Spiritual Metrics Pt. 2 – First Principles

Metrics to measure spiritual growth is the holy grail of integral mission, at least among organizations that receive funding from Western \ evangelical donors. Ever since development agencies began trying to develop holistic programs by incorporating spiritual aspects, they have been scrambling for ways to assess the success (or failure) of those initiatives. Last time, we investigated the forces behind the search for spiritual metrics. Today, we are going to look at four fundamental principles and their associated problems. Next time, we will look at ways to move forward.

The Observer Effect

Arguably the most fascinating and disturbing finding of the 20th century was that photons behave differently if their behavior is observed in the “two slit experiment”. It is much less surprising to assert that the “observer effect” applies to humans as well. From early childhood until old age, people behave differently when their behavior is being observed. Peer pressure is a real thing.

How does this affect measuring impact? Here we can borrow from experience with measuring social impact. The observer effect is relatively insignificant when it comes to tangible outcomes. Bridges, schools, wells, and utilizing new farming practices leave tangible results, which are verifiable. But intangible or ephemeral results are much harder to capture. Measuring school attendance (ephemeral) or changes in attitudes about gender (intangible) are much more challenging and require measuring tangible substitutes (called proxies) and then trying to infer the actual impact to the intangible outcome.

This introduces big problems because of the observer effect. The community is being offered powerful incentives to demonstrate (or report) positive change on issues of interest to the NGO. “Does the male head of the household help with the housework?” “Of course he does, please keep helping my family.”

This is the principle that motivates the “rice Christian” to profess faith in Jesus. As long as the interested organization pays attention and provides rice, the rice Christian demonstrates Christian behaviors. But these behaviors are not indicative of real spiritual impact, are they? The observer effect is a crucial consideration when thinking about measuring spiritual impact, by definition intangible.

The Unknowable Heart

I mentioned earlier that “a comprehensive measure of social impact is practically impossible” Given the complexity of the problem and current limitations in our science and technology, that kind of analysis isn’t feasible. But it may become feasible at some point in the future.

Directly measuring spiritual impact is not practically impossible. It is impossible. Impossible theologically, philosophically, theoretically. It has always been impossible and will always be impossible. Scripture elegantly captured our conundrum more than 3,000 years before the term “metrics” was invented.

1 Samuel 16:7 The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

As humans, we are limited to seeing outward things. We can see actions, hear words, but only God Almighty can see the human heart, which is the only place that spiritual impact happens. In fact, we are told in Scripture repeatedly that we can’t even fully understand our own hearts!

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

People can tell us what they believe, but we are bound by the observer effect. Are they just telling us what we want to hear? The perceptive Bible student will point out James 2 (faith and works) and Matt 7 (good tree good fruit) both directly associate spiritual and behavioral change. This observation gives us some hope, but also leads directly to our third issue.

The Pharisee Problem

The idea that we can see behavior (or life situation for that matter) and assess spirituality is not novel. The Pharisees were particularly good at determining which behaviors indicated a healthy relationship with God. The problem we need to face now is how Jesus reacted to those Pharisees. “You white-washed tombs” comes immediately to mind. More subtly, Jesus very intentionally undermined their system – refusing to wash his hands, reaping on the Sabbath, healing on the Sabbath, hanging out with the undesirables. He also condemned the good actions of the Pharisees because they were done for the wrong reason.

The unknowable heart forces us to use behavior as a proxy, but the Pharisees clearly show that this approach is fraught with danger. What metric can we think of that the Pharisees didn’t already use? How will we deal with the ever-present danger of legalism? We know that we can see something from behavior because that is also scriptural, but what exactly and how precisely are open questions.

How will this kind of assessment affect the community? The organization doing the assessing? We can’t overlook the fact that choosing to evaluate spiritual impact will itself have an impact. That’s just the observer effect writ large.

Measurement Is Not Neutral

There is one final issue that merits investigation. The culture of the development organization is biased towards measurement, as the underlying culture is. The West has a love affair with data! We measure our steps, heart rate, exercise patterns, weight, calories, mood, even blood sugar. It is a paradise for data nerds. But measurement, like every other human action, is not value-neutral. Everyone understands that at some deep, possibly subconscious level. For no one keeps careful track of the monetary value of gifts from their family. It would be “good” data, that might tell you the relative affection of your family members over time. But we know that the act of measuring that data would harm our relationships and insult our family. Measuring something always has a cost, both relational and monetary, and that cost bears careful consideration.

After considering the cost, we must also consider our own motivation. When the Lord commanded a census in Numbers, it was good. But God was deeply offended when David took it upon himself to conduct a census in 1 Chronicles 21, and the judgment was grievous.

Why are we searching so desperately for spiritual metrics? Is it to attract more funding? Are we worried about God’s provision? Do we feel like better data would lead to better spiritual outcomes? Is spiritual development a management problem at heart? I stand with Lesslie Newbigin, the great 20th century missiologist, and assert that it isn’t. I deal with this issue at length elsewhere, but more important is that we all put our motivations under the microscope.

Next Steps

The goal of this discussion was to consider the very real limitations and difficulties confronted by any attempt to measure spiritual impact, as well as the costs and potential pitfalls. I hope that it has tempered some of the irrational optimism that comes along with the technocratic mindset. With realistic expectations, we can now consider how we can move forward.

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