Church Analytics: A Blessed Assurance?


When I am not at work, home or on the A2 boards, the balance of my time is usually spent in church. I've been in church from the womb to the present, and have used some form of church analytics since 1982.

Credit: Pixabay
Credit: Pixabay

Whether tracking Sunday school and worship attendance, giving, baptisms, web site visits, or making demographic profiles of the membership, statistics have been a part of the work that I do in church.

At this point, some of you may be saying that analytics should not be used in the work of the faith community. After all, what do frequency distributions have to do with matters of the heart? Can parametric statistics be used to predict one's eternal outcomes? Can a P Value <.01 give the blessed assurance that people seek? Didnít Thomas Bayes push the envelope enough when he used density functions to infer the probability of theological beliefs?

Valid arguments can be made for church analytics if one understands that they serve as thermometers and not as thermostats. Capturing the metrics of the life of the church help the leaders to know:

  • the degree to which the members are willing and able to support the assembly with their time, talents and tithes
  • the rate of worship visitor follow up, evangelical productivity and membership retention
  • the volume and frequency of church seekers browsing their web site

In effect, church analytics are informative but not tools of spiritual formation; they can reflect habits but cannot effect change in people's hearts. Pastoral care, discipleship programs and caring relationships among the congregants are the thermostats that regulate the spirit and soul.

Church analytics are best understood when examined in the context of the external environment. Factors such as jobs, affordable homes, good schools, and other quality of life/community anchors serve as determinants of who comes to church, what they give and how long they stay. Hence the statistical profile of the church needs to be interpreted in the context of the community in which the church exists.

Please note that church analytics tend to be embraced when they point to good news. The opposite is also true; they are cast aside when they identify areas of underperformance. When the numbers trend in a positive manner, leaders hear, "Hosanna, blessed are those that come in the name of the Lord". But when the numbers trend in a negative manner, the leaders hear, "Crucify them". As the numbers shift, the cries to either "hail" or "nail" the leaders can happen in similar patterns. Hence, whether the analytics are regularly published or dismissed ("Oh those numbers arenít important; what is important is that we love God and each other.") depends on which way the numbers are flowing.

What are your thoughts about the necessity and role of church analytics? If a church is big enough for data mining, then is it too big to meet the personal needs of the members? Does using analytics suggest that people are only data points for church policy makers? Is there a danger that using statistics will cause leaders to misplace their faith? Have any of you had any experiences in managing church analytics? Please share.

Bryan Beverly, Statistician, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bryan K. Beverly is from Baltimore. He has a BA in sociology from Morgan State University and an MAS degree in IT management from Johns Hopkins University. His continuing education consists of project management training through the ESI International/George Washington University programs. He began his career in 1984, the same year he was introduced to SAS software. Over the course of nearly 30 years, he has used SAS for data processing, analytics, report generation, and application development on mainframes, mini-computers, and PCs. Bryan has worked in the private sector, public sector, and academia in the Baltimore/Washington region. His work initially focused on programming, but over the years has expanded into project management and business development. Bryan has participated in in-house SAS user groups and SAS user group conferences, and has published in SAS newsletters, as well as company-based newsletters. Over time, his publications have expanded from providing SAS technical tips to examining the sociological, philosophical, financial, and political contexts in which IT is deployed. He believes that the key to a successful IT career is to maintain your skills and think like the person who signs your paycheck.

Use It or Lose It: Is This the Best Way to Manage Budgets?

Are you getting ready to spend all the money left in your budget so that you don't end up with a smaller budget for 2018? Is that the right way to do things?

Capta: The Data of Conscious Experience

Phenomenological researchers say "capta" is the "data of the conscious experience." Is there room for this kind of data in analytics? How should analytics pros use it?


Re: No apologies needed
  • 10/17/2016 8:15:36 AM
NO RATINGS

@kq4ym, there are many that do attempt to run in a manner more suited to a small/medium sized business.  Others probably run very similarly to a large business given the properties that they hold but I don't have any experience with those.  What I've seen happen are things like after school programs that bring a high number of kids in being cut because it doesn't translate to higher income for the church since kids don't tend to have high salaries.  I've also seen a rush for churches to implement VPK programs because they are state assisted to get started and can create a steady income for the church.  I'm not calling these bad things but they are business decisions not spiritual decisions so I could see where some analytics might tie in here.  

Re: No apologies needed
  • 10/14/2016 9:19:05 AM
NO RATINGS

I was briefly involved more than a decade ago going over the financial health of a large church, and did find that bad news was not welcome. When things are going well, there's lots of support, but not so much when the data shows a downturn or some failing programs. Since as pointed out, churches don't always want to be considered to run solely on sound financiall principles, it's may be awhile before analytics will be wholeheartedly welcomed into the fold.

