A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote about the way that bad ideas enter the canon of Christian beliefs. The bad idea I examined back then was love the sinner, hate the sin. As terrible as that idea is, and as demonstrably impossible as it is for Christians to put it into action, it’s all but a core foundational belief for millions of them now. In similar fashion, Ed Stetzer accidentally created a false belief about dropouts from his religion. And ever since he popularized this idea, it’s assumed a life of its own. Here is how he did it, why he did it, and most importantly what it means for his religion’s future.
Ed Stetzer works as a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) shill. Until recently, he worked for the SBC itself in its LifeWay division. (LifeWay functions as the SBC’s biased-research arm and propaganda mill.) In his new digs, he works as a teacher at Wheaton College, mostly focusing on evangelism. This focus looks laughable, given that in his time at LifeWay, he did not once come up with a single working strategy for reversing the SBC’s decade-plus-long baptism drought–which is their term for a dramatic drop in baptisms.
Though all demographic groups flee the SBC’s oppressive arms, no group flees more rapidly than young adults. And literally nobody in the SBC’s leadership appears capable of even understanding why it’s happening, much less reversing it. Pretty much all they can do is invent reasons that fit with their ideology and desired behaviors.
At this point, fundagelicals–that unholy fusion of evangelicals with fundamentalists–function as the hyper-politicized and eager foot-soldiers in their leaders’ culture wars. And they obsess over feverish dreams of dominance over their enemies. They absolutely reject the notion of being on anything but “the winning team,” which is of course TEAM JESUS. However, even as their dreams of power materialize in the political arena in uneven and disturbing ways, tons of adherents leave their ranks every year.
For years now, the world has watched a swift and steady hemorrhage of believers from Christianity in general. This hemorrhage spells the end of the religion as a dominant power in the United States. As the balance shifts, Christians struggle to reconcile themselves with their new normal.
And as Ed Stetzer shows us, some of them never manage the trick.
An “Urban Legend.”
In May of 2014, Ed Stetzer began using a particular statistic. It sounded bold and attention-getting, even by the bombastic standards of his tribe:
Dropout is a key word in today’s evangelical churches concerning teenagers and young adults. The quote often sounds like this: “86% of evangelical youth drop out of church after graduation, never to return.” The problem with that statement (and others around that number) is that it’s not true. But that doesn’t mean there is no reason for concern.
He omitted the source of this startling “quote.” Nor does he reveal why the statement is “not true.”
In December of that same year, he writes about this exact number again:
I’ve heard some pretty remarkable statistics about church dropouts – I’m sure you have, too. Such as: 94 percent (some say 86 percent) of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school, never to return. The problem? Those stats are urban legends. They’ve not been validated, and research has never come to that conclusion.
Ah, okay. That’s good to know.
He isn’t wrong, there, for what it’s worth.
By December of 2018, four years later, Ed Stetzer appeared to have forgotten that this study was an urban legend:
For many years, people have based their thoughts on this subject on the findings of one particularly famous study that suggested that 86% of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school never to return again. This study, for the record, is not a real study.
He doesn’t clarify what he means by that last sentence. It’s entirely possible to read this sentence and come out thinking it wasn’t a reliable study, not that it simply never existed.
Unfortunately, fundagelicals had long ago trampled the gate. He might declare to the heavens that this figure didn’t originate with “a real study,” though he never says why it wasn’t a real study.
I had trouble finding an example of the figure from before May of 2014. However, I noticed it sprouting everywhere afterward. The writers discussing it always cited Stetzer as the source–along with his quibbles with it.
A Life of Its Own.
Over the years, this made-up urban-legend statistic took hold in fundagelical imaginations–almost always as a straw man they could tilt at.
Almost immediately after Stetzer’s May 2014 post, someone else grabbed his numbers and ran with them. Around the same time, a Christian site called Crosswalk echoes Stetzer’s quote. It quickly landed in the nearly-irrelevant Church Health Wiki. One guy reblogged the whole thing around then too.
I thought, This number must be coming from SOMEWHERE. It sure doesn’t seem to have come from the 2007 LifeWay study itself. And other sources from around that time sure don’t mention it, though they do mention the 70% figure.
Then I found it.
Gang, this might be the Rosetta Stone of Crazypants.
An innocuous and ungraceful little blog post from 2008 lists a markedly similar quote, including Ed Stetzer’s “updated” figures. Not only did it provide the magical 86% number, but also gave a few more nuggets of information. It begins thusly, with an uncited quote:
“Americans in their twenties are significantly less likely than any other age group to attend church.”
This first quote tracked to a 2003 Barna survey. This survey, conducted at the peak of fundagelical dominance in America, sounded an alarm. Though it got a lot of airplay on Christian sites, nobody else took it super-seriously, however. Then the blogger cites the 86% figure we know and loathe. And then it cites a second, equally uncited quote:
“These statistics suggest that the church is heading toward extinction.”
This second quote appears to originate with the 2008 blogger himself. I found it scattered all over his fake mental-health crisis hotline’s website. It appears, as well, in his site’s previous home in an undated document.
His Ears Might Have Burned.
Now, we don’t know if this blog post was written entirely in 2008. I couldn’t definitively date any earlier archive captures for comparison. But it sure looks possible that this scary 86% number began with this blogger. He wasn’t using it in 2005 in his group’s earlier internet home, it doesn’t seem. He never says where he got it, either.
That said, Ed Stetzer began working at LifeWay around 2007, as best as I can determine. So a 2008 blog post fits in just fine with our timeline. Other quotes, like one from a 2007 LifeWay post, supported a 2008 birthdate for the blog post, as did a quote from a 2001 Barna book.
