see the well-trained and careful (Wright) call out someone who gets away with a lot of reports and books that people think are accurate (Barna et al).
Myth-busting is important because the public lives by myths. And many people shape their thinking based on stats. Governments shape their policies based on stats. If there’s no push-back then one side of the myth-shapers will run wild with portraying Christianity as contemporary nazi-ism or some such. I’m around people who almost seem to believe that…intelligent people. But intelligent people still live by myths.



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Robin

posted July 1, 2010 at 12:27 pm


A general question – how long have you heard the term evangelical in popular usage, or how long have you used it yourself. I honestly don’t recall hearing it until about a decade ago, and didn’t hear it in popular usage until about 5 years ago. Was it really a widespread term that was generally understood by most Christians or Americans prior to the George Bush elections (when it was used by the MSM to describe the Bush voting bloc)?



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The Upshot Is . . .

posted July 1, 2010 at 2:01 pm


#17: People may well live by myths but the problem is not solved by more statistical analysis. If you’re not a statistician, you’re not going to know how to weigh Barna v. Wright. Or you’ll privilege one over the other based on prior commitments. You’re willingness to suggest that Barna folks lack integrity by manipulating the questions and/or data for the sake of shock suggests as much.
A guy writing a book to say that Christians really don’t behave like X, Y or Z, is not going to change anyone’s perception about Christians. A person’s myths are busted when they run into a real live Christian who doesn’t fit the myth. Then they have real work to do. Til then, all they’ve got is a Christian saying “We’re better than you think! The evil MSM hate us!” That’s compelling!
I suspect people will continue to have misconceptions about Christians so long as the Christians they know continue to behave like they weren’t Christians. Once they meet someone who isn’t a hate-filled hypocrite, then things might change.



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Jason Lee

posted July 1, 2010 at 2:27 pm


#19:
It doesn’t take any special training to know what when a big part of your apple is made up of people who said “don’t know” to a question, this will affect the size of the other slices of the apple.
The myths that influence people’s perceptions may include stats that they saw somewhere. I remember asking a guy in the reserves why he was going to fight in Iraq. As part of his rationale, he mentioned stats about how many civilians Hussein had had killed. His stats were wrong as far as I knew, but that didn’t change the fact that it was part of the bundle of things that made up his soldier-motivating myth. Had he encountered contradictory stats, his myth may have been compromised to some degree.



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Anthony Buzzard

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:46 am


If we are to take Jesus’ creed seriously why do we not all immediately affirm and recite his own creed in Mark 12:29ff. The God to be loved is certainly not the Triune God of the churches but the One God of Jesus and Judaism. The unitary monotheistic creed of Jesus seems not to be the creed of those claiming to follow him. What has happened that we have shifted our base from the declared creedal base given us by Jesus?



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