Re: No apologies needed
  • 10/13/2016 12:52:50 PM
NO RATINGS

@SaneIT - It may be too early to tell. It is true that unlike 50 years ago, folks' lives are not as centered around the church; community for this generation is either at Starbucks or on Facebook. Moreover, the church is competing with Sunday morning soccer practice and yoga classes. Hence, there is the pragmatic need to modernize the methodology  of getting folks' attention.  Unfortunately, the competition for attention and time can tempt a church to change its methods and its mission and message; that's the point of derailment.

So no stats on whether the transformation of methods is leading to the transformation of lives. But regardless of era, that has been the challenge of the church - to serve as the light of the world without becoming a mirror of its darkness. But like you, I hope that lives are being impacted in a positive manner.  As we get WI-FI installed in the sanctuaries, we still need love installed in our hearts. Otherwise the church becomes nothing more than a coffee shop and social club with stained glass windows.

Re: No apologies needed
  • 10/13/2016 9:18:02 AM
NO RATINGS

@bkbeverly, I've run into a handful of church leaders who love to tell you about their book sales, the new cafe that they just put in and their electronic giving systems so you can just swipe your card in the lobby.  That to me is nice but I ask, does it further the mission of the Church.  Maybe it brings more people in to the building, maybe it brings more funds to be able to do outreach projects but do we have the numbers to show that it works that way?

Re: Churches using analytics
  • 10/10/2016 8:23:08 PM
NO RATINGS

Another excellent point, Meta. Are churches consensus-driven organizations that reflect the community or doctrine-driven and run from the top down?

This is a constant, recurring tension in theology that has created lots of fundamentalists and reformers for centuries.

Re: No apologies needed
  • 10/10/2016 8:20:46 PM
NO RATINGS

It's an excellent point, SaneIT. I can't imagine anything less religious or spiritual than receiving some kind of church communication based on data they've compiled about me.

That being said, hosting a place of worship may be one of the few lines of business Google hasn't yet tried. ;->

Re: No apologies needed
  • 10/10/2016 4:38:07 PM
NO RATINGS

@SaneIT, Thanks and agreed. If one is not careful, one can get so absorbed into the operational aspects of the church that one forgets the missional work of the church. It makes me think of the parable of the Lost Coin in Luke 15; you can be in the church and still lost. Like a coin, you may bear the image of your creator and have value, but you were neglected and fell through the cracks. So to your point, it's not enough to ensure that the bills are paid; you must pay attention to the hurting, lost and locked out. To that extent, size is not a proxy for healthy growth, for swelling from infection can also happen. Yes the Church may have to make it's biggest impact beyond the walls of the church. You need policies, programs and procedures, but you should never substitute the means by which you operate as the reason for which you operate. When that happens, web site hits are nothing more than vanity analytics and lives are not transformed.

Re: No apologies needed
  • 10/10/2016 6:28:45 AM
NO RATINGS

@bkbeverly, I think you hit on the reason that so many churches not (THE Church) are in decline "If a church is big enough for data mining, then is it too big to meet the personal needs of the members?"  

Many churches turned hard toward running themselves as a business, not all but a whole lot of them.  In that move they lost sight of a lot of things in my opinion.  Now it's not about meeting needs and getting provision along the way it's planning board after planning board, squeezing a work day into the church calendar and an elder meeting to assess any requests for assistance.  What happens from what I've been seeing is that Church (capital C) is happening outside of the church (lower case, building) because the community is being built outside of the lower case c church.  

Re: Churches using analytics
  • 10/7/2016 8:24:28 PM
NO RATINGS

@Meta - Your last sentence applies to me. I was at my birth church (the first link in the article - New Metropolitan Baptist) from 12/1958 to 5/2004, and my second church (the second link - University Baptist) since then. That was an incredibly hard decision, but it was a change that I needed to make. No stats could have predicted it; after 45 1/2 years, I was in a different place and needed to be in a different place. But to your point, yeah people don't leave easy, but they do leave. And I am sure that those folks you saw who were impacted by the change in the community grieved. Whether people leave a church or whether a church leaves the people, either way, the stats can't count the tears. You can measure change but the emotional impact to individuals and the sense of community identity - those require a different metric.

Re: Churches using analytics
  • 10/7/2016 2:21:05 PM
NO RATINGS

"Sheep and shepards" is an interesting analogy.

Data and analysis only mean as much as what you're willing to do with them.  I have read some very detailed church member surveys that completely avoided issues that were driving people away. And I've heard some church leaders flatly state that they had no intention of adapting to changing public views. This, no doubt, reflects a heartfelt devotion to a faith and its practices, but nobody's obliged to agree. People might not abandon a church as easily as they switch supermarkets, but they do change churches or give up church affiliation entirely.

 

 

Page 1 / 3   >   >>
INFORMATION RESOURCES
ANALYTICS IN ACTION
CARTERTOONS
VIEW ALL +
QUICK POLL
VIEW ALL +