Know Thy Church

Pastor Ted has been leading a large, multisite church for 15 years. Early on, the church was thriving and growing. But since the pandemic, things significantly have changed. His email list, website visits and church management system all tell the same story: Membership is shrinking at a steady rate. In fact, that’s not the only thing that has decreased—giving has slowly declined over the last three years, and volunteers are hard to come by. His staff seem to bristle with every new challenge, and many have even left the ministry, saying they feel burned out.

To counteract these declines, Ted and his team tried moving to fewer Sunday services, sent out multiple email blasts asking congregants to invite friends to church, and even held a volunteer fair after one Sunday service. But their efforts fell flat. At this point, Pastor Ted is starting to question whether he can be effective at leading the ministry amid such turbulent times.

Pastor John’s church, on the other hand, initially experienced some of the same early pandemic challenges around giving, volunteerism and staff burnout, but he and his team decided to examine how they could better serve their core constituents—families. They created surveys to understand how people were doing, and what they could be doing better. They scored the incoming results, shared the findings back with their staff, leadership, elders and even the congregants themselves. The community came together to refine their approach, serving families in a more effective way.

“The wisest leaders of the Bible were data-informed.”

As a result, John’s church attendance has been growing, but more importantly, the engagement of the community has increased exponentially. John’s days are full, but he and his staff feel fulfilled and confident that they are spending time on the things that serve their people well.

Both of these pastors are real people doing real ministry (although their names have been changed to protect their privacy). However, each pastor approached their challenges with a very different mindset about what to measure, how to measure it and what to do with that information. Whether you relate more to Ted or John, one fact is clear for all church leaders: The ministry landscape has been undeniably disrupted.

A Look at the Trends

It’s no surprise to most that the trends around church engagement habits have seen their ups and downs. According to Harvard’s 2021 Cooperative Election Study, weekly in-person church attendance among U.S. adults has decreased by nearly half (from 12% to 7%) from 2008, while those who say they never go to church increased from 20% to 35% in the same time period. The General Social Survey results are consistent with those findings, showing that from 2014 to 2021, the number of U.S. adults who say they never attend church has gone up by 10%. In short, regular attendance is in decline.

SOURCE: @ryanburge
Data: General Social Survey, 2008–2021

One of the biggest changes in religious engagement brought about by the pandemic was the shift to online services. Data from 2022, when many churches were returning to normal services, indicates that some U.S. adults have been reluctant to return to corporate worship. Only 1 in 5 Americans who typically attended services monthly pre-pandemic was attending virtually in the spring of 2022.

“In a world full of information that travels at the speed of light, how can we increase the signal-to-noise ratio?”

Giving and volunteerism have also seen noticeable variability. According to Gallup, financial giving to religious and charitable organizations has recovered back to pre-pandemic levels. That said, volunteering time has not recovered. While 64% of Americans reported that they had volunteered their time to a charitable organization in 2017, that percentage had dropped to just 56% in 2021. In the religious context specifically, volunteerism dropped from 44% to 35% between 2017 and 2021.

SOURCE: Gallup

Meanwhile, ministry leaders are struggling as well. Data from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that two-thirds of pastors thought that their hardest year in ministry was during the pandemic. The reasons for that were multidimensional with pastors struggling with how to balance the health of their congregations with the desire to return to worship in person. Because of this, about 8% said that they considered leaving their ministry fairly often or very often in the prior year.

And the general public isn’t faring much better. The General Social Survey has been asking people how happy they are for decades—consistently about a third would say very happy and 10–12% would say not too happy. That changed in 2021, when for the first time in the history of the poll only 20% said that they were very happy, and 24% said that they were not too happy.

These data points give us some initial impressions of how the church is changing since the pandemic began, but at this point, you may be asking, “So what do I do with this information?” And you’d be right to ask.

In a world full of information that travels at the speed of light, how can we increase the signal-to-noise ratio, filtering out the static of data to see a clear enough picture that compels us to action? Before we explore how, we need to consider what data really is and why we should use it more often.

Data Helps Us Know.

When we see the word “data” it’s easy to think of charts, graphs and numbers on a screen, but put simply, data helps us know.

Knowing is foundational to human existence. By design, we seek to know ourselves, others and the world around us every day. It enables us to grow and make forward progress. And it’s a biblical principle—when you look throughout the Bible, you see the concept of knowing woven throughout.

We, as stewards, have a moral imperative to bring tech tools into alignment with God’s design and purposes.”

As a newly appointed leader in 1 Kings 3:7–9, King Solomon humbly asks God for the ability to know when he says, “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” Verse 10, it goes on to say, “The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for wisdom.” Solomon’s ministry and writings go on to become the embodiment of seeking wisdom.

In the New Testament, Paul leveraged his knowledge (data) of the culture as a tool for evangelism. In Acts 17 as he walked around in Athens, he made careful note of the objects of worship, including one marked “to an unknown god.” This was his opening with which to reason. Quite simply, the data gave him common ground on which to stand with his audience.

Throughout Scripture, kings, military leaders, teachers and prophets gathered data to determine when to stay the course, when to pivot and when to apply interventions.

The wisest leaders of the Bible were data-informed.

Does that mean data should become your new North Star? By no means. There’s a big difference between being data-informed and data-driven. As believers, nothing can take the place of the Holy Spirit coupled with prayer and the counsel of trusted advisors. But by including data in your decision-making, you can widen the aperture, seeing more of the landscape around you in much finer detail. You become a Spirit-led, Christ-centered, data-informed leader.

