Stanton Part II (Epic Fail Part I)

Stanton, in his article about the great news that the divorce rate among serious believers is 35%, calls on three references  listed in footnotes beneath the article.  While I’m waiting for the arrival of one of the books so that I can dissect the analysis from the inside out, I decided to chase information that calls into question the basis for the claims in Stanton’s references by using other studies. Ironically, many are from Barna, the source of the original 2001 survey that sent evangelicals into hysterical fits trying to prove that they really are leading their flocks into righteousness in every way, including marriage.

One of the metrics Stanton’s sources used to show the great news about lower divorce rates among the really really religious is to compare the likelihood of having experienced a divorce in two self-proclaimed Christian groups, those who rarely attend church and those who regularly attend church. Stanton’s sources (citations below) claim:

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

And

Those who say they are more religious are less likely, not more, to have already experienced divorce. Likewise, those who report more frequent attendance at religious services were significantly less likely to have been divorced.

Stanton’s take away is

The divorce rates of Christian believers are not identical to the general population — not even close. Being a committed, faithful believer makes a measurable difference in marriage.

Not so fast.

In one study people were contacted and asked a series of questions. You can read the methodology in the research and I am not here to pick it apart. I only point out that approximately 1000 people were spoken to, and asked if they are married, have been divorced, are Christian, if so if they attend regularly or only occasionally, and then they were asked some questions to garner opinions about things like cohabitation and ease of divorce.

Stanton says, based on his sources, that regular attendance and a list of other Christian activities like Bible reading etc. are the best way to stratify Christian’s by commitment level. His sources also go into some detail breaking out Catholics, Main line Protestants, and evangelicals/independents, but Stanton makes no mention of these nuances.  It would not matter anyway.

Barna has a ton of new research on church attendance. He states:

With Americans pursuing a growing number of “church” options, some of the traditional measures of church health are being redefined. According to a new study released by The Barna Group, which has been studying church participation patterns since 1984, popular measures such as the percentage of people who are “unchurched” – based on attendance at a conventional church service – are out of date.

He has unveiled a new model for measuring faith commitment, namely because social trends including electronic media and domicile transience increasing along with the advent and growth of many new faith practice alternatives to the traditional weekly church service make the old model obsolete. He therefore categorized people  in one of five segments.

One group of people who may have picked up the phone is people  Barna calls “unattached”.

Barna’s “unattached” category explanations offers one possible way the results Stanton cites above could be arrived at and yet NOT indicate anything definitive about his lauded committed attenders. Barna says:

The Unattached distinguished themselves from the churched population demographically, too. They are more likely to be single, male, and to have been divorced at some point. They are also less likely to be registered to vote, which is often a sign of people who feel less connected to or influential in society.[1]

This is a portrait of men who have been jettisoned from a marriage by their wives. How would these men respond to such a survey as those referenced in Stanton’s piece? Do divorced people stop going to church? Do they lie about church? Do they lie about faith?

Another Barna Survey showed:

People were more than 50% more likely to say that their church’s congregation is their most significant group than to say that God represents their most important personal connection. That certainly reflects the interpersonal comfort that millions of people have developed at their church, but also indicates that people may have forgotten the ultimate reason for belonging to a Christian church.”{2}

He continues to build his case that attendance and churchian tasks are not the best indicator of depth of belief or commitment TO CHRIST

Only 17% of adults said that “a person’s faith is meant to be developed mainly by involvement in a local church.” Even the most devoted church-going groups – such as evangelicals and born again Christians – generally dismissed that notion: only one-third of all evangelicals and one out of five non-evangelical born again adults endorsed the concept. Only one out of every four adults who possesses a biblical worldview (25%) agreed with the centrality of a local church in a person’s spiritual growth.[3]

And that real transformative growth in the faith and church attendance are unrelated.

While God-driven transformation is more common among people who are engaged in church life than among those who are not, neither the length of time involved with churches nor the amount of hours devoted to church-oriented activities bears much of a correlation to transformational progress. Barna stated, “you can be the Church Lady and yet be no farther along the journey than Richard Dawkins. Simply attending church activities and classes does not guarantee or necessarily enhance one’s transformational experience. Wholeness requires more than simply showing up and gorging on the religious-activities menu.” The study found that some people reach the ultimate stages of wholeness and maturity within just a couple of decades while others failed to achieve such maturity after more than five decades of consistent religious activity and positive intent.

Citing “tangible fruit” as a more desirable outcome than the factors often measured – such as attendance, giving, program completion, or even Bible knowledge – he suggested that Christians and communities of faith reconsider how they determine “success” and “maturity” in light of what the research has shown to be the characteristics of those who have reached the latter stops on the journey and exhibit more substantial evidence of holistic life transformation [4]

There are many more studies using different approaches all leading to the same conclusion, regular church attendance may well be a sign of devotion and commitment to something, but it is not a sign of commitment to God.  It is a sign of commitment to something though.

In fact, one reason why beliefs fluctuate is that most Americans’ hold few convictions about their faith. For instance, even among those who disagree with orthodox views, many do so while hedging their bets. Most Americans have one foot in the biblical camp, and one foot outside it. They say they are committed, but to what? They are spiritually active, but to what end? The spiritual profile of American Christianity is not unlike a lukewarm church that the Bible warns about.”[5]

People are committed to their church, to their small group, and to the habits and recommendations of said groups. These are not the same people as one would refer to when saying a person is committed to God, to Christ, to being a disciple and living a transformed life.

partially because the typical church model esteems attendance rather than interaction and immersion, partially due to the superficial experiences most believers have had in cell groups or Christian education classes, and partially attributable to our cultural bias toward independence and fluid relationships[6]

 

There was one more specific trend in yet another report that deserves mention here. That is the differences in the condition of faith of men and women in the U.S. over a twenty year period.

