You Might Want to Fact-Check Your Pastor’s Sermon

Preachers love to drop statistics and historical tidbits into their sermons. Too bad so many of their facts are untrue.

A few weeks ago, my teenage daughter laid down the law.

No more Tweeting in church, she told me. No surfing the web or sneaking a peak at a Facebook game on my phone. And most important of all — no more fact-checking the pastor’s sermon.

One of the dangers of being a reporter is that you don’t trust anyone. We live by a rule made famous at the now-shuttered City News Bureau in Chicago: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Reporters know that just because someone — even a pastor — says something is true doesn’t make it so. That can be a problem in church. Not so much when it comes to matters of faith — there’s no fact-checking those. The trouble comes with more mundane things, the anecdotes and factoids that pastors like to sprinkle into their messages.

Take this lovely story I heard in a sermon recently:

A gardener was working a nobleman’s English estate when he noticed that a young boy had fallen in the pool and was drowning. The quick-thinking gardener dropped his tools, leapt into the pool, and saved the boy from drowning.

The boy, as it turned out, was a young Winston Churchill.

Churchill’s father was so reportedly so grateful that he made this offer to the gardener: I will pay for your son to go to college.

Years later, Churchill was afflicted with a terrible case of pneumonia and was near death. Fortunately, a new miracle drug called penicillin was available, and it saved Churchill’s life.

Here’s the best part: That miracle drug was invented by Alexander Fleming, the son of a poor gardener — the very same gardener who had saved Churchill as a boy.

It’s great story about the power of a good deed. There’s just one problem: Almost nothing about this story is true. It’s one of the most popular myths about Churchill, according Snopes.com and the Downers Grove, Illinois-based Churchill Centre.

How do I know this?

During the sermon, I stopped listening to the pastor and instead turned my eyes on my cell phone. Something about the story just didn’t sit right — it was too good to be true. So whatever spiritual lesson I was supposed to learn in the sermon was soon overshadowed by the wisdom of a Google search.

Things get even worse when a pastor starts quoting statistics.

I’ve heard most of these in church or seen them in the pages of Christian publications. You may have heard a few of them, too:

None of these statistics is true.

People who go to church have lower divorce rates, churches in the U.S. aren’t dying out, 80 percent of young people who read the Bible or go to church aren’t shacking up, and Facebook isn’t ruining a third of U.S. marriages.

And that stat about Christians who think youth groups are bad for teenagers comes from an online, unscientific survey by a Christian nonprofit that believes youth groups are unbiblical. So they created a survey that produced some statistics to prove their point.

To be fair, it’s not just preachers who love bad statistics or mythical anecdotes. As Stephen Colbert might put it, politicians and pundits and Hollywood executives embrace this kind of truthiness because it works.

Truthiness wins elections, sells books by the truckload, and creates blockbusters. It may even save a few souls along the way. But it will not set us free. And it often leads to bad decision-making.

Take divorce. If you think that half of marriages end in divorce, then why not bail when things get tough, says author Shaunti Feldhahn, author of The Good News about Marriage. But if you realize that most marriages make it — as Feldhahn points out, 72 percent of married people are still married to their first spouse — you are more likely to hang in there when things get tough.

Likewise, if you think that the church in the United States is dying — it’s not, says my boss Ed Stetzer — then you might be tempted to lose hope. Bad statistics, he says, can “demoralize God’s people.”

Allow me to engage in a bit of cliché here and quote from the late, great C.S. Lewis. In The Screwtape Letters, first published in the 1940s, Lewis impersonates an elder demon who is giving advice on how to lead people astray.

One of the devil’s best tools, Lewis says, is misdirection. Get people to believe what they think is true, rather than what really is true: “The game is to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there’s a flood; and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gone under.”

For me, however, the worst part about bad facts in church — or in religious publications — is that they are so distracting. I come to church to pray, to listen, and to set aside the worries of everyday life and focus on things eternal. Tell me a bad fact and I’m gone, off on a rabbit trail, trying to sort out whether a fact or anecdote is true or not — and missing everything else that the preacher has to say.

That’s the last thing my soul needs in this world filled with constant distractions and mistruths. So this Sunday, I’m going to resist temptation. I’ll leave my cell phone at home and pray that the Lord will have a bit of mercy on my fact-checking soul.

