I read a lot of e-mails and newsletters from mission agencies, and I get to see how many of them use statistics to recruit staff, missionaries, and donors. Sadly, in my experience, many exaggerate the truth and undermine the good work God does in the world.

I’ll provide some examples, using five descriptive categories.

1. Ecclesiologically Confused

In the last year I have read statements like these:

  • We are going to plant 10,000 churches in the next two years.
  • We have planted 1,000 in the last two months.
  • I have planted three churches in the last two weeks.

Who wouldn’t want to give to a ministry seeing these results? This type of reporting comes out of a popular church-planting movement. You can easily find out if you are talking to proponents of this movement by asking what they think constitutes a church. Last year I was in northern India asking about claims like the ones I shared. Two well-known Western missions agencies in the area were promoting these statistics. The Indian brother I spoke with laughed but then turned serious. He offered to take us to one of these supposed churches—it was made up of three Hindu women who got together to talk about Jesus and their other gods.

2. Straight-Up Exaggerator

A popular book has a tag line on its front cover: “Tens of thousands Muslims are coming to faith.” The book outlines a new way to reach Muslims by reading the Bible in a way we have missed for years. Despite the hermeneutical wizardry in the book, the tag line should be the giveaway. A leader of a large agency devoted to Muslims missions was asked about the report. Here’s his response: “What could this possibly mean? We have missionaries in all the places the book is reporting the statistics, and not one of them reports this to have happened. Are we just Ichabod?”

No. The author is most likely relying on false reports.

3. Double Dippers

Twice in the past year, the organization I work for has invited men from other organizations to travel with us to train pastors. In both cases, six months later I received the organization’s newsletter. To my surprise they had a new training site at the same location that we did. But not really. The two men who came with us co-opted our sites—a place we had committed to for multiple years, built relationships, seen growth, and translated good material to give to pastors.

I’m not concerned about competition or even getting credit. It’s just disingenuous to claim your organization is working in a place because one person went once with a group that is committed to that place long-term.

4. Embarrassed by the Mundane

Missionaries are not superheroes; day-to-day life will never make the highlight reel. Shuttling kids off to events, taking them to school, flubbing the language, and shopping for clothes and food and shelter are part of everyday life. It certainly does not make for a good newsletter.

Just think of your own day-to-day life and imagine how you would craft a letter to financial supporters about shopping for food or the newly made friend who helped you. There is real pressure to perform.

5. Home Team Needs a Fact Checker

I was recently walking by the exhibitors at a major conference with a missionary friend from the Middle East. One exhibit told of the significant church planting work in the city my friend lived in. He turned to me and said, “I know the missionaries in the city, and they are not doing anything close to what is being reported over there.”

How does this happen? The missionary feels the pressure to say something and then sends a report home. The home office gets it and turns their report into a banner and brochure. Voila! A marketing plan is hatched based off of a sketchy missionary report assumed to be true.

There is nothing new in ministry exaggeration or riding on coattails of someone else—just read about Paul’s opponents in Corinth. For those of us who report back to donors and supporters, let’s seek to tell the truth so we don’t undermine what God is actually doing.