A brand-new, young, and insecure SBC leader might well have noticed this kind of talk in an equally young tribemate–and I can see him feeling downright thrilled to be able to offer up one of his very first projects with the SBC to refute the percentage number being bandied about.
Totally and Obviously the Real Problem Here, For Sure.
For Ed Stetzer, LifeWay’s 2007 survey, which indicated a dropout rate of closer to 70%, more accurately represented the crisis at hand. And since he held an exalted position at LifeWay at the time, he fully stood behind his organization’s research (by 2018, having left LifeWay, he threw some shade at it–as we saw last time). So his 2014 posts mostly tilted at the 86% figure, offering instead his preferred 70% figure. Along with that figure, he suggested reasons why fundagelicals shouldn’t worry overmuch about these losses. And he hasn’t changed his tune much over the last four years.
I feel far less secure in trusting his analysis. Folks, I’ve seen this guy’s resume. Ed Stetzer totally lacks experience with statistics or survey-making. He’s an excellent SBC mouthpiece. Once bought, he stays bought! But what he is not and never has been is someone his tribe should count on to gather trustworthy information–especially when the topic so clearly threatens and challenges him as a representative and member of what might well be a contender for the worst, most toxic group on the planet. (I’m not questioning his discernment; I’m denying its existence.)
It’s just so funny to me that Ed Stetzer might have seen this 86% figure in some very obscure blog and he just got so worked up over it that he’s tilted at it ever since–and that moreover he’s gotten his tribe involved in the tilting alongside him!
The Question They Never Asked.
Ed Stetzer has very correctly assessed the 86% figure as an “urban legend.” But one must ask: who do they imagine said it? And why?
Often, I see Christians slam criticism of their tribe as being purely mean-spirited. They act like we just hate them for their freedom or something! We have ulterior motives. We just hate objective morality. Maybe we just don’t like knowing that a god will judge us one day or like to seeeeeeeeeeeeyin. When someone predicts further declines in their religion–or says it’s declining at all–they accuse us of saying so out of desperate, wild hopes rather than because that’s the direction that every reputable survey has pointed for the past ten years or so.
But this time, regarding this 70% figure Stetzer peddled, no accusations followed at all.
In fact, I found exactly one pastor lamenting, of the 86% figure, that “Christians are so quick to believe bad news about the church” because “bad news sells.”
So why is 70% accepted where 86% wasn’t?
As I’ve said, a 70% churn rate is eye-popping and stomach-churning. A business getting that kind of news would panic. It’d indicate a huge and marked crisis.
Christian churches are businesses, but they are almost uniformly poorly-run businesses. Their members and leaders have literally never been friendly to accurate information, if that information tells them that their strategies and ventures are failing. The harder those strategies and ventures fail, the less friendly they are to that input!
But his tribemates were totally fine with a 70% churn rate. They accepted it without question.
Is it at least a little possible that Ed Stetzer knew that his tribe needed softening up? Is it possible that he offered up the 86% figure to get their defenses up, then jabbed holes in it with the new, slightly lower figure he insisted was more accurate?
The Post-Truth “Objective Truth” Generation.
And don’t you just have to wonder about a group that thinks an 86% dropout rate is just keeerazy, but 70% is oh, that’s just lovely–finally, something sensible at last!
The whole idea of LifeWay Research makes me laugh, and it should. The notion highlights so beautifully exactly what’s wrong with fundagelicals’ claims of having “objective morality.” Years ago, they lost not only the ability to discern true information from false, but also any kind of respect for the tools needed to do it. I refer here to tools like ascertaining the quality of an expert, recognizing the presence of logical fallacies in a claim, understanding a claim’s null position, formulating if-then statements to test the claim, and then weighing the results of those tests against reality.
Those tools–and the results they provide–represent challenges to Christians’ many and bizarre claims, where they don’t offer outright contradictions. That is why fundagelicals like Ed Stetzer must nullify away their importance. They snarl epithets like “naturalist” at those who trust those tools to guide us in discerning truth from falsehood.
In the place of those tools, they use a number of less-reliable cargo-cult substitutes that ape real evidence but aren’t the real thing at all. Here, we find the wealth of subjective feelings, logical fallacies, denialism, evasions, and simple hand-waving that constitute the entirety of Christian apologetics. Christians get taught to trust this chicanery in the place of real truth-finding tools.
Ed Stetzer’s Imaginary Windmill.
So we have a group of people who know that their claims should carry with them real-world objective evidence. They ache for the kind of authority that evidence would confer upon their claims. However, they entirely lack it. So they make it up according to the tools they do respect and value. Then, they offer up their ersatz evidence. And they expect the rest of us to respect what they produce.
If they were elementary-aged children putting on a stage production of Waiting for Godot, we’d smile and applaud. And we’d mean it, for the most part. We’d understand and appreciate what they were doing.
But they’re not. They’re grown adults who seriously want to seize control over every moment of our private lives, and these are literally the best reasons they can offer for why they should be allowed to do it.
So when we laugh them offstage, they stomp away muttering darkly about how mean and hard-hearted and close-minded we are.
But our rejection–and mockery–serves an important purpose in our culture. It illustrates how quickly and how completely fundagelicals’ power wanes. For all the hatred they have of our rejection, and all the hand-waving they do to try to minimize or ignore the impact of that rejection, it happens all the same. They can’t stop it. They can’t even slow it down.
I wonder when Ed Stetzer’s tribe will start wondering why nothing this guy says comes true or even tallies with reality.
NEXT UP: We look at the authoritarian obsession with being on “the winning team.” See you soon!
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