How often have you heard, in the last year, some alarming statistics that “prove” young kids are sprinting away from the church, that Christianity in the West will die in the next generation, and that the world thinks Christians are idiots? If so, then today’s Friday Five will challenge some of those statistical assumptions.
I’m delighted to interview Bradley R.E. Wright. Brad Wright is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut where he studies American Christianity. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, where he was trained in social psychology and criminology. He has authored twenty scholarly articles and two books: Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told (2010), and Upside: Surprising Good News about the State of Our World (2011). Hypocrites won the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award for Christianity and Culture.
You’ve taken on some “sacred cows” of the evangelical church in that you’ve challenged some of the research that has driven our methodology. Have you seen opposition? What has been the reaction?
Surprisingly no. When I started, I expected a somewhat stormy reaction to my contradicting the conventional wisdom about American Christianity. Either people like what I’m saying, or, if they don’t they just ignore it and cling to useful but, from my perspective, ultimately inaccurate view of the Church.
Perhaps the biggest piece of research you have debunked is the idea that this generation of young people is less faithful than previous generations, the idea that we faith will be “lost in a generation.” Why are you confident that this isn’t true?
Ultimately we don’t know what will happen in the future, because it hasn’t happened yet. But, so far, the beliefs, actions, and affiliations of this generation of Christian young people are mostly similar to those of preceding generations. If ever there was a generation of young people who would throw off Christianity, it would have been the children of the 1960s, but now their among the people forecasting disaster for this generation.
Seems evangelicals are so reliant on research, especially stuff that makes us look bad, as a means of motivating us to action. Why is this?
Many Evangelical leaders, writers, pastors, and others find bad news about the Church to be very useful. It’s an easy and effective way to get people to listen to your sermon, buy your book, attend your conference, and, in general, take seriously what you have to communicate. This is true even when the bad news itself is factually incorrect.
Ultimately, however, our reliance on bad news probably hurts us far more than it helps us. It’s discouraging in that it probably reduces motivation to advance the mission of the Church–why should we if we think it’s in such disarray? Also, speaking truth is a foundation of our faith, and so it is with no shortage of irony that we frequently speak less than accurately to advance the Kingdom.
You’re latest book, Upside, looks at some of the positive research about our country and our world. So things are not as bad and apocalyptic as we seem?
Certainly some things are getting worse in our world, but many more things are getting better. Worldwide, humans are healthier and live longer than ever in our history. Extreme poverty, living on $1.50 a day or less, has been cut in half over the past 30 years. Here in the United States, crime has decreased substantially since the 1980s.
Think of it this way. Is there any other time in history that you would be better off living in? I can’t think of any.
In your view, what is the proper role for research in the church and how can we best use it to do God’s work?
This is a great question, and it’s one that I spend a lot of time puzzling over. So far I’ve tried to support the work of the Church by describing what’s really going on in the Church, both good and bad. It seems to me, however, that there should be other ways of using research in the Church, and while I have some general ideas, I would welcome any thoughts about it