"Evangelicals Are Just as Worldly as Everyone Else!": Well, No, They Aren't

I recently heard yet another sermon (no, it wasn’t in my home church) telling the congregation that “statistics show” that North American evangelicals are just as worldly as everyone else: just as quick to fornicate and divorce, just as tight with their charitable dollars, just as reluctant to volunteer in their communities, etc., etc. In short, evangelicals are hypocrites and worthy of a sound scolding, which the preacher was only too happy to provide.

I’ve heard this “fact” a dozen different times over the last few years, and it has become what I call a “church myth,” resembling an urban myth in ubiquity and plausibility.

And, like urban myths, it isn’t true.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an evangelical, and I’m not especially holy. I know lots of evangelicals, and we all struggle with sin.

But if, cumulatively, our evangelical convictions do not cash out into a measurable difference of lifestyle, then they can’t be worth much. If evangelicals do not, in fact, tend to have less promiscuous single people, more faithful marriages, higher rates of charitable giving, higher volunteerism, and so on, then what are we preaching? Literally, what in the world are we doing?

Books & Culture recently published my investigation into the statistics that purportedly show that evangelical convictions mean so little–statistics proffered by the likes of George Barna, George Gallup, and others. Perhaps you’d like to take a look here.

0 Responses to “"Evangelicals Are Just as Worldly as Everyone Else!": Well, No, They Aren't”

  1. Peter Thurley

    I recently wrote a post in response to an article in the Spring 2007 edition of Political Science Quarterly that suggests that in fact those who call themselves Christians are just as worldly as everyone else – in fact, the author concludes that while Americans tend to call themselves Christians, very few act like it, and as a result, he concludes, America can’t be called a ‘Christian nation’. Granted, the author is not speaking specifically of Evangelicals but of Christians in general. I’ll have a look at the Books & Culture review that you suggest reading; I’m sure that you would be interested in the article by Hugh Helco in the Political Science Quarterly (Vol 122 No 1, Spring 2007) called “Is America a Christian Nation?” I thought it was a fascinating read, in any case.

  2. Matt Wiebe

    Prof. Stackhouse:

    Some others have blogged on this issue. Sociologist Brad Wright wrote a series on Sex and Christianity, concluding here.

    Michael Kruse recently wrote about giving, evangelicals and progressives here.

    Statistics can reveal some interesting things sometimes…

  3. Michael Kruse

    Dr. Stackhouse, thanks for such a wonderful critique! I think the single most important indicator of the effect of Christianity on a person is not which tribe they belong to but how frequently they attend church. There tends to be a divide between those who attend weekly and those who don’t, regardless of tribe.

    There was one sentence I would have said differently:

    “Barna’s data, for instance, discuss tithing as a percentage of “gross” or “pre-tax” income, thus ignoring the giving to social services—including charity to the poor both here and abroad—that we all do through taxes.”

    I don’t think taxes and charity are the same. If there is not a choice then there is no charity, only compliance. Avoidance of penalties is a different motivation than benevolence. Nevertheless, your point is very well taken that wealthier folks contribute more through both taxes and charity. According to Arthur Brooks’ “Who Really Cares” the wealthy (+$100,000 annual income) give away 3-4%, which is more than middle income folks. So they give more in both actual dollars and as a percentage.

    Anyway, there is so much in your article that is worthy of more exploration. Thanks for such a meaty piece!

    And Matt, thanks for the plug 🙂

  4. Kelvin

    Care to briefly elaborate on ” epistemological supremacy”?

  5. JLBetts

    My own favorite statements from your article are in pointing out the paradox of the typical prophet’s desires for change and his/her often less-than-precise approach in conveying that message:

    ‘I recognize that a prophet naturally resists finely balanced judgments and fears that his message may “die the death of a thousand qualifications.” But Ron Sider is a scholar as well as a prophet, and as such he must recognize that some of us, at least, will be moved to action much better if the case is made without all of these distracting and confusing obstacles.

    ‘Yet as encumbered as he is, Sider also has firm grasp of the “one thing needful,” the “better part” that no reviewer dare try to take away from him. However questionable his grasp on this or that matter of history or sociology, he undoubtedly has a tight hold on the gospel. And the central exhortation of the book to holiness—between the bookend chapters I have spent this article analyzing—is, as always, right on target. We are more worldly than we should be—as every generation of the church has been. We do need to call ourselves, each other, and our churches to repentance and amendment of life.’

    We are each still responsible for our use of God’s gifts, but it seems He has given some of us an orientation toward aversion to overstatement. To others, however, He seems to have given an orientation toward speaking for effect, with less concern for particulars.

    You state that ‘Ron Sider is a scholar as well as a prophet, and he must recognize that some of us, at least, will be moved to action much better if the case is made without all of these distracting and confusing obstacles.’ Being of one orientation, while my wife is of the other, I believe the two different types of personalities will frequently be in tension, regardless of the their vocation or station in life. 🙂

    Being one of those with special concern for precision and lack of overstatement, of course I enjoyed your critique – and I doubt my wife would like it at all (but prudently preserving the peace, I’m not going to ask her opinion).

