Show Me the Numbers!

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It’s easy to make generalizations that have the ring of truth but nothing substantial to back them up.

Jonathan Hill’s article “The Numbers Game” really resonates with me. It’s so easy to misinterpret and misapply what statistics are honestly telling us.

I have a related pet peeve: folks who have not done any statistical legwork but who pontificate as if they have. They pass off their own views and observations as if they speak for the whole community.

A while back someone floated an observation that there are too few sermons being preached in our denomination on the subject of Christ’s return.

Excuse me? How did this well-intended person come to know that such a lack exists? Through years of faithful worship attendance, a warranted conclusion might be that his congregation could use a few more messages on the Lord’s return. But how did he know the same is true for other churches? Did he take a poll? Did he compile lists of many years of messages from a statistically significant number of congregations to back up that claim? Or was the perception from just one congregation extrapolated to an entire denomination? That has as little merit as the observation that all grizzly bears in Alberta walk in single file because the one I saw did.

Pastors often hear that strategy used on matters of taste about which folks tend to feel strongly but which are otherwise hard to argue. Take this example:

“Pastor, everybody agrees that the color of the new carpet is ghastly.” As a greenhorn in ministry I used to take such comments at face value. But I’ve learned to apply some (hopefully) sanctified cross-examination:

“Everybody agrees the color of the new carpet is ugly? Really? Who?”

“Lots of people.”

“Lots of people?”

“Yeah, lots and lots of people.”

“Like who?”

“Like . . . George . . . and Martha.”

“You talked to them?”

“No, but I know they feel the same way. . . .”

“Maybe. And who else?”

“Well, I can’t remember just on the spur of the moment. . . .”

Sound familiar?

We need to take such comments seriously enough, rightly concluding that at least one person sincerely feels that way. And she may be in good company. So we should probably poke around a bit to see if her observation is corroborated by others. But we should also risk the discomfort of not letting her get away with such a glaring generalization. Because on more serious matters she might get perilously close to breaching the ninth commandment. A gentle caution might lead to more honesty.

Of course, pastors need that reminder too—just ask my spouse. Especially on the pulpit it’s easy to make generalizations that have the ring of truth but nothing substantial to back them up. It’s so tempting to raise up straw people just to knock ’em down. That’s why we need to keep each other honest in the communal task of unpacking God’s Word together. Bless the worshiper who, on the way out, shakes my hand and, with all due respect and Christian charity, asks: “So, you took a poll?”

Oops. . . .

About the Author

Bob De Moor is a retired Christian Reformed pastor living in Edmonton, Alta.