By Chris Hulshof
“What if the cost of machines that think is people who don’t?” muses science historian George Dyson. His concern is that as technology has improved, it’s also taken a firm foothold in how we live our lives.
One place the grip of technology can be seen is how it’s become an integral part of our decision-making process. As we consider our next moves, we surround ourselves with spreadsheets, pie charts, and bar graphs so the way forward is indicated by mathematics.
Without asking questions about the data in front of us, we proceed because we’re going where the numbers take us. In short, we’ve become what Dyson feared—humans who don’t think.
The challenge of Christian leadership and church ministry in an analytic culture isn’t to push back against using the data before us, but to consider it as one piece in the decision-making process.
Making too much of data will cause us to overlook a story, miss the human in the story, and ultimately undermine what we believe about the imago Dei.
Every number represents a story.
With the rise of analytics, decision making has defaulted to a reductionist experience. Here the skill of determining a course of action is based primarily on what the numbers indicate.
The problem with this minimalist approach to charting a course of action is numbers are only part of the available information. The numbers were not achieved randomly and in a vacuum devoid of other factors. The numbers are part of a bigger picture.
Each dot and dashed line on the line graph represents a story. Indeed, each data point is a numerical representation of the story worth telling.
However, we find it easier to run algorithms based off of a collection of numbers instead of doing the harder work of sorting out the stories that yielded the data we’re examining.
Stories are intrinsic to what it means to be human. In things like books, movies, and plays, we both consume and tell stories.
Further, each human is part of the grand story God is telling on His stage of redemption and grace. Because of these factors, we don’t find the significance of a human in the data they produce.
Instead, we find it in the story they’re telling. To see data as nothing more than a collection of numbers will narrow our vision so that we miss some of the inspiring, hopeful, redemptive, and challenging stories we find inside these plot points.
Considering only the data is a mechanized approach to decision making that fails to engage the stories that shaped the spreadsheet.
Behind every story is a person.
If we lose the story that shaped the data, we’ll invariably lose the person behind the story. What’s left when we do this isn’t someone but something. The person has become both a commodity and a resource rather than a human.
When we turn something into a commodity, we expect it to behave like an object. As an object, its only value is what it can contribute to my approach to ministry.
Consequently, the dark side of data in Christian leadership is it becomes the gateway to seeing congregation members and other Christians solely as objects that’ll help move the church from point A through point B and on to point C.
The individual is a plot point on the church growth trajectory chart. Thus, the person represented by the statistics becomes an expendable object worth using at the discretion of the data with the hopes it’ll culminate in a more successful church experience.
When the story and the statistic connections are separated, we stop seeing people and instead see resources. In Silence in the Age of Noise, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge argues that in our rush to adopt new technology, we’ve lost sight of our humanity.
This imprudent embrace of every technological gadget has made us all resources for organizations. In turn, we’re voluntarily assisting them in mapping us out so these very organizations can use or sell the information we’ve provided. Kagge concludes that this smacks of exploitation.
It’s easy to read Kagge’s work and immediately point fingers at some of the large Silicon Valley corporations that dominate the digital landscape.
However, it’s not difficult to see where Christian leadership and church ministry can make the same tragic mistake.
To outline church growth or chart ministry progress we end up seeing those God has entrusted to our care as resources for the way forward instead of people to be loved and led.
The wealthy businessman becomes a capital resource for the latest building project. The uber-talented musician becomes the more-than-capable resource to lead the ministry’s new worship music initiative.
Yes, God has gifted and blessed these individuals, but a simple misuse of the data will cause us to see them first as a resource and only secondarily as a person.
In every person is the imago Dei.
At the heart of a theology of analytics is the belief that God creates every person in His image. It may be tempting to think that analytics and data management are not theological topics, but they are.
However, if statistics involve people, then our understanding of its use is inseparable from our understanding of human as image bearers.
It’s here that the theologically-minded church has to be better than its business-minded counterparts in how it manages and uses the data it collects.
It’s here the Scriptures must inform our analytical tendencies instead of singularly focusing on objectives and key results or whatever is the latest measuring stick. We cannot lose sight of the fact that ministry involves humans.
Since every individual is an image bearer, the apex of God’s creation, we must remember they shouldn’t be distilled down to a collection of data used to determine what’s the next ministry move.
Christian leaders have the responsibility to safeguard against the internal or external exploitation of their congregation through indiscriminate use of analytics.
C.S. Lewis once agreed with a man who argued he wished “they’d remember that the charge to Peter was to feed my sheep; not try experiments on my rats, or even teach my performing dogs new tricks.”
It’d seem Lewis might have the same concern with how analytics and data are now a growing factor in church ministry. A misuse of analytics in decision making turns humans into lab rats rather than human created in the image of God.
Improper consideration of the data at hand relegates a human into a performing dog rather than a person who is living out a story of grace in God’s redemptive narrative.
Chris is an associate professor and department chair for Liberty University’s School of Divinity where he teaches courses in Old Testament survey, inductive Bible study, and theology of suffering and disability.