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Andy Rowell

Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites

Or are they? A sociologist investigates.

The apostle Paul had heard a report about the Corinthians: "I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it" (1 Cor. 11:18). In Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You've Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media, Bradley Wright encourages a similar mindset as he gives an overview of statistics about Christianity in the United States: Listen, but keep your healthy skepticism about what you hear.

Wright is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. Eminent sociologists Rodney Stark and Christian Smith wrote positive blurbs about the book, as did New Testament scholar Scot McKnight. Baptist church leadership Ed Stetzer wrote the appreciative foreword. McKnight and John Ortberg have blogged about the book. Wright himself blogs at http://brewright.blogspot.com/

Wright points out the many reasons statistics can get garbled and exaggerated. (You may remember him as the sociologist who attends a Willow Creek Association Church but who pointed out graciously and devastatingly that Willow Creek's Reveal study does not reveal much.) In Christians Are … , Wright is generally gentle in his criticisms, and his humor is winsome. His tone is well-adapted to an informal college classroom, and he writes from a Christian perspective, so his book would be ideal for pastors, lay people, and students at Christian universities and seminaries.

Christians Are … is particularly valuable because it shows how contemporary books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs routinely perpetuate myths about Christians in general and evangelicals in particular. Wright looks at whether the church in the United States is growing; whether Christians are maintaining Christian beliefs, church attendance, and moral behaviors; and how Christians are perceived by outsiders. He places statistics in perspective. Are Christians faring better than non-Christians? Are evangelicals faring better than non-evangelicals? Does more frequent church attendance improve results? And are things getting better or worse? The news is mixed—not what Christians would hope it would be, but usually better than the comparison group.

There are four main themes implicit throughout the book worth drawing out. First, statistics about American Christianity can be salutary for Christians as they seek to be faithful to God. Wright doesn't simply dismiss the cynic who tends to scorn social statistics because they are often so flawed that they produce more confusion than insight. But his book also shows that ignoring sociological research altogether leads to ignorance and its unintended negative consequences. Without sociological research, people only observe a small slice of American religion and can only speculate on whether their experiences are representative of the whole. Writers, professors, and pastors inveigh against problems which they think are widespread but which were really just a big deal in the church they grew up in. They end up ignoring other serious tragedies because of their stubborn myopia.

In a sense, to be reflexively dismissive of sociological research is to be like the priest and Levite who passed by on the other side of the road where a man lay bleeding (Luke 10:31-32). The priest and Levite think, "I already know what is important." Whereas to be a neighbor means to be open to being surprised about what is going on and to render help. Wright's introduction to the data allows the reader to see how severe and widespread certain issues are. For example, Wright reports that Christians in general, and evangelicals in particular, fared quite well by almost every standard he looked at. But then, Wright says, "I got to the research about Christians' attitudes toward minorities, and I was utterly dismayed." The issue of race deserves continued attention, says Wright. Reading this book can be like walking to the side of the road--only by taking a closer look can Christians direct their efforts of compassion and justice.

Second, there is a chronic and destructive carelessness in the way many people use statistics. Too often, Christian and non-Christian pollsters, speakers, authors, and journalists downplay contradictory data, hype shaky conclusions, pass on rumors, show disdain for methodological rigor, prognosticate outlandishly, and bully those slow to believe them. Wright catches a number of Christians exaggerating, swept away by enthusiasm as they seek to drum up support for their causes. "Churches will be empty in a generation so … everyone needs to join my organization." (See also Christian Smith's Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics in the January/February 2007 of Books & Culture.) Surely the biblical admonitions directed at those who stressed "myths and endless genealogies" applies here, "Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God's work … they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm" (1 Tim. 1:4, 7). In contrast, the discipline of sociology at its best prizes healthy debate, attention to detail, and explicit admission of limitations.

Still, Wright encourages Christians to approach social statistics with judicious skepticism: "Just use your common sense," Wright advises. "If a statistic doesn't seem right or doesn't fit with your experience, there's nothing wrong with rejecting it …. [Y]ou have both the ability and the need to critically evaluate statistics." His account of his own discipline is undefensive and down-to-earth: "We have a lot of reasons to be suspicious of social statistics. For one thing, social researchers vary in their ability, and just because someone has a PhD doesn't mean they have done the analyses correctly …. Also, researchers, like all people, have their own biases and preconceptions and these show up in their research …. Finally, we should be suspicious of social statistics because they tend to mutate when they are passed along." Christians, especially those who teach and write and speak, must be careful to "know what they are talking about" when they pass on statistics.

Third, for Christians, statistics are descriptive, not prescriptive. While helpful in the decision-making process, statistics do not tell Christians what they should do. The church deliberating under the Scriptures tells us what to do. A statistic which seems to indicate that a Christian response is inadvisable does not mean a Christian should jettison it. As Karl Barth defiantly said in 1933 after Hitler's party had been elected into power in Germany, "The decisive things which I seek to bring to these problems today is to carry on theology, and only theology, now as previously, and as if nothing had happened." In other words, in the tumult of seemingly discouraging events, Christians need not be dissuaded from doing what they know to be right. In Numbers 13-14, ten spies reported that the people in the land were so strong that the people of Israel seemed like grasshoppers. Joshua and Caleb saw the same data but insisted the interpretation by the spies was flawed. The minority faith-full report was vindicated.

Fourth, there is a modest apologetic aspect to Wright's book. Wright does not try to persuade people to convert to Christianity. He does not gloss over the many shortcomings he finds in the way Christians think and act. But he does not hesitate to debunk the myths—David Bentley Hart would say delusions— proffered by critics of Christianity. Is it true that "everyone knows" Christianity is dying? Are Christian claims widely discredited? On the contrary, Wright's findings suggest Christians in the United States need not panic or overhaul everything they are doing. He cheekily includes this summary judgment in the conclusion. "You know, I'm kind of enjoying this oversimplification, so let's take it a step further. That's right, after about a year of reading the scholarly literature and analyzing scores of data sets, I am distilling my evaluation of Evangelical Christianity to a single grade. I give American Evangelical Christianity a B." The reports of Christianity's demise continue to be regularly exaggerated, as Books & Culture readers will be well aware (cf. John G. Stackhouse, Jr.: What Scandal? Whose Conscience? July/August 2007. Jon A. Shields: A Scandal of the Secular Conscience? January/February 2008. Andy Crouch: Transmission Routes: World Christianity and American churches. January/February 2010). What stands in the way of fruitful Christian life? Not massive problems that defy all efforts by Christians, but rather unsurprising obstacles (like institutional bureaucracy and people's penchant for sin), perennial problems that individual Christians and churches empowered by the Holy Spirit continue to faithfully address.

Wright wants to help Christians think more sanely about the state of American Christianity. But his modest aim and casual tone belie the gift that he gives the church: an even-handed presentation of the conclusions of the discipline of sociology with a frank admission of its limitations. The reader will be wiser for having read this book.

Andy Rowell is a fourth-year Doctor of Theology (ThD) student in Church, Ministry, Missiology, and Evangelism at Duke Divinity School. He has studied the social organization of American religion with Mark Chaves, and has written about church attendance, church growth data, and the use of statistics by pastors at Leadership Journal's Out of Ur blog and the Sociology category of his blog Church Leadership Conversations (www.andyrowell.net).

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