The Fatally-Flawed LifeWay 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment Survey

The Fatally-Flawed LifeWay 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment Survey May 4, 2019

Hi! Last time we met up, I showed you a really awful LifeWay study about evangelism. Or rather, I guess, it concerned Christians’ lack of evangelistic fervor. Then, I examined the background of the study. There, we discovered that it simply confirmed what we already knew about Christians’ ongoing and general lack of enthusiasm for person-to-person sales pitches. Today, we examine what’s wrong with the 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment survey. Its flaws tell us something important about its real purpose–and how it fits into Christianity’s ongoing decline.

(Andrew Ridley.)

(Quick aside: “Personal evangelism” is Christianese. It means “person-to-person sales pitches for Jesus.” As we’ll see, it’s extremely unlikely that LifeWay made that definition clear to their survey respondents. Still, that’s usually the official definition.)

Very Self-Serving Partnerships.

Like several big studies coming out of evangelicalism lately, this one comes out of a partnership.

Back in March, we examined a survey about church growth. LifeWay leader Thom Rainer touted it as “absolutely incredible.” (We did not agree!) It came from a partnership with an outfit called Exponential. Exponential sells stuff to Christian leaders to help them with their churches.

Then, just last month, Barna released a survey examining forgiveness. For that study, they partnered with The Reimagine Group. And yes, The Reimagine Group sells stuff to Christians both on their own site and on Barna’s.

Here, LifeWay might seem like the sole source for this new survey about evangelism. However, that’s not completely true. The survey’s author, Brad Waggoner, developed this “discipleship pathway” notion in graduate school. When LifeWay hired him in 2006, he quickly sold them on the idea. The next year, 2007, they began running the Spiritual Formation Inventory that he’d created in the 1990s.

This idea has always been Waggoner’s bread-and-butter. And he apparently created his central idea without a single reputable qualification in statistics or psychology, because literally all of his education centers around theology. Of course, LifeWay doesn’t care about its veracity. This “biblical signposts” blather hits all of their favorite talking points, so they grabbed for it like it was a life-ring.

It’s not that I innately distrust partnerships in survey creation. It’s just that with these Christian surveys, there’s more than an element of self-servingness in who the partners are and why they’re involved. And Christian-run surveys are already incredibly self-serving.

Who’s Being Surveyed.

On the official LifeWay Research site, we discover the survey’s methodology. And it’s about what we expected.

(Here’s the slideshow LifeWay created about the survey, by the way. You’ll need this link if you want to learn the deets about the survey. I had to hunt hard for it, too! See, the “download the research” link on LifeWay’s official site led to a dead page. This is where it should have led. How very professional.)

Here’s how they selected their respondents:

They performed an online survey of 2500 Protestant churchgoers over about two weeks. The surveyors screened respondents to only hear from Protestants who attended church at least once a month. We learn that they applied quotas and “slight weights” to balance the respondent pool, but not exactly what those weights and quotas were. (Do they reflect the religion’s makeup now? Or were they aiming for equal representation across the board?)

Either way, they ended up with 2500 completed surveys, a 95% confidence that their sampling error doesn’t exceed ±2%, and a note that that margin of error might get higher in sub-groups examined. None of that inspires my confidence.

Our objections here echo the ones we had on Thom Rainer’s “absolutely incredible” survey. How many incomplete samples did they get and what’d they do about those? Where did they run this online survey? How confident can we be that their respondents were even telling the truth? How much self-selection bias does this study suffer from?

Wait: Protestants?

For that matter, why does an evangelical group care about what all Protestants think about personal evangelism? 

That’s a very serious moved goalpost right there. Did they just get so few evangelical-leaning respondents on TapResearch or whatever they used that they had to expand their study group to include all Protestants? They don’t ever reveal why they decided to survey all Protestants instead of simply evangelicals. That might have made a very interesting control group to survey in comparison with evangelicals. But no. No control groups for us!

Non-evangelical denominations don’t lay nearly as much stress on personal evangelism as evangelical ones do. I mean they kind of do, but it’s not the all-encompassing push that evangelicals make of it. Consequently, non-evangelical Christians don’t do as much of it. (Barna already figured that out back in 2013.)

That fact might sound completely obvious to literally everybody. But LifeWay decided to include non-evangelicals in a survey about personal evangelism. Then, they used the results to subtly reprimand and shame evangelicals about how little evangelizing they’re doing lately–and to sell their USD$5 self-assessments and $70 Bible studies to those (hopefully) ego-stung evangelicals.

This weird bait-and-switch strikes me as hugely intellectually dishonest. LifeWay ran a survey describing one population. Then, they applied their results to a wholly different population to sell them stuff.

Maybe they hope to branch out to sell non-evangelicals their extremely evangelical-slanted wares.

The Danger of Self-Reported Information.

This survey represents another big problem for LifeWay in that it relies on self-reports from respondents.

We don’t like being judged. It’s just part of being human. We want to put our best feet forward. So if someone asks us about a topic we feel kind of inadequate or ashamed about, we might just lie our rumpuses off. (Rumpii? Forget it; I’m on a roll.) Even if we’re tapping along to an anonymous survey or talking to a human being we will literally never talk to again in our entire lives, we don’t want to look bad in front of them.

And evangelicals in particular know very well that they should be evangelizing! And they should be regularly attending church and doing all that Christian jazz their leaders and parents keep harping about!

So I wonder just how honest these responses are. Perhaps we should consider them like diet or exercise self-reports; they are insights into how these respondents think about themselves and what they aspire to do, not necessarily hard-and-fast reports that surveyors can count on for accuracy.

More Moved Goalposts.

