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.


  1. You forgot the biggest problem non-Christians have with Christianity, namely, they think it simply isn’t true. I mean, come on, a world wide flood killing off everything that couldn’t be stuffed on a boat, animal sacrifices to appease the supposed creator of the universe which don’t really appease, the creator of the universe impregnating a virgin so he himself could be born, grow up, and then have himself sacrificed to, um, to himself to appease, um, himself, in order that he could forgive us for some made up thing called “sin,” but the only people that really get forgiven, supposedly, are those that believe this ridiculous story, and oh yeah, the forgiveness takes to form of admittance to heaven, or, if you aren’t forgiven, admittance to hell — AFTER YOU’RE DEAD.

    Yeah, right.

    It’s freakin’ retarded.


  2. Steve,

    Is there something morally wrong with what I believe? And is it morally wrong to teach my children the same?

    If so, I’d like to hear where you find your moral code.

    If not, I don’t understand why you’d mind if the Church takes over the whole world. I mean, what’s it to you since we’re all going to die anyway? Why not live and let live, as one of your own prophets has said?


  3. Hey Jon…
    I like the way you work through this. I loved this book because I feel as a pastor it gives us a starting place. I would assume that these “blanket” viewpoints are probably accurate for the majority of people in each neighborhood but we must move quickly to the questions about how each individual local church relates to the community around them.

    I hope that books like this and “Jim and Casper Go to Church” push pastors (and lay people) to ask good questions of friends they have who are not currently a part of a church (including opinions like Steve’s). I think that these are the kind of questions that will put churches focus back on their neighbors and off the path to Mega-Churchdom (at least that’s what I hope).

    Thanks for your blog.


  4. Well-said, Jon, both in your post and in your response to Mr. Cameron.

    For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:
    ” ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
    ‘every knee will bow before me;
    every tongue will confess to God.’ ”
    Romans 14:10-11


  5. Morality is a consequence of evolution. We share (mostly) the same morality, and it is not derived from any deity, so far as I can tell.

    One of our shared moral concepts is presumably, one ought not to deliberately attempt to believe falsehoods, or conversely, one should attempt to filter out falsehoods and find what is true.

    Faith, by definition, is a subversion of this, in that it involves believing things to a degree of certainty which exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence, in some cases, believing in spite of the evidence. Faith, in this respect, is inherently dishonest, and immoral.

    There you go. Happy?


  6. [[[[Is there something morally wrong with what I believe? And is it morally wrong to teach my children the same?]]]]

    Yes, it is morally wrong to teach any theory as fact to a child. Just as it was wrong for those who followed David Koresh to teach their children he was the second coming of Christ.

    Should religious indoctrination in children be illegal? Is it the equivalent of child abuse? Should a person not be allowed to choose what god they want to worship until they are an adult? A person most often becomes the religion of their parent for no other reason than that is the person who raised them. There was no conscious choice. There was no careful examination of the various religions and gods currently being worshiped and then whichever one they ‘connect’ with becomes their religion. Consider the following scenarios: A young child of 7 years-old is being raised by Christian parents, and during a camping trip in Utah, both parents are bitten by a poisonous snake and die. The child wonders off into the wilderness and is later found by another family who was also camping. The child is taken in by the family and raised by them. The family is Mormon. Will the child grow up to be a Christian or a Mormon like his ‘adopted’ family? How about if the Christian family is doing missionary work in Afghanistan and their vehicle hits an old landmine and everyone is killed but the child who wonders off into the desert and is found by an Afghani family. The child will grow up and be a Muslim not a Christian. How about if the Christian family is doing missionary work in the depths of the Amazon and is attacked by a Jaguar and the parents are killed. Say a local tribe finds the child and raises him amongst them. That child will grow up worshiping the river god Waesaritu. Why would God allow the innocent child to be misled this way, damning him to eternal hellfire?

