Around the time we got all the world’s data in the palm of our hand, American missions agencies stopped trusting a lot of it.

In 2009 and 2010, smartphone ownership was soaring beyond a quarter of all US cellphone users. We were on rapid pace toward universal access to the world’s information, to paraphrase Google’s corporate mission statement, and toward making it all “useful.”

Meanwhile, the leaders of some of the largest missionary organizations were coming to new conclusions about which metrics were useful in their operations and which were, perhaps, even suspect. As global networks of ministry partners grew increasingly complex, it was getting difficult to peer through the thickening web and pinpoint which conversions, baptisms, and church plants could be chalked up to North American workers. Who got credit for a baptism when everyone had a foot in the water?

Consequently, groups including the International Mission Board ended their decades-long collection of such data. “This is a bunch of hooey,” one missions executive told CT about the numbers his organization was using.

Nearly a decade later, a resurgence of data-driven missions may be afoot. But this time the approach is being re-tooled, as Kate Shellnutt reports in our cover story. One key shift: Where once the data were used mostly to demonstrate mission effectiveness in newsletters, now the data are shaping the mission itself, guiding organizations to specific villages and college campuses and congregations where efforts will yield the most fruit.

There’s healthy wisdom in walking slowly toward the newfangled; algorithms and big data, obviously, are poor substitutes for the work of the Spirit. On the whole, though, efforts ...

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