Monday, March 7, 2011

Myths and Marketing Aren't Divorced

I'm sensing a new trend in our evangelical culture.

The use of exaggeration to capture attention.

Perhaps it's to be expected after decades of watering down the Gospel, watering down worship, and trying to improve upon Christianity's relevance to our culture. I mean, mediocrity can only get so relevant in a world hell-bent on finding the least common denominator. Isn't Christianity supposed to be BETTER than the world?

Plus, technological advances in desktop publishing have opened the floodgates for anybody with an opinion wanting to write a book. Or a blog. Especially those bloggers! Don't you get tired with their air of superiority? (insert winking emoticon here)

I've complained before about how some Christian leaders - even some I personally respect - have taken the bait and dived into the deep end of our bookseller industry's world of marketing and hype. Titles like "Prodigal God." Or "Crazy Love," which insinuates God is mentally unstable. Or "Vintage Jesus," as if Christ's teachings are old-fashioned instead of eternal. Or "God's Astounding Opinion of You," as if it's possible for our omniscient Creator to be subjective.

After all, I understand that perhaps now more than ever, a title has to work overtime piquing interest and attracting readership. But marketing notwithstanding, titles still need to be factual, right?

Imagine, then, my surprise fade to disappointment this morning when I found an article on Crosswalk.com by an executive from Focus on the Family with the title, "The Christian Divorce Rate Myth."

Wow, I thought. Good news? Has the divorce rate dropped dramatically in the evangelical church? I eagerly clicked on the link.

Would the Real Divorce Rates Please Stand Up?

The failure rate of marriages in the American church has been one of Christianity's most miserable testimonies to the world around us. You see, when it comes to divorce rates in the church compared to general society, statistics since the 1980's have consistently indicated that marriage failure is equally common both inside and outside the church.

Contrary to popular opinion, our country's actual divorce rate has never been definitively quantified. The United States Census and the National Center for Health Statistics have both pegged our divorce rate at approximately 50% ever since 1980, but that figure has been widely disputed. For one thing, the Census cuts off their calculations for people aged 65 years and over, eliminating the count of people who, say, divorce during retirement. Experts have also questioned whether the inclusion by the Census of remarriage by divorcees actually skews the percentage upwards, since it puts remarriage back on the same playing field as first-time marriages.

Perhaps a more conservative estimate comes from the legal advocacy group Americans for Divorce Reform, which says America's divorce rate hovers around 38%.

Other experts have pegged it anywhere between 30 and 40%. In 1999, Barna Research Group, generally considered to be a mathematically-astute polling company sympathetic to Christian values, put the national divorce rate at about 30%.

So for the national divorce rate, let's average everything out and, all things considered, say the rate is 35%. Still sobering, but not as sensational as 50% for the country as a whole.

Which brings us to churched folk. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, Barna found that divorce rates in churches ranged from 34% for people attending non-denominational churches, to 21% for Lutherans. But this was in 1999.

In 2008, Barna did another study, which found divorce rates between churched and unchurched people to be roughly equivalent: 33% for unchurched, 32% for churched. Which, factoring in the margin for error, makes the the difference statistically irrelevant.

So, you can see why, in light of all of this statistical support for divorce being as rampant in church as it is in society at large, I became intrigued by the possibility the rate isn't really as bad as we've been told.

Spinning the Mythology?

But I was wrong. Not only did the writer of today's article on Crosswalk, Glenn Stanton, manage to make the numbers sound even worse, he haphazardly summarized some misleading studies.

"Professor Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, explains from his analysis of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church, that 60 percent of these have been divorced. Of those who attend church regularly, 38 percent have been divorced."

Hmm.

Which part of this is good news? Can a churched divorce rate of 38% debunk the Christian divorce rate "myth?"

Several factors with this scenario seem incongruous. In addition to his data negatively exceeding even standard assumptions, one of Stanton's references is a 2002 family study from Oklahoma, of all places. Not exactly a state known for being representative of the country - or evangelicalism - as a whole.

How significant is Dr. Wright's qualification that people who "identify as Christians but rarely attend church" have a 60% divorce rate? What about Catholics, Jews, Muslims, or atheists? Here's where the lack of diversity in Oklahoma really makes me suspicious.

In addition, how disturbing is Stanton's suggestion that a 38% divorce rate among Christians is something we should cheer? He actually seems relieved that the rate is nearly 40% for regular churchgoers, at least according to the studies he's referenced.

Most importantly, however, Stanton quotes scholars who are trying to qualify spiritual growth, a futile task for anybody who understands that only God knows our hearts. Surely relying on personal professions of church membership and attendance, Bible readership, home group participation, praying, and other "faith" metrics represents an unreliable way to determine spirituality.

Besides, the world around us just looks at people who walk through church doors; they don't run algorithms of spirituality on all of us. If they have friends who go to church getting a divorce, whether it's fair or not, the message they get is "church was no help for them."

While it is likely true that the more time married people spend in faith metrics, the least likely they are to divorce, aren't we still left with an inability to quantify that spirituality?

Hype, Not Substance, Wins the Day

I was hoping Stanton would provide proof that divorce rates among people of faith had fallen below something like 10%. To me, that would debunk some myths!

Instead, I've become just a little bit more jaded about the competence of people we're supposed to consider experts in religious discourse. After all, Stanton serves as director for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family and a research fellow at the Institute of Marriage and Family in Ottawa, Canada. He's written four books and speaks extensively on gender, marriage, and parenting issues. Am I wrong for expecting more from him?

This is one of the many times where I wouldn't mind being proven wrong!

And what about that competition among Christian authors? Guess what - Stanton got my viewership, and tracking software has notched what it perceives as my interest in his content, and added it to his analytics statistics. All because his title caught my eye. But even though his title worked, and my Internet visit to his article increases the technical validity of his content, his article still disappoints on many levels.

Sure, hype gets the numbers. But shouldn't it be truth that matters?
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