Only In a Small Church: When Stories Beat Stats

stories stats graph photo 200cWhen did all the preachers become statistics junkies?

I can’t remember the last church leadership book or seminar that didn’t emphasize the value of setting goals for your church, then using some kind of metric to determine whether-or-not we are succeeding at reaching them.

I understand the need to assess our progress. If we don’t know how we’re doing and why, we’ll make the same mistakes over and over.

But, as I’ve referred to in a previous post, there is an inherent danger in trying to measure a church’s value by using numbers. The things of greatest value are often immeasurable.

Yet it still stands to reason that we need to regularly assess a church’s health and spiritual growth. Are people growing in their faith? Are they practicing spiritual disciplines? Are they sharing their faith? Is the church helping them do all of those things better?


Statistics? Or Stories?

There are two ways to gather the information we need. Personal conversations and surveys. When we take surveys we get statistics. When we have conversations we hear stories.

Statistics and stories. They each give us very different kinds of information.

In recent years, it’s been typical to elevate the value of stats, while devaluing the role of stories. Stats are more accurate, we’re told. And that’s true – in certain circumstances.

Talk to any statistical analyst (you know, the one who lives down the block from you) and ask them how the value of statistics changes depending on the number of people surveyed (the sample size), and here’s what you’ll find.

When the sample size is large, statistics are accurate and valuable. When the sample size is small, statistics can be very inaccurate and misleading.

Take a look at my makeshift chart at the head of this post. It’s a visual snapshot of this reality. As a church grows larger, statistics matter more and stories can be misleading. When a church is smaller, stories matter more and statistics can be misleading.


Do What Works

As Small Church pastors and leaders, we need to realize that a lot of what works for larger churches doesn’t necessarily work for us.

It’s not that we shouldn’t take the occasional survey on things that can be measured, like would more people come to a Christmas Eve service at 5pm or 6pm? for instance.

But when it comes down to the things that really matter, Small Churches have an advantage that large churches miss out on. One of the reasons larger churches take surveys is because they can’t have conversations with everyone. In a Small Church, we can.

Do you want to find out how well your Small Church is doing? Ask people. Create an atmosphere in which people know they can truly be honest with you, then sit down with them over a cup of coffee and ask them what they think, see and feel.

Leave the constant complainer out of the mix. You know what they’re going to say. And the same goes for your biggest fan.

Concentrate your efforts on two types of people. On one end, talk to the people who have some emotional and spiritual maturity, but who don’t offer their opinion very often. On the other end, sit down with younger people, new believers and the not-yet-believer who’s been hanging out on the fringes. Let them know you’re truly wanting their honest opinion, then ask them why they’re still hanging on the fringes, and what might bring them in.


Truth Matters More than Facts

One of the reasons I’m a fan of learning through personal conversations and people’s life stories, is that there is a big difference between what we learn from stories and what we learn from statistics.

Statistics tell us facts. Stories tell us truths.

This is a theme Donald Miller comes back to regularly in his books and his blog. As a piece on him from Christianity Today put it, “Truth is rooted in story, not in rational systems.” Or surveys.

If you want to hear from a higher authority than Donald Miller or me on this subject, take a look at the life and teachings of Jesus. He was obsessed with stories. Hearing them, telling them and creating new ones. But he spent no time collecting data from surveys.

Even when Jesus debriefed the 72 disciples after their mission, they told stories and Jesus responded with a story of his own. No statistical analysis, no survey of what part of the message got the highest percentage of “likes”. Just stories of life transformation and the truth of spiritual warfare.

Let me reiterate. I’m not against surveys. The bigger the group, the more valuable they are. And even in a smaller group they can help us measure things that can be counted. But let’s not think we can find everything we need to know through impersonal surveys and the numbers they produce.

Let’s not be so quick to dismiss the value of the face-to-face encounter. The question and answer session. The mentor/protégé relationship. And the truths that only come through stories.

After all, Jesus never said “you shall know the facts and the facts shall set your free.” Only the truth does that. And no one ever found truth on a statistical analysis graph.

Stats give us facts. Facts are helpful. Even essential.

Conversations give us stories. Stories tell us truth. And only the truth will set you free.


So what do you think? What have you discovered about the relative values of stats and stories in relation to the size of the church?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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(Binoculars photo from naql • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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