Preachers love to drop statistics and historical tidbits into their sermons. Too bad so many of their facts are untrue.
By Bob Smietana
A few weeks ago, my teenage daughter laid down the law.
No more Tweeting in church, she told me. No surfing the web or sneaking a peak at a Facebook game on my phone. And most important of all — no more fact-checking the pastor’s sermon.
One of the dangers of being a reporter is that you don’t trust anyone. We live by a rule made famous at the now-shuttered City News Bureau in Chicago: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Reporters know that just because someone — even a pastor — says something is true, doesn’t make it so. That can be a problem in church. Not when it comes to matters of faith — there’s no fact-checking those. The trouble comes with more mundane things, the anecdotes and factoids that pastors like to sprinkle in their messages.
Take this lovely story I heard in a sermon recently:
A gardener was working a nobleman’s English estate when he noticed that a young boy had fallen in the pool and was drowning. The quick-thinking gardener dropped his tools, leapt into the pool, and saved the boy from drowning.
The boy, as it turned out, was a young Winston Churchill.
Churchill’s father was so reportedly so grateful that he made this offer to the gardener: I will pay for your son to go to college.
Years later, Churchill was afflicted with a terrible case of pneumonia and was near death. Fortunately, a new miracle drug called penicillin was available, and it saved Churchill’s life.
Here’s the best part: That miracle drug was invented by Alexander Fleming, the son of a poor gardener — the very same gardener who had saved Churchill as a boy.
It’s great story about the power of a good deed.
There’s just one problem. Almost nothing about this story is true. It’s one of the most popular myths about Churchill, according Snopes.com and the
Downers Grove-Illinois-based Churchill Centre.
How do I know this?
During the sermon, I stopped listening to the pastor and instead turned my eyes on my cell phone. Something about the story just didn’t sit right — it was too good to be true. So whatever spiritual lesson I was supposed to learn in the sermon was soon overshadowed by the wisdom of a Google search.
Things get even worse when a pastor starts quoting statistics.
I’ve heard most of these in church or in the pages of Christian publications. You may have heard a few of them, too:
None of these statistics are true.
People who go to church have lower divorce rates, churches in the U.S. aren’t dying out 80 percent of young people who read the Bible or go to church aren’t shacking up, and Facebook isn’t ruining a third of U.S. marriages.
And that stat about Christians who think youth groups are bad for teenagers comes from an online, unscientific survey by a Christian nonprofit that believes youth groups are unbiblical. So they created a survey that produced some statistics to prove their point.
To be fair, it’s not just preachers who love bad statistics or mythical anecdotes. As Stephen Colbert might put it, politicians and pundits and Hollywood executives embrace this kind of truthiness because it works.
Truthiness wins elections, sells book by the truckload, and creates blockbusters. It may even save a few souls along the way.
But it will not set us free. And it often leads to bad decision-making.
Take divorce. If you think that half of marriages end in divorce, then why not bail when things get tough, says author Shaunti Feldhahn, author of The Good News about Marriage.
But if you realize that most marriages make it — as Feldhahn points out, 72 percent of married people are still married to the first spouse — you are more likely to hang in there when things get tough.
If you think that the church in the United States is dying — it’s not, says my boss Ed Stetzer — then you might be tempted to lose hope. Bad statistics, he says, can “demoralize God’s people.”
Allow me to engage in a bit of an cliché here, and quote from the late, great C.S. Lewis. In The Screwtape Letters, first published in the 194Os, Lewis impersonates an elder demon who is giving advice on how to lead people astray.
One of the devil’s best tools, Lewis says, is misdirection. Get people to believe what they think is true — rather than what really is true: “The game is to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there’s a flood; and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gone under.”
For me, however, the worst part about bad facts in church — or in religious publications — is that they are so distracting. I come to church to pray, to listen, and to set aside the worries of everyday life and focus on things eternal. Tell me a bad fact and I’m gone, off on a rabbit trail, trying to sort out whether a fact or anecdote is true or not — and missing everything else that the preacher has to say.
That’s the last thing my soul needs, in this world filled with constant distractions and mistruths. So this Sunday, I’m going to resist temptation. I’ll leave my cell phone at home and pray that the Lord will have a bit of mercy on my fact-checking soul – but I’ll also pray that the Lord teaches the preacher about the wonderworking power of St. Google and Snopes.com.