Of the 14 religious factors studied, women have experienced statistically significant changes related to 10 of them. Of those transitions, eight represent negative movement [7]

One of the metrics that show women moving in the negative direction is church attendance. That would throw a small wrench into my assertion but for the following observation.

except they have 2 “good ones, women attending churches bigger than 600 people was stable over 20 years, and women who claimed a personal Jesus only fell only 4% points.[7]

 

Stanton is boasting about people who regularly attend church having a lower divorce risk, asserting that that proves Christianity is a bulwark against divorce. I am suggesting that he may be correct about attendance, but that he is very wrong in assuming that is proportionately linked to and indicative of the depth of one’s actual commitment to deity…not to church…..but to God.

The club like nature of the growing churches which are those that represent churchianity, the gender trends in those churches, the self-professed belief sets among the members there and the macro trends and beliefs among those people about other social parameters clearly show that there is something at work that is not God intervening and averting divorce.  It also suggests that God isn’t guiding much about the beliefs of that set of people at all.

More directly this casts huge doubt on a method that questions a number of people and attempts to use the answers to three questions (Have you been divorced? Are you a Christian? How often do you attend?) to correlate serious Christian belief to lowered divorce risk.

The old Barna data from 2001 cannot be ignored.

Born again Christians are just as likely to get divorced as are non-born again adults. Overall, 33% of all born again individuals who have been married have gone through a divorce, which is statistically identical to the 34% incidence among non-born again adults. [8]

Residents of the Northeast and West are commonly noted for their more liberal leanings in politics and lifestyle. However, the region of the nation in which divorce was least likely was the Northeast. In that area, 28% of adults who had been married had also been divorced, compared to 32% in the Midwest, 35% in the South, and 38% in the West”””[8]

The adults analyzed in the born again category were not those who claimed to be born again, but were individuals who stated a personal commitment to Christ, having confessed their sins, embracing Christ as their savior, and believing that they have received eternal salvation because of their faith in Christ alone. More than 90% of the born again adults who have been divorced experienced that divorce after they accepted Christ, not before. It is unfortunate that so many people, regardless of their faith, experience a divorce, but especially unsettling to find that the faith commitment of so many born again individuals has not enabled them to strengthen and save their marriages

The data concerning marriage and divorce is based upon a combination of seven independent, national random samples of adults totaling 7043 [this is orders of magnitude more comprehensive than Stanton’s sources,one of which dealt only with Oklahomans]  interviews conducted by telephone between January 2000 and July 2001. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level[8]

Co-Habitation, Marriage and Divorce (base: 7043 adults 18+, national)*N=1005

 

have co-habited*

have never been married

have been married

% of those married who have ever been divorced

sample size

all adults

33%

27%

73%

34%

7043

born again Christians

25

19

81

33

2901

non-born again adults

39

32

68

34

4142

Catholics

36

27

73

29

1570

Protestants

30

22

78

32

3812

Age: under 35

44

58

42

20

2426

Age: 35-49

34

14

86

39

2155

Age: 50+

18

6

94

36

2328

white

34

21

79

34

4839

black

31

38

62

36

964

Hispanic

31

41

59

32

834

But if you don’t care for 10 year old data, he has newer.

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 5017 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, from January 2007 through January 2008.[9]

Divorce Among Adults Who Have Been Married

(Base: 3792 adults)

Population Segment

Have Been Divorced

No. of Interviews

 

 

 

All adults 33% 3792

 

 

 

Evangelical Christians 26% 339
Non-evangelical born again Chrisitans 33% 1373
Notional Christians 33% 1488
Associated with non Christian faith 38% 197
Atheist or agnostic 30% 269
All born again Christians 32% 1712
All non born again Christians 33% 2080

 

 

 

Protestant 34% 1997
Catholic 28% 875

 

 

 

Upscale 22% 450
Downscale 39% 367

 

 

 

White 32% 2641
African-American 36% 464
Hispanic 31% 458
Asian 20% 128

 

 

 

Conservative 28% 1343
Moderate 33% 1720
Liberal 37% 474

(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)

In the final post I will do some qualitative and quantitative unpacking of the references he cites. It will be even more clear that his target audience are those who had their minds made up before they read his article, hence little risk they would do any checking on their own.

There is simply too much conflicting data, and wishful thinking will no more fix it than it will conjure unicorns. Churchianity is not averting divorce, it is masking it. The people Stanton is speaking about are not committed Christians, they are purveyors and consumers of The Personal Jesus (TM).

In short, Glenn Stanton……FAIL.

1.) http://www.barna.org/congregations-articles/45-new-statistics-on-church-attendance-and-avoidance

2.) http://www.barna.org/culture-articles/44-americans-identify-their-most-important-relationships?q=church+attendance

3.) http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/267-americans-have-commitment-issues-new-survey-shows?q=church+attendance

4.) http://www.barna.org/transformation-articles/480-research-on-how-god-transforms-lives-reveals-a-10-stop-journey?q=church+attendance

5.) http://www.barna.org/congregations-articles/103-barnas-annual-tracking-study-shows-americans-stay-spiritually-active-but-biblical-views-wane?q=church+attendance

6.) http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/267-americans-have-commitment-issues-new-survey-shows?q=church+attendance

7.) http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/508-20-years-of-surveys-show-key-differences-in-the-faith-of-americas-men-and-women?q=church+attendance

8.) http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/56-born-again-adults-less-likely-to-co-habit-just-as-likely-to-divorce?q=church+attendance

9.) http://www.barna.org/family-kids-articles/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released?q=church+attendance

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