Please Stop Killing Me With Your Statistics

photo by John Steven Fernandez

One advantage to having a blog is that I can occasionally take up my megaphone, clamber up on a soap box, and go at it. So here goes…

I think we need to stop trying to motivate people with statistics. The world is full of gut-wrenching, heart-breaking statistics. Millions live in poverty, millions of babies are being aborted, millions of girls are trapped in the sex industry, millions of people have never heard the gospel. Each of these is a real, legitimate, heart breaking problem, and we need courageous people who are willing to put their lives on the line for these causes.

But here’s the thing: I’m called to love my neighbor, not a statistic. I’m called to do good as I have opportunity. I’m called to minister primarily to the man next door, not in Saudi Arabia.

See, statistics do two things to me…

First, they make me feel like a wicked, useless, fruitless wretch. They condemn me. They crush me. There are millions living in poverty and here I am eating french fries and drinking Coca-Cola, like I don’t have a care in the world. What a loser I am! How can I call myself a Christian when there are so many people in poverty and I’m not doing a single thing about it? Maybe I’m the only one, but that’s what statistics do to me. They don’t inspire faith in me. They don’t draw out fresh passion for God. They crush me with condemnation because I’m not helping enough. I feel like I should be doing something but I have no idea what to do.

The second thing that statistics do is fill me with fear/anger/despair. Woah, millions of babies have been aborted! Where is God? Why isn’t he doing something? Something must be done now! Everything is out of control! We must mobilize, militarize, take to the streets.

The reality is, God is here. He’s in the middle of all the messes. He is sovereign and just. Every wickedness will be repaid and every injustice will be righted. Our God is not absent, and he is far greater than any problem that confronts us. Things are not spiraling out of control. Nothing has escaped  his ever watchful, ever caring eye.

So should we never use statistics again? No, but maybe we should use them a bit differently. First, let’s not forget about God. God is just and true and righteous and sovereign and all powerful. Every injustice will be repaid, every wrong will be righted. The return of Christ is not hinging solely on me and my efforts against the sex trafficking industry. I’ve got a wife, three kids, and a full time job. I’m one guy and I can only do so much. When we cite stats, let’s not forget to remind people that there is a real God who is control of all things.

Second, let’s not forget the gospel. Statistics can have a very condemning effect on people. If we cite statistics, let’s also remind people that their acceptance before God is based solely on the completed work of Christ. No more. If they can help in the fight against abortion, wonderful! But fighting against abortion does not make us more acceptable to God. Our statistics should be padded with the gospel.

Finally, we should help people connect massive statistics to something that they can really do. I can’t rescue every baby, as much as I wish I could. But I can help a young lady who is pregnant and considering an abortion, like my friends Adam and Pami did. I can’t take the gospel overseas but I can pray for the country of Morocco. I can’t rescue every orphan in Russia but I can reach out to the son of the single mom across the street.

Please don’t misunderstand me, stats aren’t wrong. And I fully believe in fighting against poverty and abortion and sex trafficking. But we need to be careful how we use statistics. If we really want to motivate people we can’t separate our statistics from our sovereign, gospel-giving God.

Comments

  1. John says

    I really like this article. I really do.
    Thanks!
    I am forwarding it to my leaders because I work for a Christian NGO, and one of our primary ways to raise finances is through stats.

  2. Jeff D says

    Stephen, I apologize that I always write when I disagree with something – I read most of your blogs and enjoy and agree with most of what you write, so I am going to work on chiming in with more supportive comments when I agree or am challenged. Given that, I have a few questions / thoughts about this post – with questions about the first half and praise for the second half:

    1. I personally like statistics because although they can be manipulated, with a lot of research, you can often get pretty close to the truth – if disregarding statistics, not that you are calling for that, but it seems to be very popular lately (mostly because of a few popular books), it seems to me like we are giving in to a complete moral relativism.

    2. Statistics are not discouraging to me, they are motivating! When I see how many children are living in poverty in the US, it has motivated me to donate money to charities, donate time to volunteer, help educate others, write political leaders, etc. I find it extremely motivational, not discouraging at all. Since we know that problems like these will always be with us, I find that I know I can't eliminate it, but if I can make suffering a little bit less for a few of God's children over the course of my life, then I feel like I am reflecting the grace that He has given to me. So, don't despair in the stats, let them drive you – and give you hope that you can cause a dent in these enormous problems with His help!

    Importantly, when you say that statistics "condemn you", I wonder if that is more a heart issue to work on or something to accept? Should you just really accept that hearing about the plight of God's children throughout the world condemns you? Give it over to God, let it motivate you – and even excite you that God has given you the opportunity to make a dent in those numbers! It is exciting that God gives us that opportunity – Let me encourage you to not let condemnation live in you here!

  3. Jeff D says

    [Continued]

    3. I am a bit confused by your statement: "I’m called to minister primarily to the man next door, not in Saudi Arabia." – this does not seem Biblical to me. Maybe it is just because my wife and I work with international students from over 90 countries (that all live right here in Indiana, PA!), but it seems like the Bible calls for exactly that – to spread the Gospel to all the ends of the Earth! And in our globalized world, we do not even have to leave Indiana to reach at least 90 different countries – not to mention the internet! It is such an exciting time to spread the Gospel, I don't see it as either / or – our neighbor or someone in Saudi Arabia – it can and should be both!

