The Planes that Don’t Come Home.

written by Kat Bair
6 · 06 · 23

During World War II, researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses conducted a study on the damage found on aircraft after they returned from missions. The thinking was that they could reinforce those areas that were taking the most hits and make the planes more resilient to enemy fire. There were clear patterns found on the planes and plans to add armor commenced.

That is until a Hungarian mathematician named Abraham Wald stepped suggested that those would be the exact wrong places to enforce. 

Because the study was of planes that returned. Meaning that those were areas where planes could take damage and still get home. The distribution of damage on airplanes was likely random, but if the planes took damage on those places that didn’t show any red dots, it means they never made it back to the hangar.* 

Many churches are currently adopting best practices from the business and marketing world, including audience analytics. I worked with a church whose director of hospitality could rattle off the top five zip codes the church pulled from by memory. And we here at Ministry Incubators are generally all about those best practices and learning from our friends in the for-profit sector. But I wonder if too much market analysis at a church level can suck us into the same trap of those seeking to reinforce airplanes. 

Learning that most of your new members are young families with elementary aged children can make it seem obvious to bolster your children’s programming. Realizing that all of your customers tend to get orders to-go might make you prioritize spending money on new take-out containers over updated seating. 

But what if most of your orders were take-out because you didn’t have adequate seating? What if your community tends to attract families with elementary aged children because single adults and those with older children don’t feel like there were offerings for them? 

What if we could take the lesson of Abraham Wald and take that knowledge of who we tend to serve and use it to identify who we’re missing. 

I had a friend in youth ministry who told me at a conference that he was going to skip a session on ensuring youth spaces were LGBT+ inclusive because he didn’t have any LGBT+ students in his ministry. In 2022, he was leading a ministry of 300+ teenagers, and didn’t have a single “out” student. I suggested he might need the training more than he thought he did. 

We should always focus our care on the people who Jesus has placed in front of us, and ensuring that those trusted in our care, those who resonate with our community, or with our services, feel loved and seen and known. But it also serves us to occasionally take a step back and see who is never there, which airplanes never come home. And when we find those patterns, we should be grateful for the honest, if painful, mirror it can provide to help make the invisible barriers around our community visible. 

We will never be able to meet every need and serve every community completely. Perfection is never the goal. But that does not give us permission to keep our head in the sand about those who God may be calling us to serve who we simply can not see yet. In the best case, this knowledge can invite us into loving relationships with those who have been waiting for somewhere just like our community to come along and notice them. 

*Information from this blog post.


Kat Bair

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