Is Our Use of Statistics Always Wise?


This past weekend, as I was driving around running errands with the family, I happened to be listen to Christian radio.  On the station I listen to, they have feature news stories on Christians and ministries making difference in the world around them.  One story featured this weekend just about gave me whiplash.  In this story about a ministry in Georgia that is committed to feeding children during the summer, it quoted a statistic that 31 million children are going without food this summer because they have no access to school breakfast or lunch when class is not in session.  That number seemed huge to me.  After doing some digging, I discovered that this statistic would represent nearly half of all children in the United States.  You mean to tell me that half of all children in this country are going without food while school is out this summer?  Forgive me, but I have a hard time believing that.

I do not want to diminish the very worthy work of this ministry.  However, that statistic caused me to wonder if we in the church are doing ourselves more harm than good with the way we use numbers.  While we preach with our mouths that Jesus would have died on that cross for our sins even if we were the only person on the earth, we operate with the mindset that large numbers make a ministry more important or valid.  Often churches measure their success based on attendance or number of decisions for Christ.  And charitable donors surely like to know how many people their dollars have helped reach.  Yet, statistics can be notoriously manipulated or misquoted.

For years, we in special needs ministry spread the pervasive, unfounded statistic of an 80% or higher divorce rate amongst couples raising children with special needs.  There is also a statistic attributed to Joni & Friends Christian Institute on Disability that claims that same percentage of individuals and their families with disabilities are unchurched.  However, I’ve never been able to actually locate that statistic on their website.  In other words, our important, worthy work may have others looking at us askance just as I did the US hungry children work, all because of funny math.

I invite you to ponder and discuss this issue with me.  Do we do ourselves a disservice and undermine our mission by over-inflating numbers?   Do we make ourselves hypocrites by saying each life matters while attempting to get people to buy-in to our work simply because of volume?  As always, your thoughts and insights are more than welcome by posting a comment below.

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