But I’ll also pray that the Lord teaches the preacher about the wonder-working power of St. Google and Snopes.com.

Image via Shutterstock.

Bob Smietana
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  • Martin Hughes

    Not that pastors are worse than anyone else these days.

    • Belaam

      I’m a teacher. I give extra credit to students who catch me either misspelling a word or using a false example. It’s really not that hard to avoid lying to people your supposed to be helping while having them keep you honest. Then again, pastors rarely open the room for discussion of their presentations. I have personally never seen a sermon with a Q & A session.

      • ZenDruid

        “…To avoid lying to people your supposed to be helping…”

        • http://mattalgren.wordpress.com/ Matt Algren

          +2 points!

        • Belaam

          Ha! Makes me wish I’d done that on purpose. But, I didn’t. 🙁

      • Phillip Woon

        The problem is that this guy is supposed being guided by God. You’re using your own intelligence and knowledge, so we’re only human. But in the Church, God is the one that’s doing everything. Is this not so?

        • Joshua Fowler

          guided by God, for sure. But that does not mean that I, as a minister, am incapable of error. God does not change the work I do or the words I say. I maintain my humanity and my ability to make many mistakes. I can also choose to take a path that avoids what God would have me say to his people and say something that serves myself. While we do not have a formal Q&A session after each sermon, my door is constantly open and I welcome any and all comers who would agree or disagree with anything I have presented. God guides, and leads. His Spirit helps us to discern with his wisdom what God’s will is in our lives. But the work is done through human hands, not Divine ones. This is why it is important that we hold one another accountable for what is taught.

  • http://deanroberts.net/ Dean Aaron Roberts

    Loved this article – I always do proper research into sermon illustrations- though we’re all bound to get caught out at some point 😛

  • Brian P.

    The fact checking problem of sociological statistics and truthfulness of anecdotal stories is a secondary problem. Other things can be fact checked too.

  • Sean Buchanan

    I appreciate your critical thinking. I’m especially interested in the stats on pastors leaving the church and noticed its the one article you didn’t elaborate upon. I’d appreciate if you could share any sources you used to debunk those stats.

  • Linda_LaScola

    The “Christianity Today” article that your boss says shows religion is not dying is not very convincing. Have you read it? Example:

    “The “Nones” category is growing quickly, but the change is coming by way of Cultural and Congregational Christians who no longer feel the societal pressure to be “Christian.” They feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place. Convictional Christians are not leaving the faith; the “squishy middle,” as I like to call it, is simply being flattened.”

    So he acknowledges the growth of the nones and rationalizes that a lot of them really haven’t been “convictional” (i.e. “true”) Christians for a long time, as if this is some kind of good news indicating growth. Instead, it seems to be more of a weeding out process, leaving a select group who fit his restrictive definition of Christians worthy to be counted as such.

    • http://NoPerfectPeopleHERE.com Lon Dean

      I agree Linda, it seems that those statistics point to their being less “cultural Christians” who self-identify because it was their family tradition or social stigma. I think the point the author was saying was those that self-identify as “born-again” or “Evangelical” Christians has not decreased. These are the people the author feels are “practicing Christians.” The number in that group would not point to a decline in religious fervor.

  • Bishop Jackson Plant

    Oh us evil lying ministers huh? That’s terrible that this guy stops in middle of sermon and stops and feels he had to check the Pastors facts? That could not wait? I suspect this guy is one who thinks he had to catch pastors in mistakes and that validates him! Sad. Pastors are human and make mistakes no one intentialy misleads with false facts. This guy quit listening to what God was saying for his own pride. Says loads.

    • DoctorDJ

      “Pastors are human and make mistakes no one intentialy [sic] misleads with false facts.” What? The church has a long, long history of lying to those in the pews in order to maintain its power.

      “This guy quit listening to what God was saying…” “God” wasn’t speaking. It was liar at the front of the church intentionally misleading the congregation.
      The internet, and the common man’s ability to quickly navigate through it to the truth, will be the death of religion.

