Census, Survey and Stories (@nedlunn)

I can’t stand statistics!

Data annoys me!

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need to measure and understand situations and reality within an objective, tangible and pragmatic way but, the truth is, data can be spun to say anything. Here is my biggest issue: it sets itself up as objective and unquestionable but, if we’re honest, we interpret them right from the word “go”.

I had been in Acomb for four months when a Methodist deacon (that’s not important!) began working on a survey of the area. He had experience in doing it elsewhere with great success. He had got a business to come in to give the findings and the process some gravitas and was asking us, as a church, to support it financially. He wanted us to benefit from the research and to be stakeholders. There was nothing wrong in this but I felt uncomfortable about outsourcing discerning of the ‘spirit’ of the community by paying a significant amount of money to an agency.

My concern grew when the story of Nehemiah was brought up. Nehemiah’s model of leadership is often hailed as a healthy model, particularly in a ‘business styled’ theology. Where you’re understanding of the Kingdom of God is biased towards the calculated and formulaic, Nehemiah is a good model. Again, I see nothing wrong with this as a theory but in practice I would, personally, stay well clear of Nehemiah as a model for leadership. For me, Nehemiah’s heart is in the right place but there is something about drawing such lessons from a book without asking about the purpose of the Bible as a whole.

John Walton puts it well when he suggests,

…we can learn much about leadership by studying Nehemiah. In the end, however, there is no indication that the author of Nehemiah was preserving and presenting his material so that readers could be instructed in leadership. Because of this, the authority of Scripture is not being tapped when leadership is taught from the book and life of Nehemiah… Leadership is an important quality, one worth learning about, but one may just as well learn about it from the lives of Abraham Lincoln or John Calvin. There is no special merit in learning it from Nehemiah simply because his story is in the Bible whereas others are not. The Bible is unique because it teaches with the authority of God; in the case of Nehemiah, we learn, among other things, that God fulfills his promises of restoring the city of Jerusalem and that he sovereignly carries out his plan through Nehemiah’s submission. God used Nehemiah’s leadership, but that does not mean that Nehemiah’s was the best possible leadership, approved by God in every way. Nehemiah’s success does not authorize his example as a biblical model for leadership. The model itself has no authority. If, above anything else, we tell Bible stories to convey the Bible’s authoritative teaching to students, then our focus should not be on Nehemiah’s leadership.

I did not buy into the community survey!

I did however continue to spend most days walking around the parish speaking to the people I met, asking them about Acomb, finding out about how they felt, how long they had lived there, why they stayed. I gathered ‘data’ of sorts, the only kind of ‘data’ I understand; stories.

Joseph Myers, in his fabulous book, Organic Community, says,

…reducing living organisms to a census count demeans the way we were created… story is the universal measurement of life.

By the time the inception meeting for this piece of research, I had connected in with the gate-keepers of the community, networking with them and partnering with them to engage in the ‘root issue’. It was a simple but complex task of relying solely on God’s prompting. The difficulty with this is, God’s will is never clear and measurable. There is no pie chart or predictive graph or data set that shows God’s desire.

3d379ac5c61d89062a0f6a7067008d51 Counting and capturing data is only useful up and to a point and, if you’re into that sort of thing, and you understand that research is biased from the start, i.e. you will find what you want to find because you can, then off you go and do the work. For me the process is always relationship with individuals and in the spirit of God. I work best in this model.

Having expressed early on my concerns to the survey to my Methodist brother and told him that I wished him blessing in his work and would pray for his project, I was glad to see, at this inception meeting, how timely and useful it might be when worked into where I felt God moving in the community through the stories of the many people I had met. God was using this survey to support the work I felt Him calling me to or, should I say, He was using our two approaches to support one another.

The Book of Numbers (yes I’ve finally crowbarred it in!) goes on a large journey from a counting and census to a completely new data set standing ready to enter into God’s promised land. Was the survey at the beginning pointless? In a way, yes, and in another way no; it depends on what you want it to say. Our approach to Scripture stories should not be anything but a desire to see and know God; His character, His desire, His story.

About nedlunn

Ned Lunn is a minister in the Church of England. Before this he ran a theatre company, el mono theatre, for seven years. He now writes on spirituality, philosophy, poetry and arts and is a member of a community called, 'Burning Fences', in York which explores art, spirituality and philosophy. He's married to Sarah and lives in York.