Posts Tagged ‘use of statistical data’

Using Statistical Data: Does it Really Bear Fruit? (Long one, sorry)

demographic map

Using Statistical Data: Does it Really Bear Fruit? (Long one, sorry)

 Introduction and Discussion of Biases and Core Values

In discussing the use of demographic statistics, I think it is important to first lay out some biases and core values that influence our use of that kind of data in our faith community.  We have a good deal of collective experience with the gathering and use of demographic and other broad statistics. As a pastor in a missional community for almost fifteen years, I have a good deal of personal experience with them.  So, it may benefit our understanding of what I will write about this to understand the reasons that I advocate for certain methodologies and advise against others.

Of first importance to our community is that Jesus be the head of the church, and that we are conscious of all the ways that the throne of our community can be usurped by well-meaning people.  We are believers in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and at the heart of all that we do, is that we seek the leading of the Holy Spirit.  We believe in spiritual gifting, and we believe that those gifts need to be used in order to stay in movement with the Holy Spirit.  We believe in dreams and visions, and we believe that as the Spirit led communities through those avenues in the past, so it leads us now today. As such, our processes and methodologies tend to lean into the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

We further believe that the mission is primarily about relationships between people.  When I say this, I mean “actual” relationships, person-to-person contact between individuals and the building of relationships through that contact.  We believe that we are always both the object and the subject of the mission as experienced through those person-to-person relationships.  If our mission involves the giving and receiving of groceries, those groceries are handed out person-to-person on a human level one bag at a time to one person at a time.  As such, our methodologies reflect this belief, and we view methodologies that involve averages and miens and broad generalizations as not only not helpful to the mission, but as even a distraction from what we are about.

And of last, but not insignificant note, I have come to believe that in the transformational church environment, churches are not “mobilized” in the collective.  I do not believe that groups are moved at the group level.  I have years of painful experience and disillusioning that ground this belief.  I do need to say, however, that I work in a specific transformational environment that may not be indicative of the majority of communities that are struggling with transformation to missional living.  I have contact with many other communities, and that contact has influenced my belief in how transformation and movement happens.  But even that level of experience must still be understood as anecdotal.

I believe that in the movement from maintenance to missional, and in the missional environment, vision for action comes to an individual. We believe that God is already at work in the mission field, that Christ can be seen there ahead of our participation.  We believe that God’s activity is usually seen by one or two or three who bring news of it back to the community to be discerned in a group of committed followers.  We believe that dreams and visions are also discerned in a group of committed believers who will almost always represent a minority within an untransformed church community and culture.

More often than not, that group of people called to help discern will consist of people both from inside a community and from outside of it.  I believe that the person receiving the vision will ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit in who to ask to help them to discern the vision, even going so far as to ask the Holy Spirit to call that group out and identify them to the person who has received a vision for mission.  That gathered group will become a catalyst for change in the community, and that change will most likely be initiated by an affinity to the fruit that the mission bears.  Some people will see the fruit being borne, will understand it as evidence of the anointing of the Spirit and fruit of the Kingdom, and will be attracted to participation in it.  Others will be provoked by it, and will resist it vehemently.  The Holy Spirit both convicts and provokes.  Some will accept it and some will resist it.  And some will simply leave the community because of the changes that begin to take place as a result of the missional movement.

I have come to believe that that winnowing process is both necessary and essential to real spiritual transformation.  Trying to get everyone on board before initiating action in the mission simply stunts that process, and therefore, hinders the mission and the spiritual growth of the community. Communities are not mobilized.  Individuals are called, gifted, and sent.  Mobilization happens over time as a strategic consensus of the community is gained.  I have never seen it gained in any real or productive way before significant action is taken.  It is the fruit of the action initiated that catalyzes movement in the larger community and creates consensus around it. Waiting for everyone to get on board simply does not happen.

Further, I have a bias against counting things.  Jesus does not do anything with numbers in his mission and actions in Scripture.  It is true that he sends his people out two by two.  Those numbers matter to us.  It is also true that Jesus does a little bit of mathematics when he says that we should be willing to forgive people seventy times seven times.  He tells his disciples to divide a hungry crowd of five thousand into groups of fifty.  Those exact numbers do not matter to us. The Bible narrative, however, does matter to us, and aside from a few specific and mostly symbolic instances, Jesus was not a statistician.  We are trying to live in Scripture now.  We do not do this perfectly.  But we are trying to see the mission through a Gospel hermeneutic.  As such, we are trying to utilize the methods that Jesus is reported in Scripture to have used to further the mission of the Kingdom.  I actually have a Bachelor’s degree in sociology, and have been trained in the use of statistics.  However, while social sciences can help to inform and enhance what we do, we are not seeking to ground what we do in the methodologies of the social sciences.  We are seeking to ground our methods in the methods of Jesus and his disciples as reported in Scripture to the very best of our ability to do so.

