Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Written by: on February 6, 2023

When someone quotes a statistic in a conversation with me, I’ve been known to respond: “Did you know that 78% of all statistics are made up on the spot?” What varies is that I make up a different number, every time, on the spot.

It’s a slightly sarcastic way to let them know that I’m suspicious of how people misuse statistics.

Part of my suspicion is born from the fact that I’m not a numbers guy, at all. Higher maths, including statistics, intimidate me. So, the assignment to read a book called “How To Read Numbers” didn’t inspire me, at all.

(It did, however, provide some comedy around my house. My kids have been wondering out loud, with books like “How to Read a Book” and “How to Read Numbers” exactly what kind of doctoral program I’m in!)

Reading a book, I’ve done a lot, and I was eager to learn how to do that even better. Honestly, though, I try to avoid reading numbers every chance I get.

Case in point: My first hire leading a growing church has always been a CFO. Not a worship leader, youth pastor, administrative assistant, or janitor. I can function in all those roles. I’m not above cleaning a toilet or doing a lock-in with teenagers. I understand enough about those things to train someone else to do them. But I’ve spent my professional life working hard—and often failing—to grasp balance sheets, depreciation, forecasting, payroll taxes, and investment portfolios. To this day, every time I dip into that realm, my hands get a little clammy.

So, I dutifully prepared to do my best inspectional reading of this book, and as I started it discovered that… I liked it! I know we’re not supposed to say that ‘we liked the book’ in these blogs, but this was a “Green Eggs and Ham” threshold moment for me—since my teens I have been running away from numbers, but someone finally got me to sit down and enjoy them.

My first observation about the book is that if my high school math teachers were this winsome, clear, and simple I would have had a 78% higher chance of ending up in a STEM career. Ok, that’s a huge exaggeration, but maybe I wouldn’t have had such a strong negative reaction to math and numbers.

The brief, highly readable chapters helped me engage a subject I’ve never been interested in. Each chapter gave me just enough to learn something new, and to want even more. The summary at the end of the book was also useful in calling readers, writers, and thinkers to a common standard for numbers honesty and transparency.

My second observation is that it’s apparently very hard to trust any numbers we read or hear. It seems everyone has an agenda and numbers-people, like mathematicians and scientists, can make numbers, especially statistics, say whatever they want them to say. That, of course, implies malicious intent, but the eye-opening finding in this book is that even people who should be good with numbers often don’t understand the full significance of those numbers[1] and with no nefarious scheming whatsoever get—and communicate—their conclusions wrong.

For non-number, word-focused people, (like journalists[2] or writers) it can be even worse. If a communicator doesn’t understand when it might be spurious to use a number or statistic, they might innocently (or intentionally) present conclusions that look compelling on the surface, but that are misleading, or even manipulative.

Mark Twain seems to have agreed that writers take liberties with numbers:

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’”[3]

But lest I throw stones at journalists, and questionable scientists, and Mark Twain, I must come clean. As a pastor I’ve misused numbers, too. There is a similar challenge in journalism[4] and the church: There is not a universally accepted ‘style guide’ for numbers. How many people attend a church? (Is it monthly average attendance, your biggest Sunday, your biggest week, the total number of congregants, your membership or mailing list… what about now with streaming?) How fast is a church growing, or shrinking? How effective is a church? How many people are finding Christ? How many people are being discipled? Even if we had the right questions, we might engage the wrong metrics. Or we might be comparing apples to oranges. Or we may be using numbers incorrectly to prop up our reputation or ego.

So why use numbers in the church in the first place? Because each number represents a person who matters.

Clearly there is something wrong about using numbers as a point of pride—we feel it in our bones, and our feelings are confirmed every time we read about the judgement David came under for counting the army in 2 Samuel 24. However, when we realize the Holy Spirit didn’t shy away from reporting numbers in the Bible (the 12[5], 70[6], 120[7], 3,000[8], 5,000[9], and don’t forget large parts of the books of Chronicles and NUMBERS!) we should be encouraged that the right use—with the right heart—of numbers and statistics could help us understand a little better what God might be doing among us.

[1] Chivers and Chivers, How To Read Numbers, 39.

[2] —18.

[3] http://www.twainquotes.com/Statistics.html

[4] —Conclusion and Statistical Style Guide, 163ff.

[5] Luke 6:13

[6] Luke 10:1

[7] Acts 1:19

[8] Acts 2:41

[9] Acts 4:4

About the Author


Tim Clark

I'm on a lifelong journey of discovering the person God has created me to be and aligning that with the purpose God has created me for. I've been pressing hard after Jesus for 40 years, and I currently serve Him as the lead pastor of vision and voice at The Church On The Way in Los Angeles. I live with my wife and 3 kids in Burbank California.

9 responses to “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”

  1. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Tim, I find it very interesting to read about church administration. It is a topic foreign to me. From US Army Chapel to Hungarian Church, the size of churches were less than 100 people. I sort of still gravitate to small.

