Fomenting Diversity in the Age of Big Data

We did a little demographic work recently. If we ever become proficient in running the programs that store our data, we can do more. And I think we may need to do more. We live in the age of data and it seems like the younger one is, the more one is interested in parsing data to decide what reality is.

We are on the cusp of entering the age of “BIG data.” We are growing up the ultimate consumers who expect to have their personal preferences met by the institutions with which they trade their info. The huge data whales of our info ocean, like Facebook, are training millions of people to trust them with their lives. When someone walks into Circle of Hope (or, more likely, checks out the webpage) they have new instincts to apply to see if they “fit.” Even more, they look for the perfect image of an institution that meets their estimation of righteousness.

Data breeds the illusion of perfection

People are now well-known for applying all their info gathering to assess the quality of their most personal relationships. And the church is on the personal relationship side of life, for sure. In an article in Psychology Today Hara Marano quotes Barry Schwartz noting that

“One of the problems with unrestrained choice…is that it raises expectations to the breaking point. A sense of multiple alternatives, of unlimited possibility, breeds in us the illusion that perfection exists out there, somewhere, if only we could find it. This one’s sense of humor, that one’s looks, another one’s charisma—we come to imagine that there will be a package in which all these desirable features coexist. We search for perfection because we believe we are entitled to the best—even if perfection is an illusion foisted on us by an abundance of possibilities.”

So it is no surprise that people bring similar mentalities to the church. They raise their expectations to the breaking point. A lot of people give us one public meeting, and maybe not even all of that, before they have decided we are not the best fit.

Looking for the perfect racial mix

One of the more painful results of people comparing us to their data relates to race. This is one reason we have to learn how to use our database (which doesn’t even track most of the things people assess!). We need to learn how to sort our people a little bit so we can give an intelligent answer to people who ask questions.

We don’t think it is particularly right to sort people according to class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, region of origin, political party or social media savvy. But many people we meet do that sorting instinctively and we need to speak some kind of language they understand. For instance, I had to prove that regular attenders of Broad and Washington PMs are about 25% so-called people of color. Our neighborhood association area is 68% white, 6% black, 19% Asian and 7% Hispanic. Ours numbers about match those of the Center City Core and are a licc population by agettle more “white” than the percentages of extended Center City. Point Breeze is surprisingly changing in make-up as we speak.

When someone enters our room (and often I do this, too) they “count the beans” like the proverbial accountant. How many people of color are there? This is especially relevant to us, since we say one of our convictions is “Fomenting diversity and reconciliation is at the prophetic heart of our gospel.

“Have we achieved enough diversity?” is our question, too. In the age of big data and the accompanying rise of expectations, one might expect people to expect the perfect mix of population they prefer. We’re subject to that ourselves.

There is a lot more to the social dynamics of forming our church, of course, than just assessing its racial make up. For one thing, our target population has been the 19-35 years olds who make up 35%of extended Center City and nearly half of the core of it downtown. They are notoriously not followers of Jesus and we have good news for them. They are also mostly “white.”

If people want to count beans, I wish they were assessing how many faithless people are in the room when we meet. But even if I don’t like how people arrive at their questions about diversity sometimes, I still think they have good questions. Even though we might not meet some standards of righteousness, fomenting reconciliation is one of those convictions we will go down fighting for.

Counting different ways leads to different assumptions

I often gently argue with bean counters by noting that we are a lot more than what is happening in a meeting at any given moment. We are a 24/7 organism, not a meeting. The meeting is representative, but we are fully engaged with the city, as individuals and households, across all barriers all the time. Plus, many of our compassion teams connect us with groups that are not as diverse as we are, and not as interested in being so.

This year, we decided to demonstrate how we relate across barriers more deliberately as an entire church. One of the network’s five goals is: Use our series of six Saturday seminars to feature facilitators from outside of our network who can open our minds and hearts and enrich our diversity.” Our first seminar will be lead by Drew Hart (who wrote a fine blog post recently). The title is “Jesus Doesn’t Sleep on Racial Reconciliation and Neither Do We.” (It has a Facebook page, of course). Come meet Drew on January 12th.  Our seminars will highlight the many relationships we have that make us quite successful at fomenting diversity and reconciliation.

I fear that some of you who got this far in this post are feeling a little tired, like you have been swimming frantically away from a data whale trying to consume you, and now you are tempted by your own pastor to make friends with the darkness of bean counting! I am not really recommending righteousness by demographic perfection. I just want us to listen to the people around us with love, to keep recognizing our weaknesses, and to keep striving to overcome the barriers that continue to divide people, especially the ones that keep them away from Jesus. We are doing that. Even if we fail in the eyes of many (or our own eyes), let’s keep doing what Jesus does, without slumber.

About Rod White

Development Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

0 thoughts on “Fomenting Diversity in the Age of Big Data

  1. Bean counting is important. Yes, we’re one body, but numbers don’t lie. They can give us an objective snapshot of where we are at a given moment. If we develop perceptions of ourselves as one thing, but the beans say something different, that’s not necessarily reality, but it nudges us to say “okay, does our perception of who we are match what we really are?” and that’s good. I think.

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