Monday, October 04, 2010

When Numbers Do Harm

Pew released the results of a survey last week which in essence says atheists know their bibles almost as well Christians do and know world religions better. Headlines read, "Atheists, Jews top religious knowledge survey," and "Atheists, agonistics most knowledgeable about religion." First, let me say that Pew and groups like them, for the most part, do good. I have no real issue with the attempt to gain and report a broad understanding of the religious climate and understanding of America. Furthermore, I am also grateful for groups like LifeWay Research that do important studies on topics such as church life, evangelism, and missions. Finally, I am grateful of the individual men and women who God has used to pave the way for me to learn and grow as a believe through their own experiences, ministries, preaching and writing. One book that has shaped the way I think of church planting is The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch, in particular the chapter entitled "Communitas, not Community," where communitas,
Involves adventure and movement, and it describes that unique experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people inspired by the vision of a better world who actually attempt to do something about it.
These are good words that helped shape the way I seek to live in Chicago. Yet all the books, all the studies, all the experiences of others, and all the statistics can do major harm to us when we rely too much on them. Why? Because we will sacrifice names for numbers and people for percentages.

I was struck by this over the weekend because of two conversations. The first was with one of the physical therapy assistants where I am rehabbing my knee. He and I got into an excellent conversation about his church background and his current beliefs. He was open and willing to share where his heart is, holding a fairly subjective moralism common throughout the world - "If I'm a good person, I will have my reward." I was able to challenge him somewhat on his understanding of "good," on his view of God, what the Bible is, and who Jesus is. Then yesterday I was at the Gator bar here in Chicago for the game in which we were destroyed. I was there with an old fraternity brother who's a brilliant guy studying theoretical and applied physics at Northwestern. Through his study he is convinced there is some kind of creator, but isn't willing to go much further. I challenged him to take the next step to think about how a creating Being isn't a personal Being, especially when that Being created humans.

What I'm trying to say is that we can get really comfortable building our ministries and our churches off of the work of others. It is easy to say that atheists know religion better than Christians do, therefore we must respond in some way. It is another story to talk with your neighbor Gary and be humiliated in a conversation because you don't know anything about either Hinduism or his atheism. It is one thing to know that Chicago is a party city based off of the stench of beer on the streets in the morning and the statistics of how many people die each year due to alcohol related incidents. It's another thing to be at a bar packed with your friends John and Larry who don't seem to think much about Jesus but more about University of Florida football and drink specials.

Scripture has a lot to say both about numbers and names. The years of the earliest humans are given (Gen. 5), the number of the people of Israel is given from the beginning of Exodus on through the book of Numbers (Ex. 1; Num. 1-7). Censuses were taken (2 Sam. 24). The number of people present at Jesus' various feeding miracles is given (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10) and the number of people who believed after Peter's first sermon is told (Acts 2:41). And there are numbers of great symbolic importance such as three, seven, and twelve. However, names matter more. God's name is given (Ex. 3:14) and at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess (Phil. 2:9-11). For the Jews at least, names were not arbitrary but spoke to what God had done or to the character of the individual. Jesus, the friend of sinners, called Zacchaeus and his persecutor Saul by name (Luke 19:2-8; Acts 9:4). Paul sent personal greetings to individuals throughout Romans 16, naming each one of them. And if God knows the number of hairs on my head, he knows my name, Andrew, the name of the person whose head their on.

Percentages are harmful when people are sacrificed for them.
Numbers do harm when names are never learned or forgotten.
Let us be a people who know more names than numbers.

By His Grace.


  1. Adam O.2:27 PM

    Hello Andrew,

    There are complex issues involved with surveys like this - for example, the survey "corrected for education," or something in similar words. What does that mean concretely? I'd love to know, since, if education level was not corrected for, I would expect similar results.

    There are many people who call themselves Christians and neither read the Bible (outside of a verse or two on Sunday in church) nor educate themselves in the history of their religion. On the other hand, atheists tend (a dangerous word, I know) to be highly educated, and those with backgrounds in the humanities tend to know a great deal about religions and the philosophy of religions and metaphysics in general.

    There are, of course, opposite scenarios. There are Christians who make my knowledge of anything look meager and there are atheists who didn't graduate high school.

    However, across the board, the relative percentages of atheists, agnostics, and Christians in the U.S. seem to bear out the results. With more than 3/4 of the U.S. population claiming Christianity, one expects a very divergent rate of correct responses, particularly because the demographics are so varied. This doesn't hold for the other group to the same extent.

  2. Hi Adam,

    I appreciate the response. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that the survey results are very accurate, even if there may be some complicated control factors in them. If that is what you're saying, I think you are right.

    I am not disagreeing with the results. I would agree for the most part that atheists and agnostics have a better understanding of religions than Christians.

    I am merely saying that the issue with numbers is that we become too easily dependent on them. For example, I would much rather get to know my neighborhood by having 10-15 conversations with the people who have lived there and then corroborate those conversations with numbers from City Data to gain the broad understanding.

    I think it is sad that Christians don't know their own religion well let alone others. If we read the Bible, particularly Acts 17, we see at least one individual who was able to hold his own the philosophers of his day and still point them to Christ. I can only hope to do the same.

  3. Adam,

    Go Gators! (I Pastor in a church outside of Gainesville and have learned much about the Gator Nation in my two years here).

    I agree with the tension of this article. Well stated. I believe it is much easier to get fired up about evangelism in general by these numbers than actually reaching out to your neighbor next door. I think many people read these stats and think 'That's terrible', shake their heads, and then continue on their daily routines without any change. (I can do this in my own life as well)

    May we be more uncomfortable when we read these statistics and respond the our uncomfortablity by opening our mouths and being vulnerable and sharing 'the hope that lies within us'.

    If you are ever in the area, feel free to stop on by here...

  4. Hey Hayden,
    Thanks for the words. You make a good point about opening our mouths. I am challenged by the thought to know my neighborhood by speaking to my neighbors as opposed to reading about them.

    What's your church's name?