    Still, I am in your anti-numbers boat. We need them, and people who work them, but it is just not my cup of tea. I thought I would circumvent this by getting an accountant (in Hungary) and discovered not all accountants are the same. Some are crooks (sigh).

    About the book, I remember visiting Hawaii to help my mother during cancer treatments and went to visit Calvary Chapel Kaneohe. I knew a person there from Budapest, and thought it would be nice to connect. The term hydroxycholoroquine was being touted by President Trump (p.28 -don’t get me started on that), but what alarmed me with the Anecdotal evidence being used by the pastors of Calvary Chapel in Hawaii (on their radio station and their pulpits). My friend said that ONE person had taken the vaccine and went into convulsions.

    Hmmm…in those early COVID moments, facts, evidence were scant. I am sure that there dire circumstances for those who were misled by them.

    I face immigration statistics from competing agencies (for my NPO) and with the top 11 advice points at the back of the book, I hope I can muddle through.

    I am simple guy. I would rather gouge out my eyes than take another statistics class (my last one almost caused me an aneurism – I swore never again). Thanks DLGP!

    Sticking with the basics…three in one (Father, Spirit, Son)…thanks for your comments…shalom…Russ

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      I’m with you… I never got into ministry because of administration or numbers but I found myself in situations where if I didn’t handle those properly, it would sabotage the ministry. So it’s an area I keep walking forward with a limp on. Blessings Russell.

  2. Kally Elliott says:

    I appreciated you bringing this book back to the church, in particularly, sermons. I too have used numbers to make a point. I think my heart was in the right place when doing so but still, I’m going to have to be more careful in the future. Also, I think I got a D in statistics in college. To be fair, my stats class was at 8am during winter quarter in Davis where it rains all winter…and I think that was also the year I didn’t have a car so I would have had to bike to class in the rain.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Kally… right?? My heart is in the right place but I haven’t been as careful with numbers as I am with words. That changes now. This book and blogging experience brought me to a repenting moment… which is always a good thing as it brings me that much closer to God’s heart. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Cathy Glei says:

    I thought 99% of statistics were made up on the spot? Ha, ha! Love that response.

    Numbers are thrown around so much in terms of overall effectiveness. As you know, my husband, Steve is a pastor, and I am an appointed minister too. I can’t tell you the number of conversations we have been a part of where the conversation might turn to a numbers related questions like the ones you shared. It’s tricky because while numbers represent some things, like growth, butts in the seats, baptisms, attendance in community groups etc., numbers do not represent the full story, like the Chivers brothers (maybe they are cousins) stated. Numbers do not represent the work of the Spirit in the hearts of the people (except that we may know by their fruit, right?). Numbers may represent people and the things people care about, but do they necessarily reflect a deeper work of the Spirit?

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Cathy, I agree wholeheartedly that we don’t always tell the full story with numbers, but I think the challenging thing is that because numbers are so much more “solid”, and seemingly non-flexible, than words we tend to give them so much more weight. But the numbers we choose to measure hardly ever represent the deeper work of the Spirit.

      However, we do have to measure some things, so maybe 1. Measuring what we currently measure in humility, knowing that it doesn’t tell anywhere close to the whole story, and 2. Seeking new metrics to measure that could help complete the picture a little more.

      Do you have any thought about things that might be worth measuring that most of us (pastors/churches) don’t currently measure?

  4. Esther Edwards says:

    There is so much food for thought in your post! We all have fallen prey to the many numbers that help us know if we are doing well in ministry and have used them to further the cause (sometimes our cause). It is much harder as Cathy mentioned to measure metrics regarding the deeper work of the Spirit. I often think back to my small German church where I grew up. It remained under 80 people throughout the years, but seven ministers were spiritually formed there in my generation alone. One became a noted theology professor, two became missionaries, and four became pastors. All have continued to make large impacts for the Kingdom. Growing up, the numbers seemed to validate a lack of success. However, now I beg to differ. Many churches are now focusing on numbers that speak more to spiritual formation. I ask the question for all of us, “What metrics help us know if we are truly effective in helping those we minister to grow into maturity over the course of time?

    Thanks for a well-written, thought-provoking post!

  5. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    My brother in law was the top business student in college, and got ton of awards for his acumen and brilliance and was told, “what a waste” he is going into church ministry. However, as I have watched him be the executive pastor /youth pastor/ all around guy, I am in awe of what his church has accomplished and that he and the senior pastor have stayed for over 20 years and the church is till healthy! Instead of building a new “shiny” building in a higher income neighborhood where they had property, they sold that property and paid for 10 families to adopt, they bought a home by neighborhood middle school for after school ministry and became a debt-free church. It takes so much business and number wisdom to run a church well but a pastoral heart or as you put it -“With the right heart”. 78% of me is moved by your observations:)

  6. mm Dinka Utomo says:

    Thank you for your enlightening writing, Tim! I agree that there is something wrong when we (and the church) use numbers as pride. Therefore, numbers need to be used correctly to glorify God’s name and be a blessing to many people. The use of numbers must be done honestly and with integrity, presenting data as it is without manipulation to satisfy the desires of the flesh.

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