The questions on this survey hurt my head.

The surveyors start out by asking respondents how often they “pray for opportunities to tell others about Jesus Christ.” However, Christians pray for all kinds of things, and prayers vary considerably by the Christian in terms of rigor and fervor. For some, this kind of prayer might be a quick Jesus, send me someone to share your Good News with today! while they drive to work. For others, it might involve sackcloth-and-ashes, wailing, speaking in tongues, and mournful (and mangled) King James English for an hour.

Maybe LifeWay hoped to measure intentionality here, to compare with actual behavior. If so, then their effort bombs hard. What they got from this question was that somehow, evangelicals are totally missing a lot of opportunities to issue sales pitches. Here’s the executive director of LifeWay Research, Scott McConnell:

“The task of making disciples of all nations has not been fully embraced in the American church—especially by the majority culture. . . Many in church today appear to be distracted from Jesus’ final command.”

But that’s not what this survey discovered.

By their own metric, almost half of their respondents said they prayed at least a few times a week for evangelism opportunities. Almost 75% of their respondents said they prayed at least monthly for such opportunities. That figure does not speak to a lack of attention to evangelism. Christians at least think about the idea. And they tend to do so frequently.

Panicking About Demographics.

The survey also examined how “eager” respondents said they were about selling Jesus to people who differed from them in ethnicity, income level, and interests. Most Christians reported that they were at least somewhat eager to do that. Only 16% weren’t eager at all to engage such people. White Christians in particular expressed way more reticence about this kind of engagement than Hispanic or Black respondents did.

(And no: they did not differentiate between Hispanic and Latinx people.)

Scott McConnell sure shook his finger at his tribe of die-hard white male supremacists over that one. (See: his “disciples of all nations” quote, above. “Majority culture” means white people.) His denomination’s recent panic over white people becoming less dominant in America shows here. They know that if they don’t start bringing in people of color (POC), then they are doomed.

So yeah.

Why You Always Gotta Be Lying…

One question on the survey made me laugh, though.

LifeWay asked how often the respondents had “invited an unchurched person to attend a church service or some other program at your church.” I want you to look at the graph they created with the results they got.

Click to embiggen. Page 7 of LifeWay’s Discipleship Pathway Survey. (Source.)

See that little blip of 2% inviting 15+ people to church in the past 6 months? I saw that and immediately thought, Oh, okay, so those are the folks who canvassed an apartment complex or handed out flyers to college students one Saturday and THEY. ARE. TOTALLY. COUNTING. THAAAAAT.

LifeWay phrased the question so vaguely and obscurely that literally anything could count as an invitation. The door-hanger I got today from some undefined Christian church could count for the Christian who wasted money, paper, and time putting it there.

Also, this question suffers the same problems with data-buckets that the other survey we examined did. They go singly, zero to five, then suddenly jump to 6-10, 11-15, and then just 15+. Why? Was it because if they set 1-5 as a block, they’d have gotten 47% of respondents falling into that level and that did not look nearly as impressive as breaking out the answers singly like they did? Cuz I think that’s exactly what happened here.

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Subgroup Weirdness and Expected Findings.

From there, we plunge into their subgroup examinations. Remember, they’ve already told us that their confidence interval drops here.

When it comes to praying for evangelistic opportunities, we learn that Southerners, poorly-educated people, regular churchgoers, and POC were more likely to select “every day” as an answer than their counterparts were. We see much the same demographic info regarding how often Christians evangelize and how comfortable they feel with evangelizing people very different from themselves.

Weirdly, however, one subgroup they did not define was evangelicals vs. non-evangelicals.

Considering their customers will generally always be evangelicals, and considering the very-different emphasis evangelicals place upon evangelism, that seems so distinctly bizarre. It might have been interesting to see how different denominations responded to their questions.

But for some reason, LifeWay didn’t care about that distinction.

They never explain why, either.

Questions They Didn’t Ask.

I thought of some questions that LifeWay didn’t seem to ask at all:

  • Why did the respondents not invite people?
  • When they issued invitations that were refused, what were their invitees replying?
  • How large were respondents’ churches, for those attending church at all?
  • How often did invitations result in a new regular church member?
  • Did respondents feel adequately prepared to issue invitations in the first place?

These questions might have been way too interesting for these surveyors. Then again, maybe they did ask some of those questions and the answers didn’t fit with the agenda, so they left ’em out. Their 15-page survey slideshow looks like it omitted quite a bit.

Gettin’ Theirs While the Gettin’ Is Good.

LifeWay assumes, after tabulating this survey, that the flocks don’t evangelize more often because they lack fervor. Obviously, a group that makes money on the sales of evangelism materials–and one currently panicking hard about their own decline–will not accept the obvious explanation here: their targets simply don’t offer would-be evangelists any opportunity to begin a sales pitch. Nobody wants their nonexistent product. Nobody wants to join their nasty, hypocritical groups.

No, instead LifeWay promises that their flocks will totally start issuing more invitations if they’ll buy assessments and Bible studies to become more “spiritually mature” according to the “8 biblical signposts” that some random Christian guy pulled right out of his nether cheeks that sounds about right.

That’s the truth destroying Christianity right now. Now that we’ve stripped Christians of the power to force people to join their groups and support their self-congratulatory country clubs, their sales pitches fall flat. Once their religion became optional, people began to exercise their free right to reject them.

With Christianity’s decline still in full swing, the 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment survey tells me something important, however. Sure, the religion’s ship is sinking fast. But these Christians are intent on gettin’ theirs before it lurches beneath the waves for good.

NEXT UP: Why the flocks really don’t evangelize, starring Teen Cas! See you next time!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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