Bradley R. E. Wright has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. Wright specializes in research on American Christianity.
In the author’s own words, “The thesis of this book is that Christians are exposed to many inaccurate statistics about our faith. To understand why this happens, we should look at how these statistics are produced and how they spread through the public.” (18) In light of recent headlines and popular books claiming a crisis of image for the American evangelical church, Wright explores the research behind the headlines, and notes a serious disconnect between the facts and the hype. But just in case you really need hype to motivate you, Wright provides it: “You should read this book because ‘there is a deeply disturbing trend of bad statistics that is sabotaging American Christianity and destroying the American way of life, and if you ignore it your entire body will soon be covered with boils. The good news, however, is that if you buy this book and read it carefully, you will avoid this calamity; plus you’ll live longer, have fresh breath, and your kitchen knives will always stay sharp.’”(24) You gotta love a sociologist with a sense of humor.
The book is arranged in nine chapters, each exploring an issue that often appears in the popular literature. Chapter one looks at the “if it bleeds, it leads” aspect of the issue. Chapter two tests the rumors of the demise of the American church. Chapter three looks at the alleged exodus of young people from the church. Chapter four analyses popular stereotypes of Christians. Chapter five examines the consistency of Christians’ beliefs and actions. Chapter six focuses on alleged bad behavior of professing Christians. Chapter seven explores the level of love shown by the church. Chapter eight takes a closer look at how those outside the church see the church. Finally, chapter nine boils it all down to a report card. Several appendixes are included to explain methodology.
As an apologist, especially one who has attempted campus ministry, I have heard all the claims of “75-80% of young people abandon their faith when they graduate high school.” I have worked with a major campus ministry that repeats (and I assume, genuinely believes) this figure. If Wright is not Wrong (rather than a slam on his name, I am actually trying to mimic Wright’s wonderful style of humor) the picture isn’t nearly so bleak. That being said, one Christian abandoning his faith because he doesn’t have good answers to the challenges he encounters is too many.
Some of the numbers cited make me wish more data was available to better support the inferences drawn. For example, Wright looks at the occurrence of certain sinful behaviors among Christians and non-Christians. It would really be helpful if data was available to show the change in frequency of these behaviors over time. If discipleship was genuine, we would expect the frequency to decrease with time. Questions like “Have you _____ at least once in the last year?” are of limited help. Maybe the respondent would answer yes, but the previous year they did so more often. Likewise, some actions, once done, cannot be undone. Divorce and abortion are examples explored. Wright points out in the case of divorce, it is not known if they happened before or after conversion. Even if it happened after, people grow in their faith and given a chance to do it over again would not.
Finally, Wright notes with disappointment how evangelicals feel about various people whom we are called to love. This is a fair point, but is it necessarily the case that this indicates a deficiency? Could it not be the case that someone would honestly report a less than warm feeling for some group, but be determined to let the love of God drive their behavior toward them rather than their feelings?
This book is accessible for anyone with a high school education, but is more suited to those in leadership roles, or interested in such. Wright displays a unique ability to make statistical analysis interesting and even entertaining.