Statistics and Analytics in Ministry: Helpful or Not?

Len WilsonChurch, Leadership, Story, Strategic ThinkingLeave a Comment


In a recent post about tracking data in churches, I stirred up some social media debate about the relative merit of data as a means of understanding the life and ministry of helping others to follow Jesus. Particularly in the work of ministry, should we be relying on data as a means of understanding our work?

To some degree, it is my observation that complaining about statistics is something declining churches tend to do, not in honest inquiry but out of fear of accountability.

But the question about the limitations of data intrigues me. Most of us are conditioned to look to scientific methods to find insight and clarity for our problems. But there are limitations. In my own writing on this site, I perhaps appear to contradict myself when I post in favor of both story and of data. How do I reconcile the two?

So this post serves as a theological musing on the relationship between story and data in our pursuit of insight about the work of ministry. This post is also driven by the great interaction I am having in my doctoral studies with Leonard Sweet and my fellow cohort from Portland Seminary at George Fox University.

The Conflict Between Data and Story.

First, let’s briefly look at Story again. In From Tablet to Table, Leonard Sweet writes,

The Story is strong enough, it is assumed, to take on anything you can bring to it. There is a sense that to be a child of the story is not to proclaim final answers but to profess a life story and to devote oneself to a lifelong pilgrimage. The story becomes “my story” by my participation in the story and my interrogation of the story. It is thus a requirement of Judaism that you don’t just learn the story, but see yourself in the story. – p. 54

We’re so influenced by Western thinking that we just cannot get our minds around this. I have been professing the power of story for a long time and I still find myself trapped by the convergence and the temptation to look for “final answers.”

Why do we need a final answer? Does God require this as a part of our faith? Or is this just Western, scientific conditioning? What if it is not only unnecessary but in fact antithetical to a life of faith?

We Can’t Achieve Definitive Answers.

The promise and the temptation of science is that we will be able to “see clearly” – to find full truth. Science has for a long time been positioned as the means by which we gain clarity and insight. But in this text, and increasingly in our postmodern culture, we’re learning that clarity is an illusion. The full truth isn’t possible yet. We can not yet see clearly. We can only see glimpses.

This past week, one of my doctoral cohort brought up the Paul’s “dimly versus clearly” metaphor. Let’s look at this text, with my inserts in italics:

We know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect [that is Jesus] comes, what is partial [our understanding of truth] will be brought to an end. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. [We’re moving on toward Christian perfection, but this journey does not end on this side.] Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. [Ancient mirrors weren’t clean like ours; they were dirty, more like looking into metal today. You couldn’t see the whole picture.] Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. [God knows us completely. This is the most important Truth we can hang on to while on this side. Not our understanding of God, but God’s understanding of us.] Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love. [Here is the punch list. Our ability to “see clearly” begins with faith. As we develop faith, we discover hope. As we hope for the future, we’re able to love others.] – 1 Corinthians 13:9-13

There is a year’s worth of wisdom in this text. What if in our pursuit of Truth we have blown right by the more important Wisdom? There is a parallel between here between data and story, in so much as data is seen as the “objective” truth and wisdom is seen as the essence of story.

In Fact, Our Desire to Know in Full Separates Us From God.

One of my St. Andrew colleagues, Scott Engle, just sent out a study guide for an upcoming sermon series and in it, I saw a scripture that caught my attention. Again, my comments are in brackets.

The snake said to the woman, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it , you will see clearly [A ha! Here is the crux of the temptation from the snake. The desire to see clearly. We want to have full knowledge and therefore full power. Rather than let God be the authority, we want to be the authority.] and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, [the desire for knowledge and power is beautiful] so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. – Genesis 3:4-7

This suggests that the desire to “see clearly” is not only impossible but wrong. Its temptation is that it makes ongoing relationship with God unnecessary. We can achieve the power of knowledge and avoid the work of relationship. If we think we have “it” all figured out, then we can put “it” in a box and close the lid and be free to pursue our own individual desires and interests.

This is sin.

Beauty in the Tension of Data and Story.

So, if our scientific conditioning leads us to look for Truth and the convergence of a final answer, but Truth is both illusion and sin, then how in the world do we break out of the need for a final answer?

It is clear from my my blog that I think there’s value in data. I publish lists of churches. I have a reputation at my church, St. Andrew, for being a data nerd. But data is limited.

If we acknowledge that the scientific promise of “full truth” is both impossible and in fact a temptation, then we become more free to embrace story and metaphor as the means to achieve wisdom. Rather than disparage data for its inability to deliver on the false promise of convergence, it becomes a means to broaden our vision.

Does this mean narrative as a structure is more truthful than analytics? No. Needing story to be the source of all truth is falling under the same wrong thinking. We perpetuate the limitations and false promise of “full truth” by proclaiming story as opposed to science as the means by which we see clearly.

Instead, they both reveal glimpses of truth. They are two sides of the same coin. Jesus is often about the third way in the midst of two opposing sides. This third way, or what Leonard Sweet calls the trialectic, is in this case to hold both story and science in tension. It is to be comfortable with the seeming paradox of both the factual and the figurative. It is to bring both to the table.

As Sweet states in his book From Tablet to Table, to sit at the table together is to engage in the rhythms of life. (He even uses scientific support for a story-truth when he writes that over 70% of Jesus’ parables occur around food.) In our pursuit, it is when we talk about both together, at the table together, or in some capacity such as in our case through an online forum, that we discover the wisdom in each as parts of an incomplete image of God.

Data is good, and story is good. Neither gives us the full image, but both together offer a more complete, incomplete image than either does alone.

 

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Len Wilson

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