Start Where You Are.

So how do you become more data-informed? The best way is to start with a question. You might ask:

  • Who are the people we are serving in our community?
  • How well are we serving them?
  • What needs do people have?
  • How many people are staying—or leaving?
  • Who are our potential next leaders?
  • Should we keep, expand or sublet our building?

The list could really include anything you want to learn or discover. One church in Phoenix wanted to know if their 50-year tradition of a midweek Bible study actually moved the needle on the growth of their people. Their question was, “Are people seeing personal growth after they complete our Bible study?” To answer that, they launched a pre-assessment at their weekend service and then shared the same assessment with those who attended the Wednesday night study. This helped establish a baseline of data on their larger congregation and the study group.

When you can stand on a foundation of factual, objective information, so much latent energy can be released in your ministry.”

After 12 weeks, they delivered the same post-assessment to both groups. Among many other rich learning, they found that those who attended the midweek group had double the rate of growth. Additionally, those who participated in the Bible study were also more likely to have a spiritual conversation with a nonbeliever. These insights gave the staff a renewed sense of confidence and inspired them to continue investing in the study.

Common Frameworks

As Barna Group presents in its report “The State of Your Church: Measuring What Matters in Ministry,” asking questions and seeing the data is a great first step, but one way to look at data and glean meaningful insights is by leveraging common frameworks—a mutually accepted way of viewing and communicating about the data.

We see common frameworks in the world around us, from the alphabet and metric measurement systems to credit scores and fitness tests. They ultimately help us:

  1. See an objective picture of what’s happening, in a standardized way.
  2. Measure outcomes and impact, not just activity.
  3. Allow resources and latent energy to flow.

In faith and secular circles there are some helpful common frameworks you can leverage right out of the gate. For example, to better understand the individual dispositions and dynamics of your team, assessments like 16 Personalities, CliftonStrengths and Barna TruMotivate are available. To better understand your website user engagement, you can use tools like Google Analytics or FullStory. And to better understand the health and well-being of your people and your church, frameworks like Barna’s PeoplePulse or REVEAL for Church can help. These frameworks normalize the information you can see, which helps you see a clearer picture, faster. 

Tech Makes It Scale.

For those who are serious about adopting a data-informed mindset, leveraging technology becomes a nonnegotiable way to make it sustainable. There are varying views of how helpful—or harmful—tech can be, but when taken on its own, technology is purpose-agnostic. That is, it can be used for both good and not-so-good purposes. It is simply a multiplier. The technology of a combine harvester, for example, multiplies the amount of grain a farmer can sow. Computer technology multiplies the number of algorithms or “logic patterns” we can process and derive more results. And in the case of gathering, processing and storing data you want to see, that’s a really good thing.

“There are rich rewards by way of fresh insights, innovation and ultimately the impact of changed lives that we will see as we embrace data as a ministry tool.”

It could even be argued that we, as stewards, have a moral imperative to bring tech tools into alignment with God’s design and purposes. The question then becomes one of application: For what good purposes should we apply technology? For my wife Theresa and me, the purpose is clear: Together and through our company, Gloo, we are actively building and leveraging technology to connect people in need with ministries who want to help.

When used well, technology can decentralize bottlenecks and create efficiencies. Assessment tools and communications platforms can make it easy for would-be leaders to raise their hands and help beyond-busy pastors build leadership capacity. Dashboards and reporting tools bring the oxygen of feedback to a team and can inspire volunteers and potential donors to meet needs with their time and treasure. As we acknowledge the digitally native environment in which we live, we can’t ignore technology’s role in becoming data-informed.

The Inherent Challenges

It’s easy to see the appeal and power of data. After all, when you can stand on a foundation of factual, objective information, so much latent energy can be released in your ministry:

  • Your staff, volunteers, and elders come together to problem problem-solve as they see data through common frameworks.
  • Donors can see potential needs and get more involved in the things they care most about.
  • Your congregation can more actively participate—in providing feedback, and becoming the solution to changes they want to help affect.

But there are inherent challenges you’ll encounter as you start to utilize use data to inform your ministry, the. The primary of which is building a data-informed discipline and overcoming your own—and likely your team’s—resistance to change.

“Throughout Scripture, kings, military leaders, teachers and prophets gathered data to determine when to stay the course, when to pivot and when to apply interventions.”

Even as you start to cultivate the curiosity and discipline to use data on a more consistent basis, that same resistance to change can extend to the tools and technology you leverage to measure. Whether it’s starting to adopt new business intelligence environments like Tableau, Google Analytics or Domo—or data collection tools like the ones Barna offers for churches—it can feel cumbersome to step into the learning curve it takes to adopt new tools that will ultimately serve your ministry.

But as we all know, change is inevitable. And there are rich rewards by way of fresh insights, innovation and ultimately the impact of changed lives that we will get to see as we embrace data as a ministry tool. The churches who understand how to ask the right questions and have the courage to adjust will find a greater level of resilience as they carry out a steadfast mission to an ever-changing world.

Scott Beck
Scott Beck

Scott Beck is the co-founder and CEO of Gloo, a company designed to make it easy for churches and faith networks to connect to more people, engage with them, and be informed so they can move each person to the next right step.