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People of the Numbers: Christian Smith on Evangelicals and Statistics

January 15th, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Christian Smith, who has made a living correcting mistaken notions about the lives of evangelicals, recently reprimanded evangelicals for their inappropriate use of statistics.  Drawing from the extreme and bogus "only 4% of young Christians will remain Christian" stat, Smith laments the reactive and alarmist attitude that evangelicals--and their non-profit ministries--thrive on.

His challenge to use statistics responsibly is certainly appropriate.  Yet he descends into the sort of polarizing, alarmist rhetoric that he so eschews in those he criticizes. 

People simply need to ask themselves things like: Is it really plausible that Christianity will be dead one decade from now because today's young people appear to be less religious? Of course not. Anyone who could think that is clearly so gullible, so ill-informed about what reality is and how it works that they have no business offering, for example, "high level briefings" involving "top voices" about "what must be done to reverse the 4% trend" that doesn't exist. It's an embarrassment, a disgrace. It reflects the lowest of standards of operation and the feeblest of thinking. Non-evangelicals paying any attention to this have every right to ridicule and dismiss such ill-informed nonsense. And evangelical programs that miscalculate reality in such ways—however well meaning and enthusiastic they are—surely undermine their own long-term credibility and effectiveness.

What Smith misses, of course, is that the alarmist claims about the ability of Christianity to perserve to the next generation might actually be true despite their poor statistical footing (as I have argued). Of course, Smith has not stopped to ask either what Christianity is, or what "dead" means (the latter we seem to be asking a lot around here), which seems important for his claim.  Regardless, it is doubtful to me that all of those youth leaders are basing their movements on one dubious statistic:  it is far more likely that they are drawing on hours of experience with young Christians.

Yet I do not intend to defend their use of statistics.  In this, Smith and I are allies (as we are in our despisal of most big budget, programmatic attempts to solve the problem).  Despite the fact that they are dubious (at best), and consequently misleading, statistics also prevent genuine reflections based upon interaction with youth culture.  It is easy to say that only 4% of young people will be Christians in thirty years--it is difficult to say why that is.  Yet the latter is far more important, more rhetorically effective, and far more difficult to attain (and probably not available through statistical analysis).  Throwing statistics around do not reveal an understanding of the problem the statistics reveal--only that there is a problem.  Too much of a dependancy, then, upon statistics will inhibit genuine thought.

Where, then, should I leave this?  Alarmism isn't necessarily bad, if it is justified.  But statistical analysis is not the only means of justification, as Smith seems to presume (it is, albeit, a short article).  Such justification might come from a historical understanding of how cultures move, a historical understanding of American culture, and a familiarity with the ideas popular among young people.  Whether evangelicals have such training, however, is another question.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.