The Analytics-Driven Church

By Bob Hiller

Another World Series has come and gone. And it was a great one! Game five was about as good as it gets. Never had there been a score of 13-12 in a Series game. The rest of the series was pretty entertaining too. It was truly a joy to watch. But I’m going to be honest. I’m kind of burnt out on the superlatives. A number of commentators were touting this as the greatest series ever and so forth. Have we already forgotten last year between the Cubs and the Indians? This was a fun series, but it’s going to take a few more years before we can talk about its place in the history of the game.

One of the things that does stand out about this series is the role analytics played for both teams. Analytics “is the discovery, interpretation, and communication of meaningful patterns in data” (Thanks Wikipedia!). Statistics have always been a crucial part of baseball, but analytics takes matters to a whole other level. Scientific data is driving every decision being made, on and off of the field. For example, if 75% of a certain batter’s hits go to left field off of right handed pitchers, then coaches will encourage their players to “shift” so that the right field side has almost no coverage and the team has a greater chance of getting an out. All kinds of scenarios and statistical analyses are run on every pitcher, hitter, and fielder so that you have the best guys in the best places for the best position to win. It seems to be working as both the Dodgers and the Astros have built their franchises on this analytical model.

Part of me (that very large cynical part which scowls at statistical analysis) wants to be upset about this. The other part of me (that even larger part that loves good baseball) can’t complain when we get a Series that was this good.  And yet, well, there’s something that doesn’t rub me the right way here. I don’t think statistics and analytics tell the whole story. There is a human element that is left out of the equation when everything is reduced to analytics. Players are reduced to numbers and it takes way more than numbers to win a World Series.

For example, players still must perform well. Baseball players are notoriously streaky. Analytics cannot always predict when and how someone will perform on a given night. Further, analytics won’t tell you how one player’s attitude in the locker room can wreck a team. He may be great on the field all the while his personality destroys team chemistry. Plus, you need a genius of a coach to manage all of these personalities and all of this data in real time on a real field. To rely strictly on analytics dehumanizes the game by reducing each player’s contribution to stats. At best, analytics help, but they cannot tell the whole story. At worst, they mislead teams into thinking that numbers win championships (to be sure, Houston and LA are not the only teams playing the analytical game). To my mind, the human element always matters more. The game still must be played on the field.

This got me to thinking about how so many of us in the church have become driven by statistics. To spoof a now tired cliché, we’ve become the analytics-driven church. Congregations buy books that explain statistical studies of this or that generation in an effort to better grasp their surrounding culture’s mindset. They then begin to develop ministries and programs based on the analysis in order to reach more people and grow their congregation. Stats drive the ministry.

The other day, I was in a meeting with a group of pastors where a speaker tried to engage us about the non-Christian (The new buzzword is “unclaimed. What is that?) context of our county. He told us that his analysis had found that roughly 1.6 million people in our county were not attending churches. He then asked us to explain why we thought this 1.6 million people weren’t in church. Much to my surprise, everyone had answers! They had read this study or that report which gave reasons why people don’t like church anymore. Cultural shifts, liberal media influence, post-modernism, Islam, pornography, all of it was contributing to the de-churching of our culture. The presenter then shared the stats they had discovered to show how his team’s new program was going to save our churches from their inevitable demise. His data-driven ministry would save our congregations.

What bothered me here is how the whole conversation seemed driven by analytics and not by real life conversations. Not a single person (and I am the chief of sinners on this one) said, “The people I’ve talked to have stopped coming because X.” All of our analysis was based off of studies and statistics. Much of these studies seem to be driven by fear and treat unbelievers as case studies. The idea undergirding this sort of “analytic-driven” activity is that if we just get enough information, and rightly utilize that information, then we can save the church. We just need more knowledge. Then we will know how to act around that strange animal we never know what to do with: the non-Christian! It never seemed to dawn on us that if we want to know why people in our neighborhoods don’t come one Sunday, we should ask them!

All this is to say that I fear statistical analysis has become idolatry in that we let it drive the preaching and activity of the church instead of the Word of God. I mean, will we really stand before God one day and say, “We did X in the church because the statistics said…”?

I wonder if one of the reasons the church is shrinking isn’t that we spend more time analyzing data than we do proclaiming our crucified Lord. I wonder what would happen if we stopped trying to figure out what is keeping people away and instead actually had a normal conversation with them about life. Maybe we should care less about the anonymous 1.6 million unbelievers in our county and more about Ed who serves me my Starbucks, or Joan, my daughter’s dance teacher. These people aren’t statistics. They are guilty, hurting, fearful, hateful, pain-filled sinners like the rest of us who need to be forgiven, loved, and promised hope. Analytic-based programing won’t do that. Jesus will. So, maybe instead of trying to design a ministry to reach millennials in your area, you should just invite a 20-something to your church Bible study, no strings attached. Just ask them to come. You might be surprised to find them interested!

Stats may show you what a particular demographic is interested in and what keeps them away from church. But when analytics drive ministry, the human element is removed. If we aren’t careful, so is faith in the Word of Jesus. The only thing that will grow the church, the only thing that will save sinners, is the gracious Word of the Crucified One. It is time for the church to stop wasting its time on statistical analysis and to start scattering the seed of God’s Word wherever they find themselves. Then sit back and watch as the Holy Spirit, regardless of our data, accomplishes His purposes!