Doubting Christian Statistics

You’ve probably heard various statistics about Christians, such as Christians having slightly higher divorce rates than non-Christians. Such statistics should be treated with a certain level of skepticism. If the data were based on a random sample of regenerate Christians and accurately reflected the reality of those polled, then it would be reasonable to accept the results (in accordance with the margin for error), but reality is not like that. There are at least 3 reasons why we should be careful about our conclusions based on such data:

1. Misidentification

First, in polls (as in real life) it is simply not possible to determine who is a regenerate Christian. For instance according to a page on the Barna website summarising their statistics on born again Chrstians,

In Barna Research Group studies, born again Christians are not defined on the basis of characterizing themselves as “born again” but based upon their answers to two questions. The first is “have you ever made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today?” If the respondent says “yes,” then they are asked a follow-up question about life after death. One of the seven perspectives a respondent may choose is “when I die, I will go to Heaven because I have confessed my sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.” Individuals who answer “yes” to the first question and select this statement as their belief about their own salvation are then categorized as “born again.”

Yet even with this careful methodology, 40% of American adults are born again Chrstians, which seems too high to be the number of regenerate Christians. Other results from the webpage cast further doubt. For instance, “About one-third of born agains (33%) believe that if a person is good enough they can earn a place in Heaven.” Admittedly some who respond yes to this could believe that nobody is actually good enough, but also 28% believe Jesus sinned, and only 32% believe in moral absolutes. These inconsistent beliefs ought to cause us to be suspicious of other stastistics about this group.

If an individual tells us that they are a Christian, but their beliefs and/or actions are inconsistent with that claim then we may rightly wonder whether they are actually regenerate. We should apply such skepticism to polls too.

2. Misreporting

An article on the difference between actual church attendance and church attendance reported in polls describes how researchers have found that when asked if they attended church in the previous week, twice as many people claimed they had compared to the actual rate of attendance.

As the article says:

Researchers who study how people answer survey questions have long known that responses to behavioral questions represent more (or less) than “just the facts.” When asked how many times they ate out last week, how frequently they have sex, and whether or not they voted in the last election, most people report what they usually do, what they would like to do or what they think someone like them ought to do. The question that Gallup asks, “Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?” provokes similar, often less than factual responses.

Christians may be on average more inclined to believe that they ought to do something they are polled about, but they also ought to tell the truth if they didn’t actually do it, so it is unclear how misreporting affects statistics for Christians, especially in comparison to the statistics for non-Christians.

3. Misinterpretation

Another problem is simple misinterpretation. Does a statistic have the implication that you draw from it? For example, in her book, Getting Serious About Getting Married, Debbie Maken asks, “Why are [Christian’s] lives as marred as non-Christians? Why have two-thirds of Christian singles thrown away their virginity?” The reference she gives is to an article by Julia Duin called No One Wants to Talk About It, subtitled, Why are evangelical singles sleeping around?, which says:

My research turned up a few rough figures. In their 1991 book, Single Adult Passages: Uncharted Territories, Carolyn Koons and Michael Anthony had surveyed 1,500 single Christians. They found significant levels of sexual activity. Of the women surveyed, 39 percent were virgins. I also got hold of two similar surveys, one a singles survey from Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and the other a survey of single Southern Baptists. Both revealed only a third of the respondents had abstained from sex.

I do not intend to attempt to explain away the apparent problem of pre-marital sex amongst Christians, but I do wish to illustrate how statistics can easily be misinterpreted. The proportion of Chrstian singles who have abstained from sex since their conversion will be lower than those who have abstained from sex completely, and if this distinction is overlooked the problem of Christians engaging in pre-marital sex will be overblown. Also do the surveys include those who had only engaged in sex during marriage, but had since become single? Probably not, but if so then the statistics make things look worse than they are.

There is great potential for misinterpretation of statistics, for instance by wrongly assuming that correlation implies causality. Both sides of an argument may use statistics to come to contradictory conclusions, and we should be particularly careful when conclusions align with our preferences. I hope to be able to expand on these ideas later on.


I am not saying that we cannot learn from statistics about Christians, but we should treat them with care, they are not as straightforward as they appear. How much does the statistic that a third of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church singles had abstained from sex tell us about chastity, or about regenerate church attendance there, or about the ages and backgrounds of their people at conversion? Can the result be assumed to be similar for another Presbyterian church or Christians more generally, or might differences in teaching, support, culture etc. make the equation unrealistic?

