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Debunking the Dropout Myth

Timothy Paul Jones, Professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

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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