The fallacy of survey-driven theology

unchristianbook.jpgIs the American church judgmental, hypocritical, and too political? That’s what most young non-Christians think.

What should your church do about it?

Local blogger Charles Langley asked me to read his post on the book “unChristian” and let him know what I think. I’m grateful he asked. I recommend you go there and read his post yourself, and come back.

The point of the book is that young non-Christians have a low view of Christians, and the church should recognize this view and endeavor to address it. From Charles’ blog:

Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative. Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%) — representing large proportions of young outsiders who attach these negative labels to Christians.

But these negative perceptions of Christians aren’t limited to non-Christians:

Even among young Christians, many of the negative images generated significant traction. Half of young churchgoers said they perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. One-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

In one large sense, I agree. Many American Christians have been judgmental in a way that leaves no avenue for forgiveness. Many have been and are hypocritical, for example, in its treatment of homosexuality as a greater sin than any else, including divorce. Many have been political in ways that have placed shame on the church. Spend enough time in evangelical churches, as I have, and you will see everything from pettiness to outright racism.

In another sense, though, I’m skeptical, for two rather snarky reasons:

  • If you get most of your theological training from “The Daily Show” and the occasional news magazine, aren’t you going to have a skewed view of Christianity?
  • If you call a group of people you don’t know judgmental, aren’t you being judgmental yourself? And isn’t that hypocritical?

But let me set all of that aside and get to the nut of my disagreement with survey-driven theology.

First, Americans always distrust the faraway and vague more than the close-up and local. Notice how Americans give Congress incredibly low approval ratings, but still usually vote in their own incumbents. It’s similar to what Mrs. Winifred Banks sings in “Mary Poppins”: “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” That’s funny because there’s a kernel of truth to it. People tend to distrust distant organizations more than they distrust local groups.

Second, and more importantly, Americans love these quantitative surveys way too much. Maybe we kiss up to these numbers because we fear them, and we fear them because we’re not that good at math. So we erroneously take what is at best a snapshot from an altitude of 20,000 feet and try to apply it without care to our local neighborhood.

But Christians don’t belong to Christianity. Christians belong to churches. And once we try to apply the survey to particular neighborhoods and churches, even in our small city, we begin to see the limitations of the survey.

What is the relationship of the unchurched of Aboite to The Chapel? Is it the same as the relationship between the unchurched of West Central to Emmanuel Lutheran? Is it the same as the relationship between the unchurched of the East Rudisill Boulevard neighborhood to Southern Heights Baptist Church?

This book states the problem in an unhelpful manner. Because if you say, “How do we solve the problem of Americans distrusting Christianity?” the answer is going to trend toward mass communication and marketing. That’s fine for McDonald’s, but not fitting for the church.

But if you say, “How do we solve the problem of your non-Christian neighbor distrusting you as a Christian?” the answer is much more focused, more human and, dare I add, more Biblical.

I can seek forgiveness from you for real particular sins. My church can even seek forgiveness for its corporate sins. But “Christianity” cannot seek forgiveness for the poor perception that “young non-christian Americans” have of it.

Sin, forgiveness and love apply to particular people, not to statistical groupings. If local churches truly love their local neighbors, books like “unChristian” will no longer be sold.