John Truscott normally writes articles for us in series but, for a change, is currently contributing a number of one-offs. So far he has covered ‘Worrying websites’, ‘Global giving’, ‘Changing churches’, ‘Eco-education’, ‘Difficult decisions’ and ‘Able Assistants’. This time he provides practical ideas for the kind of mission data a church might collect and use.
It is scary to discover just how much information the large tech companies hold about us. Amazon, Google and their counterparts are as much databanks as they are retail businesses or search providers. Every click of our mouse is recorded and analysed and, as a result, these huge corporations have power.
The point of this article is most certainly not to recommend churches should follow this approach for selfish reasons, but to point out that we go to the opposite extreme and know little about our church members and our achievements.
For example, are your church’s decision-makers aware of:
- what methods of outreach have proved to be the most effective over the past few years with figures to prove it?
- who in your congregation(s) make effective use of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram?
- which congregation’s age-profiles are showing shifts to older or younger people and at what rate?
- who has expressed a skill or a passion for teaching young people next time you are looking for a new group leader?
The point is that without such basic data, our efforts in mission are likely to be less effective than they might be, our ability to serve people is restricted, and the need to take action to prevent losing members is not noticed.
This is not about turning everything in life into numbers, of being fixated on quantity rather than quality. It is about reading the signs and seeking means of measuring that quality. Basic information always needs to be interpreted with wisdom and care. But most churches I work with seem to ignore what is available and fail to search out what can be discovered.
Many churches will collect a certain amount of data because their denomination requires them to make annual returns so that large-scale trends can be noted. Yet many of these churches fail to use such information for their own planning and decision-making.
This article assumes you have a data protection policy in place and seek to be GDPR compliant. Some data you need has to be personal, and some can be general. Let’s consider personal data first.
A church’s personal database
You may well be using church management software such as ChurchSuite but the kind of information you need about your congregation, collected under GDPR, might include:
- Names in family groupings
- Children’s ages and groups
- Postal address
- Landline, mobile, email, social media
- Permissions to contact
- Membership and congregation(s)
- Teams and rotas involvement
- Gifts, skills, interests, etc.
- Small group involvement
- Financial giving information.
This kind of information allows you to:
- Send mailings by email, text or post to different sectors of the congregation
- Let members contact each other
- Put urgent information round a prayer chain
- Register children in their Sunday groups and monitor attendance
- Remind people of forthcoming rota service and let them arrange swaps
- Invite people to a newcomers’ event or allocate to small groups.
Church management software will also help you to arrange room bookings, enable your members to register for events, and produce statistical diagrams to help you understand membership growth and other factors.
Of course such data needs to be continually updated and, too often in my experience, no one is held responsible for ensuring that this is so and hence the usefulness of such information reduces.
People are a church’s most important earthly asset, and it is crucial that we know enough about our people to be able to serve and mobilise them effectively. In all this it is vital to keep the personal touch or people feel manipulated and uncared for.
A church’s general databank
But there is another type of information that we need for planning in a mission context. This is not so linked to personal details, but provides overall evidence of what is happening. Here are some of the obvious things that could be useful.
Note, however, that this is a pretty comprehensive list for you to select from. If you tried to go from zero to everything here you would be utterly swamped! It is provided to give ideas to enable you to select a small number of metrics which might prove helpful for your church’s mission. The ‘Attendance’ category might be a good starting point.
Some churches have a clear membership. In Anglican churches there is the ‘Electoral Roll’ although the ‘Worshipping Community’ estimate may be a more meaningful figure. This is a different base from attendance records because it is more likely to reflect the committed core of the church rather than those who attend less than monthly or who do not want anything more than to show up and go home again.
- Total numbers and changes over time
- Length of time in membership
- Geographical distribution
- Numbers and reasons for joining (new members)
- Numbers and reasons for leaving (ex-members)
- People’s involvement in the local community outside church
- People’s involvement in church ministries.
Attendance is not the same as membership and, in an age where people come to church more erratically than in the past, you need to consider both the committed membership and the average attendance on a Sunday, and hence the frequencies represented. For some churches, attendance may be higher than membership, but for many it will be lower. The following might be of use to you (but see also list for ‘Membership’ above):
- Average attendance for each congregation
- Total who come at least monthly at each service
- Whether seeing themselves as a Christian, seeker, etc.
