When the Means Mystify the Ends

Tools are only as helpful as the knowledge available to employ them.  Give a child a bandsaw and he is as likely to do great damage as any good.  If we don’t understand something, it is very unlikely we will use it well.  Case in point, our cultural lack of clarity of four essential tools: data, information, knowledge and wisdom.  Simple definitions:

  • data – a collection of individual facts, numbers, symbols, or images
  • information — patterns culled from input of data that indicate arrangement of facts, statistics, or concepts to yield meaning
  • knowledge — interpretation of information to produce understanding of what is useful, meaningful, valuable and/or true
  • wisdom — the ability to retain, retrieve and apply knowledge in creative, constructive, and coherent ways

These four aspects of understanding are not identical, and we make some serious mistakes when we confuse them.  Let me give two examples — one church development related, one disciple-making.

I worked with an annual conference with the very best intentions of developing new multi-cultural and racial/ethnic ministries.  When I arrived, a handful of leaders were so excited because they had received new updates to their Percept demographic report that a large population of Hispanic/Latino immigrants were moving into the state.  Percepts gathers data and does statistical research on population trends and demographic shifts — very useful facts and bits of potential information.  Percept arranges the data into patterns and offers the most basic information on what is apparently happening in an area.  The information provides indicators that should be checked and confirmed.  Information does not answer questions — it allows us to know which questions we should be asking, and it guides us to find the answers to things we don’t know.  The information that a growing number of Hispanic/Latino people are entering an area — and it may even tell us their age and economic background.  But has this information answered what we would have to know to create a new faith community with them?  Obviously not.  “Hispanic/Latino” is a category label — but what does it mean?  It could mean Mexican (rural, suburban, urban, traditional, progressive…) or Puerto Rican or one of many Central American or South American populations, all with different cultural backgrounds.  There are nuances to language, guiding and governing values and metaphors, different faith backgrounds, and different needs and expectations in a new context.  The information from even the best demographic studies cannot answer the questions about any specific geopolitical context.  Who are we really going to meet if we act on the information?  There is only one way to find out — use the information to develop a plan to determine what we need to KNOW.  Knowledge building requires rolling up the sleeves and getting involved and engaged.  Anything less than first-hand knowledge will be inadequate for the work of kin-dom building.  We must be ready to work with others to get to know them.  Thinking we know about them is not good enough.  Too often, in our current rush to empire-build in the church, we confuse information and knowledge and we end up making egregious mistakes.  As we test information, answer questions, clarify confusion, we build knowledge.  As we work with what we learn and find what is verifiable, replicable, and advantageous, we allow our knowledge to mellow into wisdom, and we learn from both our successes and failures to maximize our success while limiting our failure.  Too many of our current church leadership publications are nothing more than information masquerading as knowledge (or, heaven help us… wisdom).

The same is true of our disciple-making efforts.  Our ultimate goal is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and expand authentic Christian community as far and wide as possible.  Certainly this means growth in numbers, but monitoring statistics produces data, and seeing a trend (increase or decrease) provides information, but neither is a credible indicator that we are succeeding in the task of making disciples.  This requires a deep exploration of the information that leads to conclusive and compelling knowledge that, indeed, people are growing in an authentic transformative discipleship.  And we already have some strong wisdom on the process — it requires immersion over time, with a mentor and guide, that inculcates a set of guiding principles through faithful practice of ritual and discipline, and balances theory with practicum, to which there is no simplified path or shortcut.  We have learned this, yet we seek data and information to challenge this reinforced and repeated knowledge.

There is a huge divide between data/information and knowledge/wisdom.  Data and information can be quantified, knowledge and wisdom cannot.  Knowledge and wisdom must be qualified, and that is where we tend to balk.  Data and information are easy — look at the huge amounts we produce!  Knowledge is difficult, and true wisdom, harder still.  This is made even more challenging when our tools (our means) obscure and confuse our outcomes (0ur ends).  I have been in churches where people have actually said out loud that they have no interest whatsoever in discipleship, but they do want to get larger so there is enough money to pay the bills.

What is lacking is not data or information — or truly knowledge or wisdom, for that matter.  What we lack is courage, faith, and imagination.  Were we to measure disciples instead of members, we would be a much smaller church.  Were we to count the number of lives touched and people served instead of the number of bottoms planted in pews, we would strategize our ministries entirely differently.  Were we to hold one another accountable instead of looking the other way, we would lose so many people it would make our heads spin.  And were we to value the gospel of Jesus Christ more than our buildings, our reach would extend a whole lot farther, reaching a whole lot more people.  Our problem is one of dishonesty — we cannot admit that we don’t WANT to be disciples.  Discipleship is HARD.  We want to be American Christians, safe in our buildings, comfortable in our pews, doing the same things we have been doing since Eisenhower was in the White House… and we want whole new generations to want exactly what we want.  Then, when that isn’t what others want, we get mad at their lack of faith and values.

