Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The statistics driven church

I was supposed to be a panellist on the recording of a Christian television show last week Saturday on the subject of Worldviews at War.

SH102851What sparked this show was a letter/article that Dr. Peter Hammond of Africa Christian Action presumably sent to the One Gospel channel (331 on DSTV), which airs The Late Debate.

Unfortunately, I do not know which study's statistics Dr. Hammond refers to in the articles that set the creation of this episode of the show in motion, so I cannot comment on what he specifically refers to. The statistics he mentions state that 75% of university students, that come from Christian homes, are eventually lost to the church in university, and that the liberal, humanistic academia are to blame. You can read these articles here and here.

I have a lot of respect for Dr. Hammond. He has stood up for the truth when it was totally uncool to do so. He has been in dangerous situations for the gospel in countries such as Sudan, while most of us had a good night's sleep. So, this blog post is not aimed at him or his organization, but rather at a broader problem in the church.

Statistics can be a great tool in the hands of the devil. It usually creates fear at the dismal state of the church and the loss of church members all over the world! As if Christ is building a failure!

Recently, I read an article by Kevin DeYoung in which he warns the church against over-hyping statistics.  In DeYoung's article I realized that the original research was done by LifeWay Research, and so I decided to check it for myself. In the LifeWay report on their research, mis-titled "LifeWay Research Uncovers Reasons 18 to 22 Year Olds Drop Out of Church", they make it very clear that 70% "of young adults who attend a Protestant church for at least a year in high school will stop attending church regularly for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22."

You have to admit, this looks very different from the Wall Street Journal article that said that "[y]oung people [poured] out of their churches, never to return." This is demonstrably, simply not true! As the quote from the actual research report shows, those that attended a Protestant church for at least a year (1 year!) during high school, will stop attending church regularly for a year between the ages of 18 and 22. It did not say that these youngsters stopped attending church completely, nor did it say that these youngsters gave up their faith in Christ. Further, the research also shows that of the 70% that stop attending church regularly, about two-thirds return to attending the church at some level.

The really interesting results from this research are the reasons for leaving, at least for a season. Of the reasons given for leaving the church, none blamed liberal or humanistic professors.

The interesting thing about these statistics, is that they equate very closely with research done by my church's university student ministry about 18 months ago at Tukkies (University of Pretoria)! Their statistics were very similar, and many of those that stopped attending church regularly, returned to church after 6-8 months of starting university life in their first year.

So, is there a catastrophic loss of young Christians from the church? I would say, "No." Like DeYoung wrote in his article:

"If 70% were dropping out never to return, we’d see a huge dip in the next demographic. After all, the Lifeway research was conducted with those ages 23-30. So we should see a 70% dip in church attendance and Christian affiliation among older twentysomethings. But we don’t. In fact, Wright shows (what should be common sense) that religious affiliation increases with each bump in the age demographic. Gallup has found the same trend (and, interestingly enough, that church attendance has increased slightly in 2010)."

Jesus said:

"I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Mt 16:18)

Am I to presume that Christ cannot build His church? Are we so driven by numbers and statistics that we lose track of what Jesus said?

"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." (Mt 7:13-14)

If we are driven by the latest statistics, which is driven along by the latest fads, we eventually give the world what it wants, and neglect the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

Statistics cut two ways:

  1. It drives us with fear. We look at how bad things are and then scare the proverbial "hell" out of people.
  2. It drives us away from the gospel. Churches that rely on the latest statistics generally create programs to "reach" people through the methods and fads revealed in the research. The gospel is rarely if ever preached.

In the end, it all depends how much we truly believe in the sovereignty of God. Do we really believe that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation? Or is it the gospel and a program? The gospel and a fad? The gospel and the latest guitar rif? Do we really trust God's Word? Then why don't we preach it and allow God to do the work He promised to do when the gospel is being preached?

Statistics are dangerous, as can be seen by the misreporting of statistics.

Rather, trust God and in the power of the gospel!

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'"(Rom 1:16-17)

"(1)  Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.  (2)  For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.  (3)  For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.  (4)  For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.  (5)  For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.  (6)  But the righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down)  (7)  or "'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  (8)  But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);  (9)  because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  (10)  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  (11)  For the Scripture says, "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame."  (12)  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  (13)  For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."  (14)  How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  (15)  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!"  (16)  But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?"  (17)  So [saving] faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." (Rom 10:1-17)

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