      • Formera

        Yes, because the internet never provided falsified information. But, if it will allow you to show the hatred in your heart for anyone who would believe in an ultimate good (a creator), you will gladly believe in it. And that is the key word. BELIEVE. Anything a Christian has as supporting evidence, such as instantaneous fossilization records, are discredited and ignored or explained away by an antichrist spirit claiming to have another fact. What is ironic is the fact that atheists fight against “people of faith” when they are people of another faith. You would claim that the bible contradicts itself when the laws of physics contradict your Big Bang theory. Matter can neither be created or destroyed. Yet you place faith in the fact that some guy said there used to be or currently is an unseen source creating matter in space. Buy that hook line and sinker while refusing to believe in an unseen creator of all matter. It really has nothing to do with education as many of you love to claim.

    • ZenDruid

      If I’m in a charitable mood, I’ll just call preachers cheap storytellers. But when they obviously and willfully negate reality, then they’re lying scoundrels.

    • Sideshow_Billybob

      You come off as awfully defensive there Bishop. Berating a guy for his own curiosity as if he’s a Bad Christian(TM). There’s nothing wrong with a little fact-checking if something sounds off.

    • Belaam

      Wait until when? The Q&A session after the sermon when the minister says, “Now, do any of you want to discuss any flaws or misstatements in the sermon? If not, Questions about examples or specific applications to your life will begin.”?

      Because that never seems to happen.

      • Allen Ray Mickle Jr.

        That’s right, because most people have never felt the freedom to corner the pastor after the sermon and tell him everything wrong with his message.

        • lon guy lander

          Hahahaha, good one!

          that was sarcasm right?

          • Allen Ray Mickle Jr.

            Indeed. 🙂

    • TheG

      The pastors are blameless for not checking their own facts before spewing them in front of their congregations? Maybe the guy should wait until after the sermon, but maybe a preacher, as a role model/leader/educator, should spend 30 seconds on Google before giving the sermon to check their own facts. One person is a layperson, one is someone that people look to for guidance. Who has the bigger responsibility? You don’t have to have intent to be found negligent of your due diligence. More so when you have a greater responsibility.

    • Phillip Woon

      Wait, if this is of god, the pastor should be correct 100% of the time. After all, if God is real, and is inspiring this guy, there is no room at all for error. Or are you saying that the church is not of God? Say it isn’t so

      • Tom from North Carolina

        Good point and where’s the holy spirit in all this. Remember, that’s the same spirit that can translate one person’s speech into multiple languages, concurrently. Shouldn’t the holy spirit be able to help out with a little fact checking?

    • http://missionallendale.wordpress.com/ Joey Espinosa

      I think the issue is laziness on the preacher. By incorporating a “cute” story, the pastor is drifting away from the point of the sermon — to preach God’s truth — and just trying to elicit an emotional response from the congregation.

  • TheHappyAntichrist

    What? Forget fact-checkin the Pastors, fact-check the freak’n Bible for goodness sakes! Why don’t you do some of that slick fact-check’n, and fancy report’n stuff and find out what the scientific, philosophical, historical, geological, and archeological publications have to say about, oh I don’t know, the VAST MAJORITY OF YOUR HOLY BOOK!

    • shilohsboots

      MANY great minds seeking to disprove the Bible HAVE, and came to believe. YOU need to do more fact-checking, without bias

    • Ryan

      Thanks for pointing this out. It amazes me that in two thousand years of Christian Biblical scholarship, not a single one of those issues have been addressed or even considered.

  • Yup Nash-Shannon

    Unbelievable that this guy still believes in the supernatural, or that he voluntarily goes to a place in which someone with a perverted sense of authority makes money by lying to the dull, blunted automatons in the pews.

  • Mick

    Next thing the preachers will be telling us that Jesus walked on water.
    (As if anyone would believe that.)

  • http://avengah.wordpress.com Matt Davis

    No. Do fact check your pastor every time. Seriously. You may find he gets things wrong so often that it might be deliberate – “they’ll never check” sort of thing. You might find he’s a compulsive liar and not to be trusted; then decide his sermons are not for you any more. If you think he’s being truly deceitful, you could even pass fact-checking sheets around the church (maybe anonymously)!

    Then you can get to fact checking all the religions, including your own. Make sure there is evidence for anything you end up believing, and dismiss claims without evidence just as any good reporter or scientist would.

