The Barnabas Ministry

Statistics and Christianity
I have always had a great interest in measurements and statistics. My first interest in statistics was through being a baseball fan. Being an engineer, I now use statistics professionally to measure the performance of complex computer systems.

Baseball, like no other sport, has its own lore of statistics. Batting averages, on-base percentages, ratios of all kinds-- any baseball fan knows there are loads of statistics that try to quantify and simplify the complexities of the game. Yet, the mere existence of all of the various statistics testifies to their inherent limitations. And even complex statistics (such as the "Total Player Rating") have their limitations as well.

Regardless of our interests or walk of life, measurable things appear all over our lives-- how much air pressure in the tires, how much salt in the recipe, how much money spent on groceries, or how many workouts per week.

Measurements and statistics help us understand complex things, but there is always more to the picture than the statistics. And this isn't just true in baseball. Statistics can only measure particular elements of an entire system. They only have value in context, and they have a limited context. Sometimes statistics seem to measure one thing when they really don't. The keys in utilizing measurements and statistics is knowing what you're measuring, and measuring what matters.

Spiritual Statistics
There are a variety of statistics that are sometimes used in a church context. Church statistics certainly provide a means of tracking what is going on in the areas they address. Unfortunately, they also share the same weaknesses that all statistics possess. Let's take a look at some popular "spiritual statistics" and discuss them.

Measurement Why the Measurement Might be Useful Why the Measurement Might be Misleading
Church attendance
  • Events help facilitate relationship building with other Christians in a Christian environment
  • Events facilitate spiritual growth and direction
  • Events provide an environment of worship to God
  • Going to church doesn't mean relationships are being built or spiritual growth is taking place; nor is the church event the only setting in which this may take place.
  • There is a lot more to being a Christian than going to church. In fact, you have to look long and hard in the New Testament to see anything about "Sunday Church Services" as we know them today. The Scriptures focus much more on character and personal faithfulness than church activities.
  • People may (indeed, they must) worship God at times other than church events.
"Quiet Times" 
(private prayer and Bible reading)
  • Prayer is a good thing, so is reading the Bible
  • Prayer is not so much a list of requests as it is a constant relationship (Mt 6:5-9, 1 Th 5:17). And prayer in Bible times had a greater aspect of meditation than we normally teach today (e.g. Ps 145:5, 19:14)
  • Reading the Bible is good, but learning what it says and means is even better. But what really matters is following the Word (Jas 1:22). Just because one reads the Bible doens't mean he is learning it, believing it or living by it (ref. Jn 5:39-40).
  • The early Christians didn't necessarily have personal copies of the Scriptures but probably relied upon hearing the Scriptures read at church services  (ref. 1 Tim 4:13) and private meditation or memorizing passages
  • Money helps facilitate the work of the church
  • Giving to the poor or in support of ministry is a noble act that God honors
  • Giving to private parties (e.g. family members in need, the poor, etc.) is at least as important as supporting the work of the church (Mt 6:2-4, 15:3-6, 1 Tim 5:4, Gal 2:10).
  • Giving is to be done willingly and not under compulsion (2 Cor 9:7). When giving is expected, it isn't really "giving" anymore.
Personal Evangelistic Bible Studies,
Event Visitors
  • People need to learn the Bible message in order to become Christians
  • Attending church-sponsored events is a great way for people to learn about the church and Christian living
  • People in Bible times didn't "study" the gospel as much as they heard and responded to the message. Rigorous catechisms hoping to result in the "perfect conversion" prior to conversion didn't appear until the 3rd century (Hippolytus).
  • Not all people being reached out to are ready to hear or respond to the gospel; for some people it may take years. There are other stages of spiritual ministry besides these.

Problems with Spiritual Statistics
As seen in the table above, spiritual statistics don't always tell the whole story. People choosing to utilize measurements and statistics in the spiritual realm must understand their limitations. But beyond these limitations, there are some negative side effects of utilizing statistics that must be discussed as well.

Barometer or Imperative?
In an environment where statistics are heavily employed and given great weight, there will likely be a tendency to "serve the stats."  Instead of being a barometer of certain aspects of the ministry, the statistical areas can become the imperatives of the ministry. In these cases, serving God may be reduced to producing acceptable statistics.

False Standard of Righteousness or Identity
A system where statistics are heavily weighted can create a false sense of righteousness or condemnation based upon the statistics. Certain levels of performance become "acceptable."

From this false standard of righteousness there may be thoughts or comments like "we are acceptable to God because we do this statistical area," or "you are not a Christian because you don't do this statistical thing adequately."

For those whose measured statistics fail to meet the "acceptable" standard, this approach can also create an atmosphere of persistent shame. For those whose measured statistics meet the standard, there may be cause for boasting and pride. Of course, this type of thinking denies that human acceptance to God comes from the cross of Jesus, and that good works ultimately are a result of his work in our lives.

But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man (1 Corinthians 2:15).

So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23).

For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves, and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).

But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14)

If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness (2 Corinthians 11:30).

