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Talking to a pastor yesterday, he recounted an informal interview he conducted with someone leaving the church. The individual said they felt excluded and uncared for. The pastor reminded him of three recent invitations to lunch, but this didn’t seem to change the person’s perception, probably because the reasons and rational given were not the real reasons. What those real reasons are, God only knows.

So much of what we do in ministry, or at least how we do it, seems to flow from the polls and interviews of Christian research. But I wonder what a Barna Poll of Jerusalem would have revealed about the first church: interviews with those resistant or rejecting of the gospel. I don’t imagine much positive feedback at all.

In March of 2000 Sports Illustrated ran a story about how top young recruits were leaving the Indiana basketball program. The story focused on the allegations of a former player, Neil Reed, who claimed that during a basketball practice, head coach, Bobby Knight, had strangled him, and that if the assistant coach hadn’t pulled him off he would have killed him.

No one had a hard time believing Bobby Knight would do such a thing. His temper was legendary.

But months later, footage from that practice surfaced showing Bobby Knight grabbing Neil Reed but little else. What was interesting was subsequent interviews with Reed revealed he wasn’t lying. He was absolutely wrong, but he wasn’t lying; he remembered it exactly as he told it. He thought Knight was going to kill him. Researchers label this a failure of source memory.

Failure of Source memory is common because memories and experiences are clouded by personal feelings, judgments, beliefs, and biases. Why this can be so deceptive is that we hold memory and experience to be objective and absolute. We retrieve experience with little suspicion that the image we’ve filed has been manipulated.

In light of this, I suspect a Barna poll of Jerusalem would have elicited comments about Christians like: They think they’re better than everyone else; They’re judgmental, They’re shoving Christianity down our throats, They’re strange and cliquish; They stir up trouble and anger; They break up families; They pollute our young people.

According to Scripture, this is not how God viewed the church, and this is the point. Whose assessment should we take more seriously? Should we change what we do on the basis of the perceptual distortions of unbelievers?

In response, one could say that perception is reality, and it matters little if Christians are being kind if they are perceived as being critical.

But somehow there has to be a more critical balance. Certainly feedback from unbelievers is helpful, and sometimes both justified and true. At the same time, it’s foolish to look at such research without acknowledging that the state of a person’s heart in relation to God and the church is going to produce a myriad of source memory failures: imagined exclusion, perceived judgment, suspected conspiracy, fabricated aggression. In fact, an uneasy conscience is much more likely to generate false experience and memory for the purposes of justification.

In experiments and analysis there is a term used, called an “X Factor,” the definition of which is: a hard-to-describe influence or quality that has unknown, but potentially determinitive impact on outcomes and results. This is the X factor missing from Christian research: what sin, hardening of heart, rejection of the gospel, and resistance to God’s spirit, does to perception.


Rick JamesComment