One is ordinary. Two is coincidence. But three is a growing trend -- be it three teenagers with nose rings, three soccer moms supporting the same political candidate or three pastors tweeting from the pulpit.
Increasingly, journalists are using this reporting device in religion stories, as evidenced by three articles published just this week:
-- Churches making mainstream films to attract souls, by USA Today.
-- For weight-loss help, faithfuls turn to God, by CNN. (Not sure I've ever seen "faithfuls" as a plural before.)
-- Hospitals revamp chapels into interfaith meditation rooms, by Religion News Service.
The USA Today story, by Godbeat pro and GetReligion favorite Cathy Lynn Grossman, opens this way:
ALBANY, Ga. -- Praise the Lord and pass the popcorn.
Moviemaking churches are venturing into the cineplex to attract souls who might never set foot in a megachurch.
Like Hollywood films, they take on real-life issues in dramatic packages:
-- A resentful white cop and his black partner struggle with race and fatherhood before taking a lesson in reconciliation from Oscar winner Lou Gossett Jr. in a cameo role. That's The Grace Card, underwritten by an optometrist for his small church in Tennessee.
-- An aimless 20-year-old, adventuring with his buddies in India, discovers the global horror of sex slavery and makes it his life-changing cause. That's Not Today, backed by a California Quaker church.
-- Cops facing rough times on the streets realize their real failures are at home -- as fathers who don't know, or don't care, how to truly love their kids. That's Courageous, the fourth film from Sherwood Baptist Church, which is so successful in its moviemaking ministry that it now coaches others.
Let's see. That's one, two, three examples.
The story includes a quote portraying movies as "the stained-glass windows of the 21st century." Yet there's no hard data, no concrete evidence to support the idea that this is a major trend among larger churches. Rather, it seems to be an approach taken by a few.
At the same time, the lede's suggestion that "churches are venturing into the cineplex to attract souls who might never set foot in a megachurch" does not seem to be supported by the rest of the story. Instead, the evidence points toward the movies touching people who already claim the Christian faith. The piece lacks input from anyone -- if such a person exists -- who has seen one of these movies and turned to Jesus Christ.
That said, it really is an interesting story with some nice statistics and details on Christian moviemaking.
The CNN story, meanwhile, takes the approach that three anecdotes is not enough. Seeming almost to rapid-fire results from a "faith" and "fitness" Google search, it starts like this:
(CNN) -- Hallelujah diets. Body by God. Karate for Christ. Gospel groove workouts.
Using the Lord's name (not in vain), fitness and diet enthusiasts are injecting the Almighty into nutrition programs, exercise DVDs, martial arts and healthy living courses.
In a DVD released in June, a gospel choir in full-length gowns sways back and forth while a fitness personality, Donna Richardson Joyner, sashays to her aerobic exercises. Her smiling, spandex-clad entourage echoes her movements. All lift their hands to praise the Lord.
"Give him some love!" she shouts. "Honor him!"
Exercise DVDs with religious themes, such as this one, have streamed into the market. More churches have opened fitness centers and started healthy living groups.
That final paragraph is the nut graf -- the "why I should care" sentence that explains why this is news. However, the story never tells how many exercise DVDs with religious themes have been sold. It never provides any real numbers on churches opening fitness centers and starting healthy living groups. Instead, it strings together anecdotes -- compelling ones that whisper to my skeptical side, "Yeah, there could be a trend here. But please give me some better evidence to prove it."
The CNN story ends this way:
The faith-based fitness movement reaches a demographic that might have otherwise avoided the gym.
"When you look at something religion-based, you're getting a community together who have people with common beliefs and principles, it might be easier to be adhere to that," he said.
That seems to be saying that people of faith are less likely to go to the gym than others? Really? Do share more. (Of course they didn't.)
Like the USA Today and CNN pieces, the RNS story relies mainly on anecdotal evidence to prove that hospital chapels are becoming more diverse to serve a multicultural society with people of many faiths:
The shift to meditation rooms mirrors a growing trend among hospitals nationwide as health care centers try to make room for people from a wide variety of faiths, as well as those who have no faith or are "spiritual but not religious."
In a stressful environment, hospital chapels, meditation rooms or prayer rooms offer employees, patients and visitors quiet refuge for individual prayer, meditation or communal worship.
Throughout the 19th century, many U.S. hospitals were built by religious groups, particularly Catholic nuns. As a result, their chapels typically resembled Protestant or Catholic churches or Jewish synagogues.
Today, hospital chapels vary widely. Some still reflect their founders' religious roots. Others have been renovated to accommodate multiple religions, or their religious symbols have been removed so the rooms resemble waiting rooms or art galleries.
Actually, I thought the RNS story was pretty good -- including quoting a sociology professor who has visited about 30 chapels nationwide and offered an educated perspective on the broader picture. But I needed a third example to prove my point, and that was the best I could find in a hurry.
In all seriousness, I understand the "magic of three." I have used that trend-story-formula myself and undoubtedly will again. But I think journalists -- myself included -- would do well to remember that counting to three does not qualify as scientific research.
I'd love to hear GetReligion readers' perspectives on this topic. When making your points, however, please remember to include examples. I don't have to tell you how many.