95% of people who read the first paragraph of this article will not finish it. According to a study done by the …. okay, just kidding.
Seriously, though – have you ever considered why we use statistics and what they actually are? (And the number did grab your attention at least for a second, right?)
Why Do We Use Statistics?
Many times we hear (or preach) sermons in which certain numbers are thrown out to demonstrate or verify or teach some supposed reality about the thing we are addressing. Sometimes we have a good reason to use a statistic. Other times… we really don’t (and many times our reasons for using them are some mixture of motives).
Relevance & Clarity
Sometimes we simply want a number that shows people things really are relevant. There are actually people in the real world. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 out of 4 women in the US die of heart disease. When we start thinking of the likelihood that 25% of the women we know could die from this disease, it makes us think a little differently.
According to a 2012 Lifeway study, 80% of churchgoers don’t read their Bible daily. That may explain a lot of ignorance of the Bible and disobedience to the Bible in our churches.
Have you ever noticed how some listeners’ ears perk up when you give a number? Once you mention 35% or 60% or 1 out of 10 or whatever percentage or ration you use, it is almost as if an extra air of authority and scientific precision has overtaken the room, even if only for a moment. Those numbers sure make things sound measurable, careful, and “official.”
“The divorce rate of Christians is the same as that of the world!” This is an inaccurate, but popularly repeated mantra. Sometimes we hope a statistic will wake people up. Or get their attention… or get us some attention.
What Statistics Are
Before you quote that next statistic in your message, think about what statistics actually are.
1. Statistics are numbers.
2. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people.
3. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie.
4. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie by people who sometimes lie.
5. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie by people who sometimes lie and are sometimes based on too small or limited a segment of people to give an accurate representation of reality.
6. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie by people who sometimes lie and are sometimes based on too small or limited a segment of people to give an accurate representation of reality and are often prone to manipulation.
I think you get the idea. Done by people with studies of people, not all statistics are equally valuable, helpful, or valid. Sometimes surveys limit the choices of respondents who would not choose any of the options, yet choose one just to complete the survey. Some respondents may lie to someone in person but tell the truth in an online anonymous situation. Some have too small a sample to accurately speak to the larger populace about an issue.
Some statistics are well-researched, reasonable, and helpful. But even they cannot boast of perfect certainty as to their results, just a (hopefully) clear pointer to what appears to be the case, based on the questions they asked and the answers they found.
The Nature of Gospel Ministry
The nature of the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ should inform us as we consider how to use or not use statistics. It is the certain Word of God we are to preach with authority (2 Timothy 4:2), not human statistics, which may be filled with error or skewed. We are to renounce “the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Don’t give in to the temptation to use statistics as a cheap shortcut or filler. If you decide to use a statistic, doublecheck it to make sure it’s from a reliable source and a good study of the question it addresses. Statistics should be used to illustrate truths, needs, and relevance, but must not be used to supersede the authority of the Bible or give a higher “proof” to the truths revealed in the living and active Word. God says in Isaiah 55:11: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” That’s true not just 95% of the time, but 100%.
For more tips on “3 Ways to Recognize Bad Statistics” see this article by Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research.