In defence of stats
Mark Twain once wrote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Mr Twain (or Mr Clemens as was his real name) was no fan of statistics. And for good reason. You’ve only got to look at the creative accountants that are the scourge of the capitalist West to see that anyone armed with a spreadsheet can do some serious damage.
“You can make statistics say anything you want!” is a well-used phrase levelled at me whenever I help a church look at their statistics, and I can’t help but think churches today might have got a bit of ‘Twainitis’ when it comes to the topic. I think this has more to do with churches not wanting to see the church as it actually is. Whilst statistics can say whatever you want, when used correctly they will tell a truthful story, one that church leaders may not want to hear.
How did we get here? The rise of business practices being used in the church started in the 1980s and have grown and grown until today. Indeed, my job, both at One Church and helping other churches, has a great deal to do with implementing good practices, often taken from the business world. The church has long resisted the perceived urge to dilute the church with business practices, and therefore statisticsoften get lumped into the “profane” category rather than the “holy” one. However, I believe that these categories have been quite arbitrarily drawn, and if we take a closer look at scripture, we’ll see that God is actually quite a fan of the spreadsheet, or more accurately, scales.
In Leviticus, God talks about scales. “You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:36)
In Deuteronomy, the sentiment is restated: “Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.” (Deuteronomy 25:13-16 NIV)
The book of Proverbs talks further about unequal scales:
“The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him.” (Proverbs 11:1 NIV)
“Honest scales and balances belong to the Lord; all the weights in the bag are of his making.” (Proverbs 16:11 NIV)
“Differing weights and differing measures—the Lord detests them both.” (Proverbs 20:10 NIV)
“The Lord detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him.” Proverbs 20:23 NIV)
The sentiment is continued in the prophets:
“But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always. The merchant uses dishonest scales and loves to defraud. Ephraim boasts, “I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.” (Hosea 12:6-8 NIV)
“Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house, and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?” (Micah 6:10-11 NIV)
These passage gets to the very heart of God’s design for statistics. God hates dishonest weights and uneven scales. But it also says that God loves honest scales! Measuring things correctly, honestly and with integrity pleases God. Oh, and did I mention there’s a whole book of the Bible called NUMBERS? (note: technically there isn’t, the original title of Numbers is “In The Wilderness” which is way cooler than “Numbers”, but this doesn’t serve my point particularly well)
My current project set by Simon is to create a statistical dashboard for the Apostolic Team to view, and with that naturally comes a dashboard that each location team can view too. What are the things we should be measuring to show where each location is at? How can we measure our church in a way that tells a truthful story? I’ve found a few statistics that we should be measuring that help tell a truthful story:
- Percentage Full
Attendance is the number one statistic that churches in the world go to, and is also the most criticised. I’ve actually read much more against measuring attendance than for measuring attendance, but I still think our Sunday attendance figures have their place, but in context. Percentage Full takes the attendance figure and puts it into the real world that helps decision-making. The percentage full looks at the attendance in relation to building capacity. This statistic can then help know when the right time is to start a new service, change building, or plant a new location. Once a service is hitting the 80% full mark, you should be looking at starting a new service. This works for the kids and youth work too.
- OKR Completion to Progress through year.
OKRs are the new kid on the block in One Church, and they are helping us to annunciate where God is telling us to go, and to know that we’ve got there. That means we’ve got to do a lot of measuring! By knowing how far we are through our OKRs we can then measure that against how far we are through the year and see if we’re on track. This isn’t an exact science, some things will happen later in the year, but we should on average be keeping up to date with the percentage through the year.
- Standard Deviation
I was taught this last week by the great Ian Andrews. Averages can be very temperamental as one outlier can skew the figures. Standard Deviation is a helpful number to track as it shows how much a number deviates from the mean. The further away from the mean it is, the less likely it is to happen. What this all means (no pun intended) is that you can start to predict the likelihood of something, like people attending your service. For example, in Podsmead, their mean average attendance this year is 51, with a standard deviation of 17, which means there is a 65% chance that a service will be +/- 17 than 51. This is a super helpful number to track, especially if you’re putting chairs out.
My approach to Statistics
I completely believe that statistics are necessary for our church. We need to have not just honest scales, but actually have scales in the first place! By tracking the key numbers that show health, it can help us make better decisions, fix problems early and celebrate wins. Unlike Mark Twain, I believe that statistics have the power to hold a mirror up to a team, a ministry, or a church, to tell a truthful story.
I also think that the role of statistics will only grow in the future. Just as elite sports have embraced data science to provide powerful analysis, I believe the church will embrace data more and more as a tool for better decision making, especially in the online sphere. Who knows, churches may even be employing data analysts in the future!