The Holy Spirit has a powerful sanctifying effect on the behaviour of regenerate Christians, yet polls tend to show little difference between the behaviour of Christians and non-Christians, sometimes Christians come out worse. The reality must surely not be that bad, though still far worse than it should be. In the end it does not matter for us what the polls say, we as Christians are each called to live righteous lives, to be salt and light. Though in the polls Christians may look the same as the world, we ought to show those who see us, that the same is not true of us. And if we are acting like the world, then we should ask ourselves why.

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8 Comments on “Doubting Christian Statistics”

  1. Anakin Niceguy Says:

    So how do you get a quantifiable random sample of “regenerate” Christians for an empirical study? It seems that we are chasing rabbits when we say, “Oh, those people aren’t real Christians.” In fact, in saying such, it seems a lot like committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. Criticizing Barna on this matter is missing the point. The point is that lot of people professing to be Evangelical believers are not living up to the religion they epouse.

  2. chizadek Says:

    Anakin, I agree that we can’t sample regenerate Christians, and I don’t blame Barna for failing to do that, in fact I’m impressed by how good his methodology is. But I do want to point out that when interpreting statistics about Christians (or evangelicals etc.) we should realise what group the poll actually represents. I think we too easily take polls at face value. They seem so scientific with their clearly defined statements and their +/-2% accuracy (based on the sample size), yet the accuracy also depends on the quality of the sample etc.

  3. Elnwood Says:

    Barna has a much narrower definition for “evangelical”:

    “Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. (

    This eliminates, among others, theological liberals who deny the reliability of the bible and open-theists. This will get you much closer to a representative picture of regenerate Christians. One wonders why Barna even uses the born-again model at all, since most use the terms born-again and evangelical interchangeably. The criteria still lacks, however, a statement on the deity of Christ, so it probably includes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons as well.

    And Chizadek, you may find it interesting that Barna makes it a point to tell us not once, but twice, that 77% of evangelicals are married. Next, Barna is going to survey what kind of eunuch the other 23% are.

  4. […] Candice Watters has written an article that looks at a Barna poll that shows that there are more unmarried men than unmarried women who are identified as born again Christians. She conlcudes from this that “Never-married Christian women don’t outnumber never-married Christian men.” However as I said in a previous post, those who identify as born again Christians are not the same as those who actually are Christians. There is a general impression that there are more single women than men in churches and I have much greater confidence in that than the Barna statistic. […]

  5. K Says:

    I think you meant to say”The proportion of ChrIstian singles who have abstained from sex since their conversion will be HIGHER than those who have abstained from sex completely THROUGHOUT THEIR LIVES.”

  6. There is an inherent flaw in the login of the author as presented here. The author is correct that the Barna Group has an issue with their methodology. Two issues arise – first, a close reading of the Scripture, specifically the Greek NT indicates that the questions as possed by Barna group are not the right or correct questions which would qualilfy a Christian as regenerate. Confession of sins is not the issue – recognition that one is a sinner and in need of redemption and the profession of Christ as the Saviour who provides that redemption is the exact and correctly stated issue. The second issue is this – the author falsely makes an a priori assumption that because a Christian has beliefs that seem inconsistent with the tenets of the faith, their salvation or regenerate status is in doubt. Such logic is not only flawed but totally absurd. This would be tantamount to saying that if a person is a patriot of the US, they could only possibly hold very particular beliefs about a variety of social and political issues – otherwise they couldn’t possible be a US citizen. Most individuals will recognize that such a statment / position is at best absurb. A rationial individual would never believe such logic. Why then should such logic be applied to Christians or any membership of any other religious group? Opinions and percpections of theology will always vary among any group of religious adherents. Such does not invalidate their spiritual status in the eyes of God.

  7. Christopher Says:

    I appreciate this analysis of what statistics can mean. If asked if I was chaste before marriage, my answer would have to be “no”. This might imply that Christians are active sexually. But if asked if I was chaste after conversion, then the answer would be the opposite with the opposite implication. How questions are asked are critical.

    In addition, a believer may fall into sexual sin and then repent and let Christ be Lord over that area. From then on that believer may use wisdom and God’s power to stay out of sexual sin until marriage. While statistically this could be reported as Christians being as involved in sexual sins as non-Christians, in truth there would be a radically different attitude toward sexually activity outside of marriage and one’s practice of it between the Christian and non-Christian.

  8. Thomas Says:

    Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. The great and powerful OZ has spoken!

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