Statistics are complicated and can be misleading.  They are nuanced and require a great deal of training and skill to gather and use properly.  As I mentioned, I have a four year undergraduate degree that involves skills in how to gather and use them.  A problem that arises for us and creates a bias for me personally as a missional pastor is that complex things that require a great deal of training in order to implement and utilize do not multiply rapidly or readily.  Multiplication is a core value.  If it cannot be multiplied by minimal effort, or if it does not multiply because the Holy Spirit brings it life to do so on its own, then it is not something that we advocate for.  If something is heavy in required and acquired skills, then it might look fantastic on a three-fold color-glossy church brochure, but it is not likely to be helpful to us in rapidly multiplying the mission.  Everything that we do has to be at least as simple as what is reflected in Jesus’ methods that are reported in Scripture.  We have a strong bias away from complexity.  We have a strong bias away from esoteric language.  And we have a strong bias away from professionalization. Anything that sets up hurdles of certification or significant education in order to get engaged “right now” in the mission field is not present in our reading of Scripture and is dangerous to mission initiation.  As you will see, we bring those skills into the mission later.  We simply do not place those skills into the equation before the mission is initiated.

Missional Engagement Methodology and the Use of Demographic Data

Something that we have learned over and over again along the way in gaining first a missional foothold in our community, and then gaining a deeper penetration into it is that strategic planning is counter-productive.  When I use the term “counter-productive”, I mean that engaging in something that fits this label actually reduces our ability to produce fruit for the Kingdom.  It is counter to production. Strategic planning and assessment: 1) takes place in the wrong place; 2) operates off of unstated assumptions; 3) uses up the precious resources of time and talent; and, 4) there is no evidence to show that this kind of planning and assessment actually produces engagement with the mission field. What we have found is that the only thing that produces engagement with the mission field is engagement with the mission field. As tautological as that may sound, it is the truth as we have experienced it.  We are not confounded by paradoxes.  They are the environment that we live in.

I have notebook upon notebook of demographic information that I compiled over about two years’ time and approximately two hundred hours of effort.  Since compiling that data and doing an in-depth asset-based assessment of our “church”, I have never once opened those notebooks or used that data.  The statistics that those efforts produced, at least in my case, are dead information.  The problems that I ran into in my research and in implementing efforts with that information are myriad.   Most of the research available is at least a year old and often older by the time it is published.  It is broad and it provides no actual thread connected to the mission field that we can pull on and use to develop the situation in the field. Statistics are also tremendously misleading.  I have never met the “average” person.  I have never broken bread with the median demographic.  And all of the strategic planning and asset-based assessment of my “church” did nothing to move anyone out of the pews and into the mission field. In short, I used two hundred hours to do something that has proven to be irrelevant when I know now that I could have used those two hundred hours gathering what we call “tacit information”[1] while at the very same time engaging with my mission field.

For us, speed and agility are of paramount importance.  Mission opportunities arise in a moment and pass us by in a moment.  “Tacit Information” is information that is steeped in context, relevance, and timeliness.  It is information that is alive.  It is today’s information and can be used today.  It isn’t found in demographic spread sheets.  It can be bought on the street for the price of a meal, a candy bar, or a cup of coffee.  We look for what we call a “person on the ground”.  A person on the ground is native to the context and has both credibility and connections within a given population and geography.  That person can give us all the information that we need to know in order to gain missional penetration into the community. We turn the person on the ground from object to subject of the mission immediately, and we ride on their connections and rely on their ability to find the right information extremely quickly so that we can put it to use quickly.

If I am trying to find a foothold in the urban environment, then I pray for God to put a homeless person in our path who can lead us into the Kingdom of God in that environment.  When I find that person, I take them out for a meal and talk to them for an hour or so.  In one hour, I will know the ethnicity, gender break-down, and geographic location of that population.  I will know what services are currently being offered to that population, where those service locations are, and whether or not they are effective.  I will also know what needs still exist, and I will know how to deliver those needs to that population. Of equal importance, I will have a vision of adjacent mission fields to the homeless into which we will begin to reach and grow.  I will have spent one hour instead of two hundred hours, and I will have spent about ten dollars.  I will have already engaged in the mission from the point of contact with our person on the ground, and I will have already gained geographic orientation to the area in real-time by simply walking around looking for the person on the ground that God has prepared for us to meet and engage with.  The Holy Spirit goes before us and paves the way into the Kingdom through the participation and leadership of the very people that we are trying to reach.

We have come to understand that initial missional engagement is a “Lewis and Clark” effort.  We believe in utilizing spiritual gifts of individuals who feel called to use them, rather than trying to mobilize an entire church that is mostly untransformed.  The mission creates the transformation, not the other way around.  As such, we look for people who have what Alan Hirsh refers to as the “pioneering gifts” of the apostle, prophet, and evangelist[2].  When we identify these gifts, be they in the church or outside of it, we empower them and send them to do what they are shaped and anointed by God to do.  Trying to turn a shepherd into a pioneer doesn’t work.  So we find pioneers who have experienced a sense of calling, and we put them to work doing what they do.  Like Lewis and Clark, these folks do not know what is around the next bend, but they are compelled to venture around it because that is simply the way they are shaped. We do not have to teach them anything complicated because their spiritual gifting shapes them to function well beyond what any training could give them.

