The Seduction of Data


By Travis Hill

in love with mathWhat if we boiled everything in ministry down to numbers? What if we were able to extract all of the data from every program, every student, and run some fancy algorithms to determine the growth of our student ministry? Maybe we could convert students into three-digit numbers and only refer to them that way.

While this sounds absurd, it’s almost reality in many corners of a teenager’s world, because we live in a world driven by success instead of community or relationships. And unfortunately, many of our churches have fallen into the same routine as the world, being inundated by numbers.

We have been taught (and not necessarily by our bosses) that empirical data of growth is one of the most important signs of health. It’s the world, our upbringing, society and culture around us that teaches us more is better and the person who dies with the most toys wins. We know why we fall for it. We see that we are ahead and we want to stay on top. We see that we are so close to being the best and we want to do better to get up there.

I had a serious problem with 30 Hour Famine this year, and it wasn’t Famine’s fault; it was mine. We have always done well with the Famine, raised enough money over the last six years to help a bunch of kids to eat, but this year we were in relation to other Famine groups. I thought I wanted to know this information; but I was wrong. I truly didn’t need to know. Why? Because it turned into a numbers game for me. I struggled with finding God in the relationships. I struggled with realizing the impact we were having. I struggled to help celebrate each and every student who participated in the famine, donated their time and effort and money, and went hungry so that others could eat. It’s easy in our brokenness to lift up the students who raise hundreds (or thousands) of dollars and forget the students who raised $30 by scraping and saving and begging.

And this is where I had to check myself partway through the Famine. I wanted to be “it” and let my name be spread among the masses. In Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus, he spends some time camping out on the idea that our culture has made us want to be relevant instead of effective, how we should be seeking the approval of the masses instead of the love of God. In it he says, “The desire to be relevant and successful will gradually disappear, and our only desire will be to say with our whole being to our brothers and sisters of the human race, ‘You are loved.’ The gospel is not a success story; it is a love story.” 30 Hour Famine is not a story of dollars and cents; it is a story of a group of ragtag students doing everything they can to impact the world around them.

Nouwen says, “We have been tempted to replace love with power.” May we not let the power of money, or worse, the power of what we think what we are doing is right, to replace the utmost reason for what we’re doing, to love and nurture and provide students and others around the world a way out of the messy culture we live in.