    [[[…I don’t understand why you’d mind if the Church takes over the whole world. I mean, what’s it to you since we’re all going to die anyway? Why not live and let live…]]]

    Live and let live is a practice few god worshipers follow. In fact, interfering in everyone’s lives seems to be their primary goal.

    You appear to be an intelligent person. I hope you’ll be so bold as to check out my site even though the questions I post for god worshipers will most likely rub you and yours the wrong way. I’ve categorized all my posts on the left. Take a few minutes to read through a few. Leave a comment if you like. Take Care.


  7. Could you please define “shared moral concepts”? Is this a physical substance in the brain, or is it something spiritual?

    In either case, I’m not sure I believe in such “concepts.” I don’t think science has proven such things exist. But maybe you have faith in “shared moral concepts.” If you and I share this invisible “moral concept,” why are we arguing?

    Would another “shared moral concept” be Don’t kill other people? Boy, that one would have come in handy in Pakistan, eh?

    I’m off to worship with the saints. Thanks for the challenge; it keeps me sharp.


  8. Steve,

    I am surprised that you would make the claims you have without reading the whole Bible. Or have you? I mean, there are plenty of benefits during this lifetime of being forgiven by God. As for your problem with faith, we do have evidence of the existence of God. It is all around you in creation and in how he has changed out lives. You use evolution of species as a way to boost your argument, but that has been shown to be without fact or even possibility, even by secular scientists. So who here has faith without basis in fact? I’d also love to know how you could determine if morality is derived from a deity or not.

    Mary S.


  9. While I agree with Mr. Swerens on a number of his points, I believe he has esteemed the issue too lightly.

    Our younger generation has not accumulated a great amount of life experience, however, they are perceptive. As a teacher I can certainly attest that students, both then and now, perceive actions more than words. I think it is belittling of youthful minds to say their own perceptions of Christianity come from a tainted or slanted media, such as in the form of comedy news programs. Though this is one area for students today to become informed about religion, I would suggest the larger perceptions stem forth from Christian or irreligious friends, local churches, family members, and their community.

    For certain the book unChristian does present a multitude of statistics, some of them necessary, others not that important.

    However, it is my belief the book presented what teenagers and adults are thinking the world over about Christians:

    “The single greatest cause of unbelief today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and get on with their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”


  10. Why even posture the question in terms of a “problem” with non-Christians distrusting Christians? For the thinking non-Christian, their disagreement must, of necessity, go beyond that which might be expressed toward those with a different view of tax policy or the winner of “Best Nachos” at local watering holes.

    Very few are those who can believe in the Christian God and yet live in defiance of him, too. Belief dictates reliance, not defiance, and a subordination of self will to God’s will. This is a path that many choose not to follow, and the choice is easier to justify by criticizing the imperfections of those who follow God’s path than by criticizing the path itself. By dwelling upon the hypocrisy, bigotry and self-righteousness of some believers, the non-believer can feel morally (and/or intellectually) superior to all believers.

    Self-righteousness and intellectual contempt, the very things they condemn in Christians, provide a veneer of respectability for their non-belief and a plausible shield against the type of self-examination that belief ultimately dictates. There is not and never will be a shortage of motes and even logs lodged in the eyes of believers, and thus there will always be an ability for the non-believer to rationalize his defiance, and his acceptance of the claimed consequences of defiance.

    The suggestion that Christians are “the single greatest cause of unbelief” in Christ is absurd and challenges God’s plan in a manner so fundamental as to challenge God himself. Christ “blew it”, then, when he selected disciples, gave instructions for the creation of a Church, and instructed his followers to spread the “good news,” as he entrusted these matters to those who are and always will be flawed and imperfect. One Jimmy Swaggert is enough to defeat such an imperfect plan. No, I think the greatest cause of unbelief, and of the struggles of believers (myself included), is self-righteousness, self-justification and a lack of humility.


  11. Great thoughts about a book that certainly appears to challenge some conventional thinking among Christians. I just picked up today, so I am looking forward to reading it for myself.


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