Pioneers functioning together make contact with the mission field and develop the situation that they find that God has prepared for them to engage with.  They develop the situation that unfolds before them rather then going in with preconceived notions distilled from misleading statistics and dead information.  Non-transformed communities do not mobilize.  Individuals gifted to be mobile mobilize.  Once engaged, apostles develop widening networks in the mission field itself, and evangelists grow the mission right there in the mission field. Prophets keep them on track and identify the places where God’s Kingdom is at work on the ground that they are now deeply engaged with.

As the mission develops, apostles draw in resources to support and grow the mission.  But the resources needed are rarely known before engagement with the mission field.  They don’t know what they need until they are engaged, and once engaged they are extremely adept at correctly identifying what is needed and in developing and utilizing networks from which to draw those resources.  Once ground is gained and redeemed for the Kingdom, what Alan Hirsh refers to as “settler” gifts[3] become relevant and necessary in order to hold and further develop and transform what the pioneers discovered and engaged with.  This is the point at which statistical analysis and compilation become important.  Firstly, compiling data allows for settlers to identify whether or not the mission is meeting its goals.  Data correctly compiled can provide “dashboard indicators” that allow shepherds to make adjustments to increase effectiveness in that specific mission.  Those dashboard indicators can also inform teachers about what needs to be taught.  Shepherds and teachers are the settlers who take the ground gained by pioneers and make the Kingdom of God more and more apparent in it.

The SWOT and Asset-Based Analysis are processes that are attractive to and effective for the settlement gifts.  Frankly, that kind of activity would bore the pioneers and would be of little use to them.  They are not shaped for it, and due to their gifting and temperament, would find being required to do them discouraging.  Pioneers chomp at the bit for engagement and situation development.  They thrive in chaos, and naturally innovate.  Pioneers simply should be rapidly identified and released into the mission field.  The settlers can use the SWOT and Asset-Based Analysis as a tool for making what the pioneers hand off to them better. Further, in conjunction with good spiritual analysis and gift assessment, the SWOT profile can help apostles and shepherds to identify the pioneering gifts as assets, thus speeding up the multiplication of mission timetable.  What has happened in the institutional church is that, for too long, apostles have been seen as threatening and have been chased off or bored into leaving, prophets have been silenced, and evangelists have been utilized solely for church-growth purposes.

A second point of relevance for compiling statistics is that once the mission begins to develop, it is important to quickly identify income streams from outside the “Mothership”[4] so that the mission becomes self-sustaining as quickly as possible.  Many of those income streams will be grants.  In order to effectively get grants, statistics will need to be provided in order to match up the mission with compatible funding sources, and to provide those funding sources with evidence of effectiveness.  But the statistics gathered for this come from within the mission itself.  These statistics are “after- the-fact” data specific to the mission.  Even though the data might be voluminous, it is still tacit information steeped in context.  If a funding source requires effective engagement with a target population of interest to them, we need to be able to show statistical evidence that we are engaging effectively with that demographic.  Missions need to identify who they are serving and how big the need is within their target population.  They need to do this from several perspectives depending on the requirements of available funding sources.  They need to be nimble in how they group and classify statistics so that the information is attractive to their funding sources.  In that way, the information must stay alive.  It must remain tacit. And it must come from within the mission.

Once a mission is developed to even a nominal degree such that it is regularly engaged with a relatively stable population, it is easy to gather statistics.  Developing a simple form for people to fill out provides both tacit information and documentation of services. Surveys and interviews can be conducted and affidavits of impact can be acquired because the people granting them to you are people you know.  They are your community.  You will have developed a relationship of partnership and trust with them. And more often then not, they will be willing to help the mission in any way they can because they will have gained a sense of ownership in it.  We now have data that I can sculpt specifically to a given funding source.  I have templates that I can adjust depending on the format of the grant we are applying for.  Here is where the statistics matter.  Grant sources have criteria for giving those grants and they have expectations for effectiveness.  While I am not convinced that statistics actually have anything to do with the advance of the Kingdom of God, they certainly are helpful is acquiring funding from worldly sources.


[1] We have used concepts from many contexts, not just traditional ecclesial sources.  The term “tacit information” is used in the military intelligence community and was first used in a publication (to my knowledge anyway) by Pete Blaber, in his book The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).

[2] We draw heavily on Alan Hirsh’s work on spiritual gifts as he relates them in Hirsh, Alan. The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Mothership” is a term we coined to talk about a resourcing community whose primary function is to birth new missions, teams, and communities; to nurture them; and to send them out.