Using data responsibly in ministry
Statistics are powerful communication tools, so it is not surprising that 62% of pastors use them.
A statistic can capture attention, inform and motivate. However, improper use of statistics can undermine a minister’s credibility, erode trust, and become a stumbling block to the gospel.
Consider the statistic above. Does it raise any red flags? It should. I did not provide a source. There was no mention of a researcher, report title, or research organization. Also, to what “pastors” is the statistic referring? American pastors or pastors worldwide? Does the figure account for all Protestant pastors or just evangelical ones? Without a verifiable source, it’s impossible to know.
I have a confession: The statistic in the opening sentence is fake. I made it up to illustrate a point. The reality is many statistics are biased, and some are outright bogus.
The Word of God is always true, but the same cannot be said of statistics. Ministers have an ethical duty to use statistics responsibly, and that requires keeping some guiding principles in mind.
Fight Confirmation Bias
There is a danger in trumpeting research findings that reinforce what you believe while avoiding or ignoring those that don’t. This is easy to do when searching specifically for statistics to complement existing sermon content.
Even when intentions are good, everyone is susceptible to confirmation bias — the tendency to notice, favor, and recall information that supports what we already believe or value.
When it comes to statistics, integrity requires objectivity. Fight confirmation bias by acknowledging your biases, staying open-minded about what you might discover, and rethinking what you initially believed based on new evidence.
God is the author of truth, and His followers should be truth seekers. When searching for data on a topic, search broadly. In fact, searching for evidence that contradicts expectations is a good practice.
Hunt for multiple sources of data. Do different reports present conflicting information? If so, proceed with caution. Resist the urge to cherry pick statistics that conveniently fit a script.
Reject Low-Quality Data
I occasionally hear the phrase, “Numbers don’t lie.” But as a social scientist, I know they can. People frequently use statistics in intentionally misleading ways. That’s why vetting data to be sure it is legitimate and trustworthy is so important.
There is a science to generating high-quality research, which explains why many research careers require a Ph.D. However, you don’t need an advanced degree to consume research critically.
Start by considering the sample size. How many individuals responded to the survey? A poll of 2,000 people usually yields more reliable results than one with 500.
Additionally, discover who the survey respondents were. Ideally, researchers gather a random sample of the population in question. When this is not the case, pay attention to how the methodology varies.
If a study is making broad claims about the millennial generation, for example, but researchers only surveyed millennials living in rural areas of Georgia, the results may not reflect the views of urban millennials or millennials in other parts of the U.S.
If people cannot
trust the statistics
you share, how
can you expect
them to trust what
you have to say
about the Bible?
Also, notice how researchers recruited the respondents. Did they use an online survey? If so, the data will exclude those without internet access, who may be older, lower income, or in rural areas — factors that could dramatically change the outcome. Different recruitment methods come with various types of biases.
Bias can also creep in through the phrasing of a survey question, so watch out for leading questions that nudge people in a specific direction.
No study is perfect, but some are better than others. Be mindful of a study’s limitations. And remember, using no statistics is better than citing faulty ones. When in doubt, kick it out.
Rely on Experts
Use reliable sources whose reputations hinge on rigor and accuracy. Pew Research Center and Gallup are examples of trustworthy sources, and both have hundreds of free reports that are relevant to church leaders.
High-quality research also comes from academics who publish their work in peer-reviewed journals. Experts rigorously vet this material in a double-blind review process. Editors of scholarly journals reject research that does not meet their standards, so getting past peer review is a mark of quality.
Many peer-reviewed journal articles are accessible through public and university libraries, as well as through Google Scholar.
Avoid using data from people with no professional research training. It is also best to stay away from research involving obvious conflicts of interest. Does the funding come from a company that benefits from the data skewing a certain way? If so, be wary.
Provide a Paper Trail
Providing sources is an easy, but often overlooked, step. Not only should you name your sources verbally, but you should also aim to cite them in writing. During preaching, you can do this by including them in a slide presentation or alongside other sermon resources, such as a fill-in-the-blank sermon outline.
Share the name of the research organization that produced the work, along with the publication year. If you are citing an academic source, state the name of the researcher and perhaps his or her university or the journal that published the study. This gives credit to the researchers, brings authority to your statement, and allows people to investigate if they are interested in learning more.
Giving congregants the tools to verify claims will become even more important in the years ahead. According to a 2020 report from Pew Research Center, Generation Z (born after 1996) is on track to become the most educated American generation, which could make them especially skilled at consuming content critically.
These digital natives are likely to pick up their phones and fact check what they hear. When they do, it is important that they can locate any statistics you cite and verify their trustworthiness. If they can’t, you will lose legitimacy and trust, both of which are difficult to rebuild. And if people cannot trust the statistics you share, how can you expect them to trust what you have to say about the Bible?
The religious landscape of the U.S. has shifted over the past decade. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center report, 3 in 10 American adults are now religiously unaffiliated. The burden is on us to build the trust of these nonbelievers.
Additionally, more churches are streaming sermons and reaching larger, more diverse audiences. However, people who discover a church online and lack a personal connection to it may be especially cautious. Sharing high-quality statistics, along with sources, can help put them at ease.
Proverbs 12:22 says the Lord “delights in people who are trustworthy.” Handling statistics in a trustworthy manner requires a little extra preparation and intentionality, but maintaining integrity and honoring God are always worth the effort.
This article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of Influence magazine.