by Kevin Hester
Numbers can be depressing. When we hear that over half of all marriages end in divorce, we cringe. It doesn’t help that some versions of the statistics show that Christian marriages are no better. What about church attendance? A 2007 LifeWay Research Study documented that 70% of all church-going millennials “dropped out” of church between the ages of 18-22. Of this 70%, 35% reported that they had later resumed attending at least twice a month.
More recently, a Pew Research Center study released in 2015 indicated that 36% of Americans aged 18-24 define themselves as “religiously unaffiliated” with “fewer than six-in-ten (identifying) with any branch of Christianity.”
These numbers, and many like them, are scary; especially to parents of millennials like me. Numbers are used as illustrative bludgeons or avoided at all costs. Sometimes we feel as if we need to protect our flock from numbers. The question is, are we protecting them in the right way?
The Problem with Numbers
Why are Evangelicals so nervous about numbers? I think there are several reasons, both practical and theological. From a practical perspective, many of us just don’t understand them. We aren’t sociologists, and so when confronted with graphs and pie charts our eyes start to glaze over or we have horrible flashbacks to high school statistics.
Others (especially my Generation X peers) are skeptical of anything they haven’t personally observed. We have had too many push-polls, political phone calls, and have seen too many click-bait Facebook posts. Still others make decisions based on their personality. With the advent of genetic testing, it is now possible to determine whether an individual is likely to develop certain forms of cancer or Alzheimer’s. Some believe that this kind of knowledge would hamper their quality of life. In a similar way, perhaps our concern with numbers is sometimes driven by the harsh reality of the situation and the specific needs of our congregations.
Another problem is that numbers can sometimes be deceiving. I referenced the well-known statistic above related to marriage. There is a problem, but the simplicity of this statement belies the complexity of the situation. The truth of the matter is only about 30% of first marriages today end in divorce. What that tells us is that although divorce is a major concern, most of those who experience divorce experience it as a serial problem.
Education is a major factor. Only 20% of first marriages of couples with at least a college-degree end in divorce. Faith plays a role as well. If Christians are more likely to get divorced it is only because Christians are more likely to get married in the first place. Cohabitation has become much more common for non-Christians. But as Ed Stetzer recently pointed out, many of these studies have problems because of their inclusion of nominal Christians in the figures.
There are also theological concerns over numbers. My generation grew up during the Sunday School campaigns of the 1970s and the church growth emphasis of the 1980s. We have seen that a rapid growth in numbers doesn’t necessarily reflect spiritual depth or have a lasting impact, whether individual or corporate. We reason correctly that numbers don’t reflect spiritual health. We have recoiled from ministry based on consumer-conscious business models asserting that Scripture rather than culture is the norming norm for evangelism and ministry. But a Gospel-based ministry need not ignore its community.
Tools, not Techniques
No parent has ever been upset at the thermometer when it indicated that her child had a fever. She may be upset, but it has alerted her to a problem. Not measuring a temperature doesn’t indicate that there isn’t a fever. The number on the thermometer prompts action, but it doesn’t tell her what to do. That decision must be made with all the needs of her family and her situation in mind. If it’s the first day of the fever and she knows a virus has been going around, she may treat the fever and monitor her child closely. If it is the third day and the fever hasn’t yet broken, she may seek the advice of a medical professional.
The same thing is true for the data that is available for churches to use. If we recognize it as a tool, it gives us a fuller picture of the people in our congregation and those our churches are trying to reach with the Gospel. Just like the mother, it doesn’t mean we will like what the data tells us, but at least we can respond with knowledge. It is always a mistake to see data as an indicator of what a church should do. Such data is useful because it is generic, but this same utility makes it impossible to know how certain actions would impact particular congregations, with particular sensibilities in particular geographical locations.
So then, is there any use for data like this other than sermon illustrations about the impending doom of our culture? Is it possible to use data responsibly? Can a Gospel-centered church committed to the regulative principle of worship gain any benefit from such analysis?
Some Practical Advice
I believe that there is more knowledge available today to help our churches faithfully preach the Gospel than ever before and there are more reasons to pay attention to this data. Being Gospel-centered will keep us as “innocent as doves,” but being culturally aware helps keep us as “wise as serpents.” Nevertheless, I do believe that there are some important principles that will help us leverage this information and avoid some common pitfalls:
- Know How to Use the Data. I have already mentioned the biggest overarching concern which is the recognition that data is a tool and not a technique. Data provides a diagnosis, but it can’t differentiate a cure. Data is only information and we err when we attempt to find within it a plan for the future. God has already given us this plan and the process in his word.
- Know Where to Get the Data. There are a number of good organizations and groups that widely publish their data. You want to look at sources that are comprehensive in their scope, that clearly delineate the number and nature of their samples, and whose interpretation focuses upon what the numbers say and not what we should “do” about them. Good studies are analyses and don’t move beyond the data. Some well-respected sources known for strong data and quality techniques are: Pew Research Center, Barna Group, and LifeWay. All of these groups regularly post studies and material that get picked up by Christian and mainstream media outlets.
- Know How to Read the Data. The key component of this hint is to read critically. One of the reasons many people are skeptical about studies is that they have seen interpretation articles or references that argue for a particular implementation based on the data. Don’t just cite a study when it agrees with your position and deny it when you don’t like the result. The numbers mean something, but they may not mean what the interpreter is claiming. Always go to the study itself. These should be linked from quality articles or will be easily discoverable online. Read the fine print, including the methodology, rather than the headlines. It is important to know who the respondents were and what the limitations of the study were. This will often help you understand and interpret the data for yourself as well as give you some indication of the objectivity and therefore the value of the data. This is one of Ed Stetzer’s helpful pieces of advice in a recent article on the use of statistics.
- Know the Relevance of the Data. I would encourage you to put faces on the numbers. When confronted with news that 7 out of 10 of your teen group are likely to “drop out” of church for a period of time, make it personal. Don’t see “seven.” See Emily, Hannah, José, and Charles. Ask in what way your teens resemble the attitudes and actions of the sample presented in the study. What is the correlation of your congregation with the geographical, social, and economic factors? This type of analysis will help you judge whether your teens are more likely, less likely, or as likely to follow suit.
- Build your own Data. Generalized survey data may prove helpful in benchmarking the audience for your church’s ministry efforts but ministry is ultimately about your congregation’s relationships within its community. Broad, generalized studies describe, they do not define. The best data for your congregation is what you build yourself. Don’t be afraid to survey your congregation about their perceptions and attitudes. There are even tools that will help you in the process (http://tcat.lifeway.com/). This is really just an extension of what we all do when we look at the faces of our congregation during a Sunday morning service, glance over the Sunday School numbers, or review the giving for the last fiscal year.
We don’t need to be afraid of numbers. They do not define us, but they do give us a snapshot of a particular moment in time. They can’t tell us what to do but they can tell us that something needs to be done. Data doesn’t change the great commission or the Biblical methods we are called to employ, but it does give us tools to measure our effectiveness and suggestions for ways we might improve.
*This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series on the use of data in ministry. This article sets out the philosophy behind the use of data. In future articles, I hope to explore generational differences, Biblical knowledge, moral issues, and spirituality.