In a world in which attention-seeking headlines sell, it appears as if scientists and psychologists are not immune from fudging the numbers to make a little dough or rise to the top. Already a natural skeptic, Chivers and Chivers have paved the way for me to second guess many attention-seeking stats. The cousins refer to this as “p-hacking,” stating, “Scientists continually chopping up their data and rerunning their studies until they found statistically significant results, not realizing that by doing so they were rendering their work meaningless.”
And it is not just reading the numbers to garner what might get you published but the misuse of the statistics and the correlation method to make them significant. The authors argue, “As someone trying to make sense of the world, and trying to understand how to navigate the risks and difficulties you face in it—whether there’s a statistically significant link between two things isn’t, of itself, of more than intellectual interest.”
Therefore, we, the consumers of statistical analysis, need to be more vigilant in reading information at face value. Instead of merely accepting the bold statistical overview of a study, we would be wise in examining the context, the source, and the broader reporting.
There is a myriad of ways that statistical analysis affects congregational organizations, leaders, and members. Recognizing that “sexy” sells too in the religious world helps us take a closer and more honest examination of the information floating out, especially from denominational offices and the leading voice of church-centric data.
Take, for example, Barna Group. For nearly four decades, the evangelical polling organization has provided data to denominations, clergy, and lay leaders alike. For many, they are a trusted voice on what people are honestly saying, what they genuinely believe, and the trends we ought to consider.
Based on the polling organization’s reporting, I recently picked up a copy of Barna’s “Reviving Evangelism” after an attention-grabbing article in Christianity Today about a drastic shift away from people sharing their faith. Right out of the gate, the Barna Group reports that one of their significant findings is of “Evangelism Erosion: The forces of cultural and religious change are eroding the landscape of evangelism,” while at the same time admitting that Christians’ perception of the landscape and themselves are often hazy and wide of the mark. 
As you dig deeper into their data, you begin to discover that people are reporting themselves to be highly spiritual or seeking more profound spiritual significance. Still, they do not identify as churchgoers, more specifically, church-going Evangelicals. So, are people “Lapsed Christians” to borrow Barna’s language, or are they post-Evangelical? And if they are post-Evangelical, does that not also mean that their understanding of evangelism does not fit into the paradigm of a traditional Evangelical institution?
As a faith leader who hears nothing but the equivalent of the sky falling (mainline denominations are dying, thousands of churches are closing, etc.), I am beginning to pause to reconsider the facts and source of the facts. Yes, many denominations are purging members faster than they can replace them. Yes, many churches are closing their doors each year. But, at the same time, do traditional denominational polling metrics consider the voice and growth of non-traditional or non-denominational church starts? As a former church starter who always threw the annual reporting forms in the trash, I know that the church’s voice was never added to the statistical equation.
Yes, something is happening to the faith tradition we have inherited. Is it scary? Absolutely. Do I want to attempt to predict what is next? Nope.
However, I still believe that God is God, and this is Jesus’ church. Something beautiful, new, and transformative is just around the corner if we have the faith to follow the Spirit’s leadership.
 Chivers, Tom, and David Chivers. How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them). (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021), pg 41-42.
 Ibid, pg 45.
 Springer, Craig, ed. Reviving Evangelism: Current Realities That Demand a New Vision for Sharing Faith. A Barna Report. (Ventura: Barna Group, 2019), pg 18.