  • R Vogel

    Interesting that all the myths that need fact-checking are the ones that cast the church in a negative light rather than the endless list of lies that the churches preach from the pulpit every Sunday. And just an FYI: If you want someone to take a link that is supposed to provide a counter example seriously, you may not want to link to an article by your boss that provides no additional evidence other than linking to a book written by yet another person of the same faith while at the same time declaring that another survey that contradicts your premise was created in bias.

  • tatoo

    Really? Clergy and politicians lie? Say it ain’t so.

  • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

    I’m going to resist temptation. I’ll leave my cell phone at home

    Wrong conclusion.

  • Tom from North Carolina

    Church members get divorced at the same rate as nonmembers
    I’d like some statistics to back your claim that church members get divorced less frequently than nonbelievers, assuming that’s what you meant.

    The Barns Research Group’s study in 1999 found atheist marriages end in divorce less often than Christian marriages. A 2014 study undertaken by demographers Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas and Philip Levchak at the University of Iowa concluded that the highest divorce rates were found among counties with the highest percentage of evangelical Christians. It made no attempt to infer a cause and effect. This was simply a county by county demographic study.

    I would also question your dismissal of the declining impact religion has in America. Although it is still a dominant force in this country, it is no longer public suicide to admit to no belief.

    • http://NoPerfectPeopleHERE.com Lon Dean

      Click on the link above. It did just that.

      • Tom from North Carolina

        What link?

  • graciebaddog

    I love the topic… I call it Lying for Jesus. As an out Atheist i get sermons sent to me by my well meaning friends. My favorite was a quote from Dr Phil by Andy Stanley at NPCC in Atlanta. The crux was only 1 in 10,000 couples that pray out loud together ever get a divorce. I didn’t even have to Google that for accuracy. First, the source, Dr. Phil. check out his issues with the FTC and truth. Second, how big would the sample size need to be to get a stat like that? Who would manage and pay for a study of that magnitude? And never a citation… I’d be hopping up yelling “citation please” most every sermon. How anyone can sit in a pew and just nod in agreement when they hear crap like that is beyond me. I imagine lockers outside the sanctuary where the faithful store their brains before the service and pick them back up as they leave.

  • Tom from North Carolina

    To Bob Smietana, thanks for the updated information and for the references. I noticed that any URLs embedded in a comment will be held up, awaiting review forever. That’s why I couldn’t reply directly.

    After reading your references and some others that I found, I’ve concluded that higher divorce rates are probably unrelated to religious faith. As you indicated high divorce levels more likely correlate to high rates of poverty.

    I would also question your statement about the church dying. Although I wouldn’t use the word dying, I have concluded that religion in America is in decline. Ten years ago, in my area of the country, admitting to being an atheist was the social kiss of death. Now it’s still rare to find kindred spirits, but it is becoming more and more common. Although “nones” are the fastest growing segment of religious affiliation (or lack of affiliation), the church still has considerable, yet declining influence.

  • http://NoPerfectPeopleHERE.com Lon Dean

    I’m a little confused. The article you pointed to in Relavent Magazine (Why Pastors Quit), quoted all the negative stats you said aren’t true. DO you have material to counter their claim that 50% of pastors want to quit?

  • Scott Bird

    Going point, wrong way of making it. Yes many people throw in spurious illustrations but many don’t. You effectively threw a category of people under the bus of your critique. And I can tell you it does no disservice to the pew or the pulpit to insinuate that preachers are peddling falsehood.

    Again good point but you missed an opportunity to be instructive; What so you do when your pastor quotes an erroneous fact? Do you help your pastor fact check? Instead you left your readers with a perfect incentive to sit back and arm chair quarterback their pastor and his sermon.

    The irony of this critique coming from a journalist is also just to apparent to pass up.

  • WarrenKelly

    I tell my congregation to fact-check me all the time. I TRY to fact check every time I mention a statistic or study that seems to good to be true. I’m not always good at that – I don’t use those kinds of statistics very often.

    Of course, “But if you realize that most marriages make it — as Feldhahn points out, 72 percent of married people are still married to their first spouse —” DOESN’T say what we think it does. It says nothing about divorce rates – if anything, it could be saying that most people who divorce never remarry. It doesn’t say that 72% of marriages are OK; it just says that 72% of currently married people have not been divorced.

