Does Ed Stetzer Debunk an Urban Legend?
[Captain Cassidy] A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote about the way that bad ideas enter the canon of Christian beliefs. The bad idea I examined back then was love the sinner, hate the sin. As terrible as that idea is, and as demonstrably impossible as it is for Christians to put it into action, it’s all but a core foundational belief for millions of them now. In similar fashion, Ed Stetzer accidentally created a false belief about dropouts from his religion. And ever since he popularized this idea, it’s assumed a life of its own. Here is how he did it, why he did it, and most importantly what it means for his religion’s future.
Ed Stetzer works as a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) shill. Until recently, he worked for the SBC itself in its LifeWay division. (LifeWay functions as the SBC’s biased-research arm and propaganda mill.) In his new digs, he works as a teacher at Wheaton College, mostly focusing on evangelism. This focus looks laughable, given that in his time at LifeWay, he did not once come up with a single working strategy for reversing the SBC’s decade-plus-long baptism drought–which is their term for a dramatic drop in baptisms.
Though all demographic groups flee the SBC’s oppressive arms, no group flees more rapidly than young adults. And literally nobody in the SBC’s leadership appears capable of even understanding why it’s happening, much less reversing it. Pretty much all they can do is invent reasons that fit with their ideology and desired behaviors.
At this point, fundagelicals–that unholy fusion of evangelicals with fundamentalists–function as the hyper-politicized and eager foot-soldiers in their leaders’ culture wars. And they obsess over feverish dreams of dominance over their enemies. They absolutely reject the notion of being on anything but “the winning team,” which is of course TEAM JESUS. However, even as their dreams of power materialize in the political arena in uneven and disturbing ways, tons of adherents leave their ranks every year.
For years now, the world has watched a swift and steady hemorrhage of believers from Christianity in general. This hemorrhage spells the end of the religion as a dominant power in the United States. As the balance shifts, Christians struggle to reconcile themselves with their new normal.
And as Ed Stetzer shows us, some of them never manage the trick.
He omitted the source of this startling “quote.” Nor does he reveal why the statement is “not true.”
In December of that same year, he writes about this exact number again:
I’ve heard some pretty remarkable statistics about church dropouts – I’m sure you have, too. Such as: 94 percent (some say 86 percent) of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school, never to return. The problem? Those stats are urban legends. They’ve not been validated, and research has never come to that conclusion.
Ah, okay. That’s good to know.
He isn’t wrong, there, for what it’s worth.
By December of 2018, four years later, Ed Stetzer appeared to have forgotten that this study was an urban legend:
For many years, people have based their thoughts on this subject on the findings of one particularly famous study that suggested that 86% of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school never to return again. This study, for the record, is not a real study.
He doesn’t clarify what he means by that last sentence. It’s entirely possible to read this sentence and come out thinking it wasn’t a reliable study, not that it simply never existed.
Unfortunately, fundagelicals had long ago trampled the gate. He might declare to the heavens that this figure didn’t originate with “a real study,” though he never says why it wasn’t a real study.
I had trouble finding an example of the figure from before May of 2014. However, I noticed it sprouting everywhere afterward. The writers discussing it always cited Stetzer as the source–along with his quibbles with it.
A Life of Its Own.
Over the years, this made-up urban-legend statistic took hold in fundagelical imaginations–almost always as a straw man they could tilt at.
Almost immediately after Stetzer’s May 2014 post, someone else grabbed his numbers and ran with them. Around the same time, a Christian site called Crosswalk echoes Stetzer’s quote. It quickly landed in the nearly-irrelevant Church Health Wiki. One guy reblogged the whole thing around then too.
I thought, This number must be coming from SOMEWHERE. It sure doesn’t seem to have come from the 2007 LifeWay study itself. And other sources from around that time sure don’t mention it, though they do mention the 70% figure.
Then I found it.
Gang, this might be the Rosetta Stone of Crazypants.
An innocuous and ungraceful little blog post from 2008 lists a markedly similar quote, including Ed Stetzer’s “updated” figures. Not only did it provide the magical 86% number, but also gave a few more nuggets of information. It begins thusly, with an uncited quote:
“Americans in their twenties are significantly less likely than any other age group to attend church.”
This first quote tracked to a 2003 Barna survey. This survey, conducted at the peak of fundagelical dominance in America, sounded an alarm. Though it got a lot of airplay on Christian sites, nobody else took it super-seriously, however. Then the blogger cites the 86% figure we know and loathe. And then it cites a second, equally uncited quote:
“These statistics suggest that the church is heading toward extinction.”
This second quote appears to originate with the 2008 blogger himself. I found it scattered all over his fake mental-health crisis hotline’s website. It appears, as well, in his site’s previous home in an undated document.
His Ears Might Have Burned.
Now, we don’t know if this blog post was written entirely in 2008. I couldn’t definitively date any earlier archive captures for comparison. But it sure looks possible that this scary 86% number began with this blogger. He wasn’t using it in 2005 in his group’s earlier internet home, it doesn’t seem. He never says where he got it, either.
That said, Ed Stetzer began working at LifeWay around 2007, as best as I can determine. So a 2008 blog post fits in just fine with our timeline. Other quotes, like one from a 2007 LifeWay post, supported a 2008 birthdate for the blog post, as did a quote from a 2001 Barna book.
[Editor’s Note: This was written by Captain Cassidy and originally published at Patheos]
[Editor’s Note: Title changed by P&P.]