Numbers matter, on some level at least, but I believe we all know that numbers are highly limited in their ability measure what matters. I remember a Dilbert Cartoon (November 21, 1994) where Dogbert suggested that corporate health can best be measured by employee turnover rate. The “pointy-haired boss” (PHB) noted that their turnover rate was very low since they keep their employees poorly trained so no one else would want to hire them. PHB ends the comic with the victory cheer “NO METRIC HAS BEATEN ME YET!!” He was pointing out that as soon as you set a statistical standard for performance, one can find ways to “beat the system”. A couple of years ago, some milk product manufacturers in China were found putting melamine (bad stuff) into milk products because it would make a test give higher protein readings. Clearly evaluating by numbers alone is inadequate.
It is not surprising that today, in an age of technology, statistics, and analysis, numbers have grown in import. The Church Growth Movements often focus on numbers: biological growth, transfer growth, conversion growth, “back-door” losses, baptisms, and memberships. But by these standards, the Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, would be considered a very successful church, even after Jones declared himself God. From a numbers standpoint, the problems with the People’s Temple would not have really shown up until the church members did a mass suicide (huge back-door losses). The “spiritual disciplines” sometimes become metrics for holiness: how many verses memorized, how much of the Bible is read daily, how many times does one prayer or fast, or go to church, or join worship rallies, journal, or a host of other measurable behaviors.
Missions is often hugely statistical.
Missionaries are often judged by the:
-Number of people “reached” with the Gospel.
-Number of events held.
-Number of people they have led to Christ.
-Number of churches they have planted.
-Number of people they are discipling.
-Efficiency of work (“bang for the buck”)
Mission sites are often judged by:
-Number of unreached people groups.
-Percentage of “Evangelicals” in the region
-Church planting patterns and stats
-Statistical viability for church-planting movement (CPM)
But is missions (Missio Dei) truly something that can be measured?
I believe that in missions organizations and missionaries, like the Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert, can use numbers in ways to enlighten or disquise. Let me give you an example:
I used to be involved with a lot of medical missions. I don’t have a problem with medical missions (my dissertation is on doing medical mission events in the Philipines), but some are done poorly… and that is never acceptable.
Let me give you some numbers of a typical evangelistic medical mission (partnered with a local church) here in the Philippines.
-People treated: 500
(Medical treatment) 350
(Dental treatment) 100
(Minor surgical treatment) 50
Prayed to Receive Christ 300 (high rates of external response common in PI)
Desire Home Bible Study 80
Cost? About $1200 (pretty efficient!!)
These are pretty good numbers!! One could use these numbers to demonstrate that one is a pretty good missionary.
But suppose one wanted to show this mission was a failure, not a success?
- People helped, physically, long-term? Maybe 70-80 (and these only modestly)
- How many people now involved in church? Maybe 15
- How many trained for healthy and wise living? 0
- How many are empowered (versus made dependent) by the event. 0
From this, one could argue that it is a big waste of time.
Which view is correct? Recall the quote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (probably first coined by Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke). The truth may not be so easy to measure. For example:
Did the medical mission express the love of God to the community in a way that people could understand and respond to?
Did the local church build bridges/healthy relationships with the broader community?
Did it inspire local and outside volunteers to greater faithfulness and service of God?
Did it engender dependency within the community or ill-will?
(Most importantly) Was the mission doing God’s work or one’s own work?
These are frustrating questions because they reject quantification… but these are the ones most important for us to answer.