    Now, to the second half of your post –

    1. I am very appreciative that you stress God's sovereignty in all of these situations – that is why they should be full of hope and not condemnation. Also, for you and me, our jobs should be very empowering on this front. Both you and I (through your ministry and my teaching) reach a large amount of people. So, it seems that we have more ability to work on these stats than the average person – to start ministries, to educate, etc. My sister-in-law is the perfect example. She is an extremely busy person, who works in a Church and has a lot of responsibilities with very little extra time. Yet, she has been on missions all over the world – which she has not been able to do for quite awhile because of her schedule. Instead, she used her job at her Church to start collections and different activities with the congregation for local food banks, local charities, and international work as well. She has recruited people to make videos for international organizations that need help, raised money, awareness, encouraged others to go on missions sharing her experiences, and often uses holidays to gives tailor made gifts that help people (last Christmas she chose international charities that fit each person in her family's interests (For instance, for me it was help with literacy in India, for Jess it was a woman's group). And even with a busy schedule and using her job to help people all over the world, she always has time to minister in the community as well. This is an example we can all learn from – use our jobs, our hobbies, our relationships to help both locally and worldwide, spreading the Gospel and God's love around the world!

    2. I appreciate your sentence "we should help people connect massive statistics to something that they can really do" – I think this is a lot easier than people realize, especially in the internet age. When there is an issue I care about, I often cite a charity that people can work with or on policy in the US a congress person they can write. Writing an e-mail to our political officials once every few weeks about something you care about is something everyone can do and really makes changes if enough people do it.

    Once again, thanks for all your hard work on this blog, in your ministry, and overall. I just would ask you to think about whether or not local / world needs to be either / or, or if it can be a both / and. In my teaching experience I have often found that the average American does not know very much about what goes on in the world (I blame our celebrity obsessed media for this), and we really need to encourage our friends, family, and everyone we interact with to not limit the Gospel, that in this globalized world, God has empowered us to reach the ends of the world – easily.

    Thanks again.

    • Stephen Altrogge says

      Hey Jeff,

      I think I agree with most of your comments. It seems that you are able to connect global statistics to local action. However, I don't think most people can do that. I think that most people simply feel overwhelmed by stats. So like I said, I'm not opposed to statistics. I just think we need to be careful how we use them. And I also don't think a lot of people make the connection to God's sovereignty and the gospel when they are confronted with horrifying statistics.

      So really I agree with you. I was just trying to raise the point that we need to be careful in how we leverage stats.

  4. Jeff D says

    Thanks Stephen, I think you are correct – instead of disregarding stats, we need to encourage people to see God's sovereignty and use that as encouragement rather than condemnation. It is just like the fishing metaphor with salvation – that we should find it hopeful that God has told us that we will be able to bring people to the Gospel, so even though we won't be able to bring millions of people to Him, we know that we will bring People to Him. So, we shouldn't be discouraged when we can't bring someone to the gospel, instead, be confident that God is working there and be hopeful because of those we can help come to Him. The same is true of helping God's children around the world and locally. Jesus's ministry shows that in His name, we can help heal people, we can help them in spite of their horrific situations. So, just as we shouldn't feel condemned about those we can't bring to the gospel right now, we shouldn't feel condemned about those millions that we can't help right now. In both cases, we should be hopeful that God has given us the opportunity to help, know that he is working in that situation, and just do the best we can. Thanks again for your thoughts here.

  5. Dave says

    One of my biggest pet peeves is bad statistics – there's are certain areas in which misleading stats are used for manipulative purposes, which often have destructive effects. There are legitimate areas in which to use statistics though – one in which a failure to deal can have destructive consequences.

    For example, I work in the area of powergrids, and there the simplification renewables good / other powersources bad is in some cases having negative impacts on things like biodiversity in avian and fish populations (with the poor implementations resulting from misguided statistics also cancelling out much of the benefits of shifting to more renewable sources of power.

    Mission agencies probably should use some statistics in trying to figure out, e.g., areas in which they're most likely to encounter unreached peoples. On the other hand, take a figure quoted in an article in The Resurgence which suggests that the superbowl attracts 10,000 prostitutes and oodles of sex trafficking (from a random news article citing unnamed "reports") to the the WSJ's piece citing numerous specific, high-level officials and statistics from various previous events to support the conclusion that such estimates are bogus. It's statistics like Justin Holcomb's that need to be opposed – here he is again, claiming that unsourced "police statistics" show that 2% of rape reports, less than other crimes, are false whereas in actual reports by researchers and police forces summarized here (ungated version here) you typically find higher estimates of false reporting for this crime than others. I've tried to get him both privately and publicly to either cite his sources or stop making such claims but to no avail. (The examples above both date from after my initial attempts to get him to provide more accurate figures).

    There's got to be a level at which you can address both individual victims and deal with the statistics. The realms may differ somewhat but both I'd argue are essential.

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