Incomplete or Alternate Path of Spiritual Growth
Christians are supposed to be serving God and doing what is right and faithful in all sorts of areas. If reward or punishment follows from a few areas where statistics are taken, this has the effect of devaluating the other areas. For example, outreach focused on leading someone to Christ on a short time frame focuses on those who are ready to respond right now at the expense of serving those with long-term needs.

When these non-statistical areas are commands of God (like loving those in need, e.g. Titus 3:2), any statistical measurement system that devalues these commands is on dangerous ground because it threatens to invalidate the commands of God in favor of human expectations. This exactly the type of thing Jesus was speaking about in his discussion with the Pharisees:

And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition (Matthew 15:6).
An emphasis on statistical evaluation is likely to mask or obscure more substantive issues in the spiritual lives of Christians, as they are likely to begin to serve an alternate standard instead of the one God has provided and specified.

Warping the Whole
An insidious side-effect to a focus on the measured things is that if the unmeasured things are omitted from the whole, the measured things are themselves become warped and distorted. Christianity consists of more than just the measured things-- whatever those things might be.

Selfish Bias, Corruption of Motive
A statistic-heavy system creates a bias in the motives of members. Instead of doing some noble thing for God or another person, people do things that appear to be for others but are really for themselves-- to be praised or "meet the grade" of a statistical expectation. People on the receiving end of such noble things will eventually find out that something done "for them" wasn't really "for them" at all (and God already knows!).

Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).
Circumventing Relationships
A statistic-heavy system is naturally biased towards being highly impersonal. The statistical give and take can easily become a substitute for real communication and relationship between leaders and non-leaders. In the absence of a real relationship between the two parties, there is great potential for assumptions, misunderstandings and further damage to the relationship. For example, assumptions may be made about the cause of certain statistical elements and subsequent judgments may be made or direction may be given based upon those assumptions.

Biblical Perspectives on Measurement and Statistics
The early church doesn't appear to have had much of an interest in measuring spiritual traits, though they certainly could have done so. While rejoicing in the spread of the gospel to many people in general terms (e.g. Acts 11:26 "great numbers"), they seem to have taken a special delight in the privacy of personal spirituality. Things that can be seen and "measured" by men were not as important as things that cannot be seen and measured by men, but only by God. The evidence confirms the notion that personal spiritual matters are highly intangible and generally defy measurement based upon external observation. Consider the following passages:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, that you may have an answer for those who take pride in appearance, and not in heart (2 Corinthians 5:12).

The early church cautioned against concern and valuation based upon outward appearances-- not just worldly outward appearances, but even spiritual outward appearances! And statistics are all fundamentally measures of outward appearances

In the end, only one thing really matters: is someone saved or lost, in the faith or not, having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ or not? That is the only statistic that really matters, and it can be determined through self-examination!

Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you--unless indeed you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5)

And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).

In light of the Scriptural teachings concerning the "inward things" and the lack of precedent for any sort of statistical methodology in the early church, we ought to reconsider the basis for such a practice in the church today. Are we smarter than they were back then, or were they more spiritual and more connected to the intended pattern of Christianity than we are today?

What to Do?
Leaders are wise to try to stay on top of what is going on in their ministries, and in some ways the keeping of statistics is a handy way to get a handle on a complex thing as a ministry. Using some statistical means of measuring the effectiveness of programs and initiatives is useful, to a point.

If various measurements help with our relationship with God, great. Young Christians may benefit from goals to establish good habits, older Christians may use measurements to set goals and achieve growth in a particular area.

But there is a "dark side" to statistics. When measurements and statistics get separated from their human context, they can supplant personal interaction in relationships. If they turn into ministry imperatives (the "tail that wags the dog"), they have potential to cause a host of detrimental effects.

Having been a part of a church that has utilized spiritual statistics in a variety of ways for many years, I can say that the host of undesireable side effects (as mentioned above) that accompany such a system are real, problematic and far more damaging to people's spirituality and growth than many people might recognize. In my own experience, when people have acted on some statistical element without more substantial personal knowledge of what was going on "on the inside," it was way off-base and hurtful. For example, I was once publicly praised in a leaders meeting for how many visitors had come to a "bring your neighbor day" for my group, then about five minutes later I was harshly rebuked before the same group for not having any "personal" visitors. This incident hurt and damaged me greatly. But when people have taken the time to view the whole picture instead of the stats (as evidenced by relational involvement), it has always been most helpful. In these cases I have felt loved and cared for as an individual.

Those living within statistically-based spiritual environments need to remain faithful to God and protect themselves from the negative side effects of those systems. Some useful tools here would be healthy personal boundaries, reminders of Scriptural standards of measurement and valuation, and persistent relationship-level involvement with those utilizing the statistics. You can take action to make sure the leaders know more about you than just the stats.

Those employing statistics must consistently remind themselves of the limitations and negative side effects of statistical measurements, not to mention the lack of Scriptural support for such an approach. The liberty to practice something not mandated by the Scriptures ends at the point when the practice is hurtful or short-circuits other Scriptural mandates. Statistical methods should only be used with the greatest of care and respect for the fact that there is always more to a situation than what meets the eye. Statistical valuations cannot begin to take the place of loving, caring and close relationships, through which leaders can truly "know the condition of their flocks" (Pro 27:23) and address spiritual needs accordingly.

Copyright © 2001 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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