Your Neighbor Is Not a Number

Are We Letting Stats About the Lost Say Too Much?

Many of us need to rethink the way we talk about our cities.

It’s not new information that cities are on the rise both in America and around the world. More and more people are flooding into urban centers and calling it home. That’s basically old news these days. But along with this influx of people have come, in recent years, more and more data about who these people are. Where are they from? What do they do? Whom do they believe in? We apparently know the answers to these questions better now than we ever did before — church planters and Christian leaders especially — and I think the numbers are leading us astray.

Here are a few reasons why.

1. Numbers can’t tell us everything.

It’s too simple to grab some percentage off a page and use that to project a certain picture of the city at large — the numbers say this, which means the people here are this. That’s not necessarily the case, though.

Part of this has to do with how the data is collected. In normal conversations, we inject so many nuances and clarifications into the kinds of questions we ask. Survey questions online or asked by a stranger over the phone simply don’t do this. They can’t. It’s a blanket question in a sterile setting that requires a simple response.

Don’t get me wrong, data can be helpful, and we have a lot of wonderful information about our cities and their religious climates. For instance, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, we have an organization named City Vision that has done remarkable work helping church leaders and church planters get an idea of the spiritual landscape of our metro.

But when it comes to the raw data, I don’t navigate my schedule based on the numbers. I doubt any of us lets charts and graphs dictate how we spend our Thursdays. Data can serve us at the highest levels of prayer and strategy, but it’ll tell you very little about what your city is really like. For that, you have to be there.

2. Real people live behind the data.

So, we need to be in the city, among the people, and stay long enough to get to know them. It is real people, after all, that the data represents. Losing sight of this leads us to use data in negative ways.

In recent years as a church planter, I’ve seen firsthand how data is used to describe the darkness of our cities. “So-and-so percent of people don’t attend church on Sundays,” or “so-and-so percent of people are moral relativists.” We’ll drop in a percentage to give a glimpse into how God-forsaken our mission field is. The subtext behind the numbers seems to be, “Check out how lost everyone is around me!”

Now, the lostness is real. And it is true that some places are statistically more lost than others. But before describing that lostness with blanket figures or statements, picture the face of a neighbor, not a number on a page. Don’t pretend to know how conversations will go with the people in your city until you actually start having them. More often than not, people will be much more receptive to your church and message than those gnarly numbers seem to suggest.

3. Would you want your neighbor to hear you?

When we talk numbers, we’re talking about actual people, about our neighbors. Before we start discussing the “secular,” or “liberal,” or “morally relativistic” puppy-hating Satan worshipers in our city, ask the question, Would I be embarrassed if my neighbor knew I said this about him?

If the answer is yes, that you would be embarrassed, then I’d recommend not saying it. Instead, describe your neighbors in a way you’d be okay with them overhearing. This is just common decency — treating others as we would hope to be treated.

And this is not to say that there are not puppy-hating Satan worshipers on your street. Those people are out there, and much worse. But you never want to describe a whole mass of people by their worst representatives. Whatever you say about your city, you are saying about the people in your city — Would you say it about Steve? Susan? Sean? Amanda?

4. We often fail to recognize the good alongside the bad.

God is doing more good in your city than you realize. Yes, it’s broken. Yes, it’s dark. But if we slow down enough to notice, we’ll see light breaking through too. In all likelihood, gospel work has been happening in your city long before you got there. Acknowledge that and rejoice in it.

Most of the time, it’s not that we’re doing the work no one else wanted to do, but that God created a new opportunity. He opened another door. We’re standing on the shoulders of many who came before us, and alongside many who are standing with us even now.

There’s no need for novelty here. We’re not trying to do anything completely different from the faithful gospel witness already present. We’re a part of something much bigger than ourselves and our churches. Kingdom-minded Christians will relish all the good things God is doing through others, even while they lament discouraging and challenging trends.

5. We highlight data we’re not actively trying to change.

A lot could be said about the cities in which we live, work, and serve. The worst of things are probably true in some parts of our city, but hardly anything is true in every part of our city. And when it comes to highlighting the negative data, it doesn’t make sense to draw attention to anything unrelated to our on-the-ground ministry.

Why would we call out the problems in our city if our church is not actively seeking to remedy them — if we’re not on our knees pleading with God for change and moving toward those problems with our own two hands and two feet?

What makes us and our churches faithful is not identifying as many problems as possible, but ministering the gospel in truth and love to real people somewhere, wherever God has called us and placed us.

Our cities are dark. They’re messed up, each in their own ways, and some worse than others. But as bad as they may be, let’s agree together that it’s not all bad, and perhaps rethink the way we talk about our cities.