One of the most popular articles on our website is “When the Formula Fails,” which challenges the formulaic approach to spirituality in performance oriented churches and groups.
Recently I have been asked several times about when the formula seems to work. “Why does the formula work for them?” When we do the prescribed thing, it doesn’t work. They say we didn’t do it right or we didn’t have enough faith or we have unconfessed sin or we didn’t do it long enough or some other excuse. But it must work because it worked for them. Really?
There is a fallacy in logic called an “error of generalization.” You might remember it as “hasty generalization” or even “jumping to a conclusion.” The error springs from the practice of noting something in a small number of cases and believing it to be true in all or most cases. This is the source of most stereotyping and many old wives’ tales. It is also the foundation of most marketing today.
Little Billy has a bad sore throat and wants something hot to drink. Dad gives him a cup of coffee. The hot coffee feels good on Billy’s throat and the sore throat goes away by the next day. Mom and Dad try the same thing when Betty gets a sore throat and she has the same results. Now they know forever that coffee cures sore throats.
Now, for the logicians out there, I have to admit that was also the error called “false cause.” False causes usually come from hasty generalizations. The point is that Mom and Dad have only observed two instances where coffee was consumed at a time when the children had sore throats. They really haven’t done any more study or investigation. Hundreds of parents may serve their sick kids coffee and experience no more success than a temporary ease of pain. But there will always be the cases of Billy and Betty to “prove” that the formula works.
I know that’s a silly example, but it really isn’t any different from saying that moms who wear skirts all the time will prevent promiscuity in their daughters. Just because you can point to nice girls whose moms wear skirts does not mean there is a cause and effect formula. Nor would it be true that playing certain music will keep your kids from sin. Or that forbidding fiction reading will keep your kids from fantasizing. Or even that a certain brand of car will ensure fewer repairs.
This really isn’t hard to understand. One reason the formula seems to work for certain people is that the events fell into place that way. They did a certain thing and they experienced a certain thing. Even if they can convince us of a cause and effect, there is no formula in that. It simply is an examination of what happened. But just because it happened to them does not mean it will happen to you. The idea of a formula is a lie.
There are a couple other reasons it might seem like the formula works for others, but I will comment on those in future posts.