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.

The problem with neighbors

Dear neighbor,

I don’t want to be so close to you. You make my life more difficult.

If I neglect my yard, you can see it. If I yell at my kids, you can hear it.

And worse, if you yell at your kids, I can hear it. So now, like it or not, I have to decide how much I care about you.

If I am typical, I will decide I don’t care at all. I’ll just turn up the Christmas music. If I decide I care a little bit, maybe I’ll call the police and report a domestic disturbance.

It’s too, too much to get to know you, to get to know your wife, and to minister to you. That’s a lot of trouble, and I’m busy. It’d be so much easier if there were more distance between us and fewer chances of noticing you.

But now it’s Christmastime. That means I must contend with our Nativity set and everything it represents.

Here is the Babe, surrounded by shepherds and angels and barn animals. Here is the transcendent Creator of the universe, born of flesh. Here is God, too close.

The scandal of Jesus isn’t that he is God. The scandal of Jesus is that he did not remain distant. He dwelt among us. He became Emmanuel: God with us.

I’ve heard preachers say Jesus stepped into our world, but instead we should say he elbowed and slashed his way into our world. He wasn’t polite: He forced his way into the arms of a young bewildered couple, he demanded twelve men follow him, he rebuked rulers and cast out demons.

He didn’t just sit in heaven and command us to love our neighbor. He was born a baby to become your closest neighbor, my closest neighbor, and to show how to lay down one’s own life for the life of another.

And then He told everyone to follow him. Just as he put aside everything to love his people, we are to put aside all other loves, all loves for neighbor, for parent, for child and for spouse, and to love Him first.

Love Him first, He says, and all other loves tilt and find their proper orbits.

Dear neighbor, you are close, sometimes too close. But if my closest neighbor is Jesus, and if he truly loved me first, it’s the least I can do to turn and love you, too.

Have a merry Christmas.

photo by Patrick Q on Flickr

How to disagree agreeably

Last night’s blogger and politics conference was everything I had hoped for: An opportunity to meet with local bloggers and politicians and to get to know them better, especially while hanging out afterward at J.K. O’Donnell’s.

But the evening had its low point. Moderator Nathan Gotsch played gotcha with a local blogger during Gotsch’s 40-minute opening speech.

The blogger, Dan Turkette, had been invited to participate in the evening’s panel discussion because of his involvement with the recent election. But first, Gotsch treated Turkette and the audience to a surprising amount of direct criticism of Turkette’s blog. The audience did not universally consider the speech to be classy.

Turkette left in the middle of Gotsch’s speech.

What should we remember in these situations where we meet opponents face-to-face? Here are a few things to consider:

Don’t sandbag your opponent. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

to “sandbag” is to intentionally understate one’s strength, with the intention of deceiving one’s opponents into overreaching. The sandbagger can then reveal a hidden strength to take the opponent by surprise.

If you have a strong argument, you don’t have to set up your opponent unfairly like Gotsch did to Turkette. Giving your opponent an opportunity to respond also shows that you have a modicum of respect for him.

Don’t bait and switch. Not every problem requires one of those big secret set-up interventions. Don’t turn a party into a venue to win that argument with your uncle. If you must disagree with someone, try straight talking first, without the fake set-up.

Don’t be anonymous. I understand some people have a desire to use a pseudonym, but Biblically, anonymous accusations have zero weight. Use your name if you want to be taken seriously.

Don’t assume you have more friends than you do. This error encourages you to take a battle to a public setting, who may not appreciate being dragged into it.

Don’t assume you have more enemies than you do. This only causes you to lash out at possible allies, alienating those who may actually agree with you.

Don’t take private sins public. A lot of people love to see celebrity secrets dished for all to see. And there’s a temptation to bring that philosophy down to the local level. Don’t. Go to the person first, as Matthew 18 instructs us.

If we’re going to be neighbors on the blogosphere — and in real life, too — then we need to much more carefully weigh our words. Being professional online means nothing if we can’t be professional in person.

photo by Marlon Hammes on Flickr

The future of cities

The guys who run the Freakanomics blog at The New York Times gathered five urban thinkers and tossed them an interesting question:

This year marked the first time in human history that more people lived in cities than in rural areas. What problems and opportunities does this present? What effects has it had on our local and global culture? Economy? Health?

They received an interesting range of answers from optimism to cataclysm.

Here’s James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere:

Categorically, our colossal metroplexes will not be sustainable in a post-oil future — and despite the wishes and yearnings of many people, the truth is that no combination of alternative fuels will permit us to continue living at this scale. Some of our cities will not make it. Phoenix, Tucson, and other Sunbelt cities will dry up and blow away. In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over. Other mega-cities will have to downscale or face extreme dysfunction.

On the other hand, Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard and director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Kennedy School of Government, had this to say:

Humans are a social species, and our greatest achievements are all collaborative. Cities are machines for making collaboration easier. Thus, I am delighted that our planet has become increasingly urban.

Read all of the interesting responses over at Freakonomics.

photo by scottfw on Flickr

New Media, New Rules presentation

If you’re a blogger in town, you’re certainly quite aware of the New Media, New Rules presentation at the downtown library Thursday evening.

The presentation focuses on politics, especially on the local mayoral race here in Fort Wayne. This is from the press release:

New Media, New Rules will feature a presentation by Fort Wayne Observed founder Nathan Gotsch and a panel discussion on the significant impact of new media on the 2007 election with city council members-elect Mitch Harper (also editor of Fort Wayne Observed) and Karen Goldner as well as bloggers Jeff Pruitt (Fort Wayne Left) and Dan Turkette (Fort Wayne News). Bloggers, commenters, the general public and traditional media are invited to attend.

“Local candidates are just beginning to understand the power of local blogs to influence voters,” Gotsch said. “Now that the city election is over, we can start a discussion on how to make the Fort Wayne blogosphere a place of dialogue for elected officials and constituents alike.”

In the first part of the program, Gotsch will give citizens advice on blogging effectively in order to make sure their voices are heard by and have an impact on elected officials. He’ll also discuss how candidates can develop Internet strategies that take advantage of new technologies, pointing out missed opportunities during the 2007 campaign and providing tips on how to interact with political bloggers writing about their campaign.

That will be followed by the panel discussion on the impact of local blogs on this year’s election and how new media is already altering the local political scene. Gotsch and the panel will also be taking questions from the audience.

And there’s more information on the web site. Although I’ve not been really involved in politics, mostly because I’ve worked in journalism most of my professional life, I’ll be there.