Debunking the Dropout Myth

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Gut Feelings Aren’t Good Statistics
This lie didn’t start as a lie. It was a well-intended, casual
survey that metamorphosed far beyond what anyone envisioned.
A few years ago, a doctoral student named Brandon Shields
discovered the earliest sources of the 90 percent statistic.
Apparently, it began in the 1990s when Jay Strack, a popular
conference speaker, invited a roomful of youth ministers to share
their gut feelings about how many youth were dropping out of church
after high school. When Strack summed up the responses, he came up
with a 90 percent dropout rate.
Strack later reported that he never intended his statistic to be
interpreted as fact. Once he repeated the information a few times,
though, other leaders began to reiterate the 90 percent dropout
rate as truth. It spread quicker than a stomach virus in a cabin
full of middle schoolers halfway through a week of camp.
There’s nothing wrong with asking a few people how they feel about
an issue. But conversational “surveys” will never result in
reliable statistics. In this instance, the collective estimates of
a few ministers resulted in exaggerated percentages that received
tremendous publicity and eventually ended up in ministry
resources.

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Later claims escalated the hysteria. A popular book published in
1997 claimed that only four percent of young people surveyed at
that time were born-again Christians. As a result, the author
claimed, “According to present trends, we are about to lose
eternally the second largest generation in America’s history.” The
truth is, this survey spanned only three U.S. states and included
information from a mere 211 youth. (To be fair, at least the author
was transparent on his methodology.) Other leaders then trumpeted
the “trend” as a harbinger of impending doom.
     

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