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Debunking the Dropout Myth

Timothy Paul Jones, Professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary


droppingBad News Is Big News
It's easy to point accusing fingers at the sources of statistics-but the problem isn't really the numbers. These numbers arose from well-intended attempts to assess the effectiveness of church ministries.
The more problematic question is, Why are we so willing to wallow in the worst possibilities, even when those possibilities aren't well-founded?

  • We get excited about bad news. Human nature relishes the discovery of a hidden crisis. Once we've discovered that crisis, we rarely keep the news to ourselves. We spread bad news and, with each retelling, we tend to stretch it. That's why God warns: "Do not go about spreading slander" (Leviticus 19:16).
    In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson provided a clear example of this phenomenon: "The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey's findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4 percent since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by Barna Research claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation."
    The tendency to turn bad news into big news doesn't completely explain how rapidly these numbers spread through churches. I suggest an additional reason. Since the 1950s, a fun-and-games approach dominated many youth ministries. In the 1990s, a new generation of youth ministers emerged. These leaders were quickly frustrated with the assumption that a youth minister's role was primarily to entertain adolescents.
  • The news that youth ministry had failed to keep kids connected to the church resonated with these young leaders' existing feelings of frustration. This widespread frustration yielded some very positive results. This frustration fueled the development of healthier ministry strategies than the fun-and-games approaches the youth ministers had inherited. The results included ministry approaches that emphasized discipleship, community, and the cultivation of intergenerational relationships. The good news is that many constructive outcomes were propelled forward by spreading twisted statistics.
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