  6. J

    John:

    Given that the stats are not as clear cut as they seem at first glance, and given the fact that evangelicalism does make a difference in the lives of adherents, what would you say the “problem” is? I ask this because in recent years we’ve seen the growth of a house church movement as well as the appearance of the emergent church in a sort of reaction to “bad” evangelicalism.

    In other words, the statistics used by Sider, et. al. seem to distract from, or perhaps even create the illusion of, a problem. Yet there are plenty of “disaffected evangelicals” either leaving the church altogether, or joining new Christian movements. What do you see as the (real) issue(s) at play?

  7. Brandon Blake

    Noll, Hatch and Marsden pointed out the same thing years ago in their book, “In Search of Christian America.” It is hardly, if EVER the case in which whole communities i.e. nation or state, (even churches) can sustain such a high level of piety for the long haul. Greg Boyd points out something similar to Sider here:

    http://gregboyd.blogspot.com/2007/06/great-time-talking-faith-and-politics.html

    and Boyd states that until the church is about the business of BEING the kingdom which means to look like Jesus i.e. concerned for the poor and oppressed, justice, etc, then we have no right to speak to society. Why tell Ceasar what to do if we are not doing it ourselves. However, if we wait until then, then we’re gonna be waiting a looooonnnng time.

    A few years ago (Aug 2004), CT Mag put out an article (one of which you can read here and the other, which is linked on the same page, you have to subscribe to) with a similar debate between Harold O.J. Brown and Leith Anderson. I’m with Stackhouse and Anderson on this. Jesus allowed for the wheat and the tares to live together. Acknowledging that there are tares is not to say that one is in agreement with or “tacitly agreeing with Sider…” (Ochuck) Stackhouse is attempting to give a more balanced view to the alarmism of Sider.

  8. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for these good comments. I trust that careful readers of the article will note that I am NOT saying that Ron Sider’s call to holiness is not needed; I am NOT saying that evangelicals are all just fine (good grief: how could I possibly say THAT!); I am NOT saying that the measure of authentic evangelical belief and practice is perfection; I am NOT saying that charity and taxes are the same thing (but I AM saying that taxes include care for the poor, which we have agreed to shoulder together through our elected representatives, which in other economies would have been much more a matter of individual choice).

    As for JLBetts and rhetorical styles, well, I think prophets are obliged to tell the truth. So if you and your audience won’t abide many qualifications, fine, but don’t drop too many! Einstein’s dictum is helpful here: “Simplify as far as possible, and no farther.”

    As for J asking what IS wrong with evangelicalism…well, I have written a couple of books on that subject already (“Evangelical Landscapes” and “Church: An Insider’s Look at How We Do It”). And I’ll keep blogging on individual matters as they arise….

  9. Lukas

    “in recent years we’ve seen the growth of a house church movement as well as the appearance of the emergent church in a sort of reaction to “bad” evangelicalism.”

    J,

    I’m not sure sure house church movements or the emerging church are always a reaction against “bad” evangelicalism. Some are, but generally they are more of a continuation of historical evangelicalis practices; adapting form, vocabulary and expression in order to effectively address a new missiological situation.

  10. J

    Lukas,

    I agree. (Which is why I described it as “sort of” a reaction.)

  11. JLBetts

    You write: “As for ….rhetorical styles, well, I think prophets are obliged to tell the truth.”

    Certainly they are. I’m interested to know whether Ron Sider himself has responded to your critique? I wonder whether he considers his use of the stats falsehood?

    My guess is that he would defend his book as “telling the truth with a broad brush” – that his main points are all true. (I won’t go into whether they are or not, your critique dealt with that in detail and I am sympathetic to your position.)

    Again, I believe the difference in rhetorical styles (and the personalities behind those differences) simply mean there will always be a tension – if not conflict – between the orientations.

    But the real issue here is between Sider and yourself. I believe the two of you as Christian brothers do need to discuss it, and come to some resolve, since at least one of you believes truth to be at stake, and that it is not merely a matter of difference in styles.

  12. steve

    John,

    An excellent article that truly challenged me to be more realistic rather than solely idealistic. I confess to being influenced by the psuedo-research. Thank you for your insight.

    steve

  13. vicky

    Evangelicals are the worst hypocrites on the planet. Jesus said that “by their fruits you will know them.”

    I see rotten moral and ethical fruitage coming from most churches in general. If Jesus came today and started judgment most people (especially evangelicals) would not have anything in their life to recommend them as good Christians.

  14. John Stackhouse

    Well, Vicky, I think it would be hard to tell just who are the worst hypocrites. But of course you’re venting your feelings, and I’m sincerely sorry you’ve had such a bad time with some people called evangelicals. I know lots of pretty fine evangelicals, some pretty ordinary ones, and some pretty bad ones. But that’s true of my knowledge of Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, and pretty much everyone else, alas.

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