  • shilohsboots

    All I know is how hard it now is to find a church that teaches straight Bible, and not popular teachings of present day “Christian” celebrities

  • Greg Hoadley

    Your points are well taken. We pastors do need to make sure we get our stories right. At the same time, don’t you think it’s inappropriate to be surfing the internet on your cell phone during a sermon? You are there to get fed by God’s Word, not be your pastor’s unofficial fact-checker. In short, if you have a concern about something your pastor says, just write a little note, check it later, and then privately speak to your pastor about it. Thank you for your time.

  • Disciple of Jesus

    So many standing behind pulpits are ‘parrots’. Repeating things they’ve heard others say, who were saying things they heard others say, who heard it said elsewhere … and so on, and so on. Parroting has become very popular among preachers.

  • darren

    WOW sometimes when I read all these opinions I wonder if God regrets giving us fingers to type with. ?.. our tongues WOW wouldnt it be nice to just look at and love each other maybe have the odd kiss and cuddle “FINGERLESS OF COURSE” please lord come back soon im begging you LORD JESUS COME…..come

  • RocketRodCub

    I’m actually not confident in the facts of this article, seriously. There are serious questions about both the Feldhahn research, as to whether or not it is fully scientific and trustworthy. And depending upon how one defines “Christian,” our young people ARE shacking up at an alarming rate, while maintaining the “conviction” that they are indeed still Christian (of course, they probably are not). Also, often the “facts” that one checks on could be derived from a source that has quoted from another source that is not reliable. I have fallen to that research flaw – trusting in another’s quote as if it were true because he/she quoted it from somewhere else. Revisionist history doesn’t help the cause, nor does revisionist history that is accurate, dispelling “facts” that we previously believed but that were wrong (but we still state them). Was America ever a Christian nation? That would be a very dangerous proposition to postulate – ask Hatch and Noll what they think. I support the premise that the pastor better spend the time doing the research from multiple sources before he (or she, for some) spills out a fact and if he cannot prove his premise, it is best left unsaid, no matter how convincingly it might support his point. Pastor, please don’t forget the study in your ministry! If the pastor is way off, then it is appropriate to inform the pastor of his error quietly and humbly, with love. A true, genuine, God-fearing pastor will not mind such a correction or rebuke and will strive to do better research in the future, thanking God for people/listeners who love him. An egomaniac pastor will be incensed if corrected and and possibly fire his ghost writer! Be forewarned dear congregant!

  • http://www.daviddrury.com/ David Drury

    I confess that I, too, find myself fact-checking all the time… I gotta stop.
    I work as a researcher on the side for another author, part of which includes fact-checking. I’m stunned with not only how many preachers have tons of erroneous stuff in their message, but how even books do. Seems like there should be a higher standard in publishing! Glad Ed turned me on to this page–thanks for the post.

    -Dave

  • http://openoureyeslord.com/ Gary Shogren

    Really nicely done, with a good spiritual balance, thanks from someone who gets way too distracted by factoids. I’ve written some blog posts on this, for example: the story about how the missionary kid in Africa played rock music, and the “natives” asked dad why the kid was using music that they used to conjure demons; the urban legend “the vanishing hitchhiker” is still a favorite; the one about how the bridgekeeper squashed his kid in the gears of the railroad bridge so that the train wouldn’t plunge into the river; one I remember from the 1970s was that “90 percent of girls lose their virginity while rock music is playing”.

  • Mister Hush

    I stopped attending church in my late teens precisely because I fact checked and found the pastor my mother favored guilty of spewing whatever sensationalist droppings of a male bovine he thinks will rile up the crowd.

    The killing blow was him stating that “Europe is only 1% Christian.”

    Went home after service, checked CIA World Fact Book. Only European country that comes within spitting distance of that number is Turkey. The next lowest incidence of Christianity was in the high 30%, I do believe.

    The only way you can get 1% Christian is to start chopping off hefty chunks of folks that don’t subscribe to your particular method of Christianity. But then you smack right into the No True Scotsman fallacy, and at that point some doofus that states that True Christians (TM) hop around on one foot all day every other Thursday with a duck upon their head can make the same exact claim.