Back in the days before I received the smackdown call from God to prepare for vocational ministry, I was a sales manager in the sporting goods industry. The sales reps were pretty competitive and there was a lot of strutting around by the ones with the biggest territories. In a straight commission game, the biggest territory meant making the most money. My responsibilities included sales tracking and reporting. I made reports for sales by product, by category, and by sales rep. It is one thing to reduce a person’s job performance to a number, but another entirely to share it publicly. When we gathered for sales meetings, I shared the reports from the front of the room on a big screen, with everyone gathered together. Over time I became sharply aware that by presenting in this way the reports could be used as tools to motivate or weapons to harm.  How could I report the truth and support the team? Context and a wider view had to be considered.
Without context it looks like ‘Southeast’ did the best. But when the sporting goods in question is SCUBA equipment it makes sense that geographically favorable territories post higher gross sales. But big numbers do not always tell the story.
Did it take you a minute to see it? When compared against goal, the Southeast rep grossly underperformed and the smallest territory actually grew the most.
What about now? Adding the colors means the mind does not need to sift and sort the numbers but can go straight to the bottom line. The rep for Southeast missed goal by over 20% in spite of every other territory increasing in sales. Younger me made the mistake of putting up a chart similar to this without considering the immediate emotional impact. That year, 2005, included headlines like “Katrina’s Fury” meaning the geographic region was devastated by a natural disaster that impacted both commerce and recreational activities.
This example is only about making sense of some re-imagined sales numbers, but represents the kinds of nuanced thinking needed to make sense of statistical data. When presented with statistical evidence, especially in an emotion inducing chart or graph, I have work to do. It starts with noticing the feelings produced by the image. Did the way the information was presented, in this case using color, increase the emotional reaction? Are my previously held beliefs being reinforced? “I knew that rep for the Southeast was lazy!” Because I thought the guy was lazy and the chart of my own making gave me a gut punch, I let it go up in bright lights in front of the others as a bird’s eye view of how each territory was contributing to the bottom line. The worm’s eye view, the personal experience of not only the sales rep, but millions affected by a storm, was necessary to accurately convey reality. Today I know that two things can be true at the same time.
Presenting a room full of men (they were always men) with a measurement of their performance required creativity and sensitivity to help them remain open and positively engaged in our work. Sometimes I missed the mark. I am now seeing how useful that experience can be in helping pastors navigate news headlines about the state of the church. Folks out here love to say that “Oregon is the least churched state” but I have not seen that proven in any study. I even know a pastor who turns that questionable ‘fact’ into a more memorable one-liner by referring to Oregon as the “carcass of Christianity.” I doubt the efficacy of pastors in sharing the Good News and spreading hope if they reinforce a mindset of defeat.
Author Rick Richardson claims the American church has succumbed to what he calls “Chicken Little Syndrome” and is harming itself with a “sky is falling” mentality. In the children’s story, Chicken Little ran around repeating the false belief that the sky was falling.  You Found Me sets about debunking commonly repeated myths about the church and replacing them with hope-filled statistics. Armed with my life experience, Richardson’s statistics, and the tools from Tim Harford I can point towards hope rather than join the chorus of negativity.
 Tim Harford, How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers (London: The Bridge Street Press, 2021), 262.
 Tim Harford, How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers (London: The Bridge Street Press, 2021), 66.
 Rick Richardson, You Found Me: New research on How Unchurched Nones, Millennials, and Irreligious Are Surprisingly Open to Christian Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2019), 33.