I spoke earlier this year at a Rethink Church program, and I presented a list of “What Ifs…?” that were about a radical reformation of what we call the local church.  These were all extreme suggestions that I asked people to take seriously — the de-professionalization of ministry, surrender of property, standards for membership, required periods of missionary service for all United Methodists — these sorts of things.  After the program, a woman came to me and said, “Please don’t ever come to my church and talk like this.  It made my head hurt, and I can guarantee you that if you told the folks in my church that they were supposed to take this stuff seriously, they would run for the doors.  We want an easy church, not a hard one.”  This sums up our current problem — we’re doing everything in our power to keep from taking the church seriously.  We want an easy one.

12 replies

  1. Thanks for reminding us of the dangers of becoming over enamored with data and information while we neglect the hard work of transforming them into knowledge which may lead to wisdom. That is one reason I keep rasing the question about how the data we collect for a dashboard will be used to determine “effectiveness.” Without taking the issue of accountability seriously, we run a huge risk of falling prey to the mindset of “whatever works.”
    Let me also affirm your diagnosis that the real problem is that too many in our local churches don’t want disciples, they want more people who want what they want. This is more clearly seen in the conversations about appropriate worship music. Most of the congregations I have served over 25 years of ministry have wanted to sing the songs they learned when they first came to faith, whether that was in the 40’s, 50’s, 70’s, or whenever. Even though most of those congregations had a UM Hymnal in the pew rack, their favorite songs where in the song book from the campground or retreat center where they had their “mountaintop expereince.”
    I pray that more of our leaders and members will embrace the paradox of the good news of grace and the radical call to discipleship. Until we learn how to maintain that tension more faithfully, I am not sure how we will transform anything or anyone.

  2. So often over the years I’ve led my churches into an “analysis paralysis,” whereby we gathered a lot of information from the community and the church, and then did little or nothing with it. What I’ve recently been learning over the past several years is that data and information is no substitute for building relationships in Jesus’ name. For me, as an introvert, this aspect of discipleship is HARD.

    To me, the parable of the lost sheep is more than just “go find the lost and add another number to the list of the saved.” It is a parable about each person’s particularity and uniqueness in the eyes of God. It has taken me almost thirty years to learn this; I pray my colleagues in pastoral ministry learn it in much less time.

  3. Sounds a lot like the approach of the Latter Day Saints. I also admire their structure, particularly the non-professional ministry, and emphasis on missions for everyone.

  4. Dan-

    You nailed this one! Unbelievable post that articulates a conversation I had recently on whether the Church should strive to be the “third place” for people again (after home/family and work). My friend gently reminded me that we’re can’t be lobbying to be 3rd again because the Gospel says we’re to be “first place” (“you must hate your mother and hate your father…” Luke 14:26).

    Thanks for your wisdom and ongoing work. It’s inspiring this young pastor more than you know!

  5. The bullseye is the most sensitive part of the target. Right on, Dan!

    My favorite management science aphorism is “Give a two-year-old a hammer and everything will look like a nail.”

    One major reason my IT management consulting business went bust was the market wanted information (How do I install this computer?), but I sold wisdom (Is this problem soluble with a computer? What is the right one for your situation? How will your situation change? How do you plan to capitalize change?). One prospect wanted to spend $1M on computer hardware, software, and services (which would end up as $3M) to solve a perceived manufacturing quality problem. After 10 minutes of pre-bid discussion, we were able to determine the root cause as two VPs that refused to talk to each other. The project was destined to be a $3M failure.

    For a time I was a consultant to UW-Whitewater Small Business Development Center, facilitating Kaufmann Foundation Feasibility Study and Business Planning courses 50% funded by the Wisconsin Dept of Commerce. The courses involved actually doing research, writing studies and plans, and reviewing them in small groups. The outcome was entrepreneurs who could repeat substantial, high-quality work. The UW-W Business School convinced the legislature that they could write and deliver a course the took quarter of the time and cost half as much per person. The course was focused on reading handouts and sample forms. The outcome was people who could read handouts and sample forms. Generally, high quality requires effort, and low quality isn’t worth the effort. Or, Better, Faster, Cheaper; pick two.

    Modern management is addicted to the shortcut and resolves conflict in decision making by ignoring fundamental (inconvenient) facts. Applied to geopolitics, that translates to inconvenient peoples. Woe be to the peasant sitting on a billion-barrel oil field.

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