On Ashley Madison, Christians, and sloppy statistics

Statistic GraphicEarlier this week, Ed Stetzer wrote a post worth reading titled ‘My Pastor is on the Ashley Madison List.’ In it, he wrote, “Based on my conversations with leaders from several denominations in the U.S. and Canada, I estimate that at least 400 church leaders (pastors, elders, staff, deacons, etc.) will be resigning Sunday.” In the article, he is clear that this is a guess, though given his research background, it’s definitely an educated one.

Yet in the past two days since, I’ve lost count of the number of blogs and social media posts that have shared that 400 pastors are definitely resigning this weekend, as if these are confirmed figures rather than an estimate and as if the original number was just pastors instead of a wider net of church leaders.

Should we be talking about how to respond when church leaders (and members) are caught exploring or engaging in adultery? Certainly. Christian leaders presenting themselves as biblically qualified to lead while persisting in secret sin is a problem we need to address.

But should we also be concerned with whether or not we’re holding ourselves to a high standard of excellence in the figures we use when we talk about this issue? Definitely. When we present numbers as facts without even checking to see if they’re legit, we’re saying that making a point matters more to us than telling the truth.

I’ve seen this happen before, especially among Christians. We skim an article or half-listen to a speaker. Then we repeat a slightly different version of the facts. Then we do it again and again and again. Occasionally a prominent Christian speaker or pastor repeats the rumored yet inaccurate statistic, and then it spreads even more quickly. It’s like the childhood game Telephone. Then we laugh at how the message changes as little ones whisper it from ear to ear, but this adult version isn’t funny at all.

This is not a game. As Christians, we are the people of the Message. We follow the one who calls himself the Truth. Yet we are prone to repeat half truths (that is, lies) without checking them out.

I see it in disability ministry often. We say 80% of special needs parents divorce. (Not true.) We say somewhere between 80 and 90% of families affected by disability are unchurched. (Nope, though research does show they are slightly less churched than other families.) We say 90% of babies with Down syndrome are aborted. (Not quite.)

I’ll be writing some posts about the real figures we can use – ones based in research and backed up with citations – but for now, let’s just commit to do better. Let’s stop repeating “400 pastors” and 80% divorce rates and other incorrect numbers. We claim to stand in truth and we worship the one who embodies excellence, so let’s start holding ourselves to a standard of truth and excellence in the statistics we use.

In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon Dingle is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.

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© 2014 Rebecca Keller PhotographyCheck out Shannon Dingle’s blog series on adoption, disability and the church. In the series, Shannon looked at the four different kinds of special needs in adoptive and foster families and shared five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families. Shannon’s series is a must-read for any church considering adoption or foster care initiatives. Shannon’s series is available here.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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