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 by ministries to make better use of data look less like a fad and more like an earnest search for truth, a sort of prayer to “give us eyes to see.”
Nothing they will discover, of course, is anything God does not already know. And there will always be limits to what we can see with our dim earthly vision, moments when we think we see God but are only catching reflections of ourselves. But at its best, what is the quest for information, or for knowledge of any form, if not an effort to glimpse things more as God does? CT was founded on this premise more than six decades ago, on the notion that every generation needs beautifully orthodox lenses to build upon past insights and help it to perceive the world rightly. It’s not unlike God at all to fashion one of those lenses, for this generation at least, from databases and statisticians.
Andy Olsen is managing editor of Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @AndyROlsen.
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