False Gospel Assumptions
4 Data Verification Interventions Needed Today
Currently, confidence with field reporting data is severely lacking. This is because of the false assumptions about the status of local and global Christianity. Strategic ministry decisions are being made based on marred data. As Christians, we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard.
Marred field data has also impacted our financial partners, both individuals and foundations. It is not uncommon for financial partners to instinctively discount reported field data because of their lack of confidence in the church planting numbers being reported.
A recent survey of mission leaders and other mission information users from sixty-eight different global organizations responded with data quality concerns (Maynard, n.d., 3). This is a broad topic, but for this article we will focus on four steps to immediately begin addressing this growing problem with the goal of establishing greater confidence and stewardship. Any ministry can incorporate these reporting methods with little to no additional expense. These four remedies can be implemented immediately.
- Intentional Field Visits
- Church Attrition Surveys
- Qualitative Surveys
- Inquiry of Historical Data
Don’t let these technical terms intimidate you. Clarity will come as you read further.
1. Intentional Field Visits
Begin by assigning someone (or a cohort) to do field visits. Almost anyone can do this, as no research experience is needed. These visitors will be a second-party observer of how God is moving in the land. They will report what they see, and then headquarters can compare that to what their ministries have reported. Does the number of reported new churches seem to be confirmed by the second-party visitor’s report? Here are some ways the second-party visitors can make observations.
- Counting of churches observed
- Taking pictures if possible
- Visit baptisms
- Visit discipleship gatherings
- Visit new believer’s homes
Once the ministry becomes accustomed to these sorts of visits, they will adopt a greater level of accountability and heightened expectation about why excellence in reporting is critical. They will begin to see how it’s not so much big brother watching them, but rather a form of assistance that helps them achieve greater multiplication and impact, not to mention improved data reporting.
Even so, it’s not uncommon for church planting teams to resist verification practices. A feeling of distrust could be expressed as a reason for resisting implementing field surveys. Therefore, it is paramount to the mission that a positive view of the need and benefits of good data gathering be established. Explain to the field ministry that it is essential to begin learning how God is moving among their teams and in the land through their work. New data verification methods will allow the team to begin learning from one another about what is producing impact, what God is blessing, and where gaps may be.
2. Church Attrition Surveys
A church attrition survey seeks to know if new churches are surviving over time. This informs us about how sustainable a church planting effort is. How many were planted compared to how many that still survive a few years later. It’s a simple process of re-visiting your mission field, either randomly or systematically, to discover what is keeping churches going and what is causing them to cease. How are they doing today? Are they thriving? Is God still moving among them, or have they scattered?
Losing Churches for any reason is a Gospel setback in those places. For example, some followers of major religions intentionally target church planting efforts. They believe that if they can break up a church, the new believers won’t return to the Gospel in the future. This is one reason why church attrition may happen. It’s important to know the reasons why a church no longer exists.
3. Qualitative Surveys
As mentioned in the last section, qualitative surveys seek to know why some churches survive and others do not? This knowledge helps ministries know how to refine their methods for greater church survivability.
Qualitative Surveys are done by asking open-ended questions rather than leading questions that can be answered by a yes or no answer. These questions allow the other person to share their story, their insights, and their feelings about what they have witnessed or heard.
Additionally, trust must prevail; otherwise, answers from the audience will be biased. Remember, the audience will not be accustomed to responding to these kinds of questions. Some cultures don’t encourage this kind of interaction. This is particularly true for women and children. However, don’t make the mistake of excluding them; some of the most significant insights will come from them. Do you want to know the real story about a particular Church’s health? Ask the pastor’s wife; her perspective will provide valuable insights. However, getting her to share her story will not be possible unless a significant amount of trust is established.
4. Inquiry of Historical data
Begin by reviewing past church planting data by looking for patterns. For example, if one church planter or team has been historically so successful? In one instance, I discovered that the believers of some new churches were marginal in their faith and only viewed Jesus as an addition to the many other gods they had already been worshiping. Upon discovering this, corrective measures were implemented, including recalibrating their training curriculum and church planting methods to help people understand the difference between traditional gods and the God.
In another instance, a pattern emerged where many new confessions of faith were being reported. After taking a closer look it was discovered that the church planters were counting raised hands alone as confessions of faith. What was really being reported was emotional responses to equally emotional presentations to a large audience. In this society, most everyone will raise their hand rather than go against the majority. This ministry liked reporting its high numbers of new confessions of faith on its website and to its financial partners. The numbers were unreliable without more indicators.
A Final Word on Excellent Data Reporting
Research and data collection have been the primary domain of western mission organizations. However, these days most national partners also care about good data. In South Asia, an indigenous network is engaged in extensive research and even church mapping to understand how effective and lasting their strategies are.
However, I want to stress that reporting authority should not just reside in the West. Collaboration in this space needs to be mutual, trusting, honoring, with respect between partners. It is particularly challenging for people from the West to relinquish real or perceived authority. Most of the funding for global missions is from the West, and with money comes authority. Our partnership posture should be about prioritizing the training and resourcing of our national brothers and sisters, so they become subject matter experts in this own ministry domain.
About the Author
Steve Roa is a regular contributor to Moving Missions on the topic of measurement and evaluation.
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