- Age, ethnic and gender profiles (including children/teens)
- Numbers for joiners, leavers, transfers, births, deaths
- Those with disabilities and the church’s support for them
- People’s home distribution mapped by area
- People’s work distribution mapped by area
- Children’s educational distribution by school or college
- Numbers of people known to have become disciples year by year
- Changes over time in each of the above.
How much do you know about the impact of your various groups (for adults and for children)? What proportions of your congregations are involved and so how many people have no links to something mid-week? Is group membership growing or declining? And, for evangelistic purposes, what is going on in your enquirers’ groups and courses? You may therefore need to consider:
- Number of people involved and number of groups
- Distribution of groups by age, type, area
- Children’s and teens’ groups similarly
- Enquirers’ groups and ongoing contact with members
- Changes over time in each of the above.
This is an important area for data collection but you may have much of this in hand already. Here is just a selection of the kind of information that can prove helpful:
- Income, giving, expenditure and so surplus/deficit year by year
- Comparisons with budget year by year
- Level of reserves over time
- Mission giving to work outside your church
- Gift Day results whether for general or mission funds.
Many churches put a significant amount of clergy (and laity) time into baptisms, marriages and funerals – even if less than in past years. Do you know anything about what impact this input of effort is achieving? So you may need to log:
- Number of baptisms and links with parents
- Ongoing links with parents through courses, groups, etc.
- Number of marriages and links with the couple
- Ongoing links with the couple through courses, groups, etc.
- Number of funerals and church/crematorium details
- Ongoing links with the bereaved
- Changes over time in each of the above.
It can be helpful to plot significant events in the life of the church to see the impact these have had. A time-line can be a useful tool for this. Examples might include:
- Major events over time and their impact
- Major financial challenges over time and their impact
- Significant changes over time and their impact
- Trends over time and their impact
- People’s estimate of their spiritual growth over the past year.
The local community
But it is also worth tracking the local area to see how that is changing over time and how the church therefore needs to adapt to reach people who are not yet part of your church. Here is a small selection of possible features to include:
- Population changes by area and trends
- Social make-up changes by area and trends
- Other local churches moving in or out and the impact
- Changes in educational establishments
- Changes in retail, office and industry
- Area divisions into streets for leaflet distributions.
Here is a short list of other information that may or may not be relevant for your church:
- Tourist numbers visiting the church midweek
- Sales/free acceptance of evangelistic or other literature
- Level of mid-week enquiries over graveyard, services, Christian faith
- Number of visitors, phone calls, emails to the office per week
- Impact of special outreach events
- Impact of the church website
- Impact of the church’s use of social media
- Bookstall sales and changes year to year.
How to go about data collection
Finally, some advice about how to go about this. Whatever you do, take note of the first point.
- Don’t do too much! If you do not already hold much of this data, do not try to collect it all in one go. You will end up with far too complicated an exercise which no one will have the time to analyse. You might like to start with a very small selection from all the above points. Focus first on the ‘Attendance’ lists above. Take what might give you the most helpful information about your effectiveness.
- Appoint a research analyst By all means use a less fancy term but someone needs to feel the responsibility for data collection and analysis. This should not be the Minister who needs the results but should not have to do all the work. Make this an official appointment.
- Take what you have or can work out yourselves Get a group together to help your analyst and see how much of this information can be estimated with reasonable accuracy or is known in some form already. You probably have attendance figures, you can probably estimate how long people have been members, you can discover numbers in children’s groups, and so on.
- Keep mission as the purpose You are collecting and analysing data to enable your church to be more effective, not as an end in itself. Never forget this. So, all the time, be asking what the information tells you about your effectiveness in outreach, or the areas where you are losing ground and need to add resources or try a different approach.
- Use a congregational survey If you then feel it would be worth collecting more accurate information, try a simple, straightforward survey form with just a few questions. Ask people to fill it in on the spot in five minutes during a service. If it cannot be done in five minutes people will not do it, so you can only put on a FEW questions. Keep it anonymous and use only a few, and so broad, categories for ages, length of time coming, etc.
- Use interviews Don’t be afraid to talk one-to-one. Consider exit interviews when people leave your church. Talk to people as to what kind of areas of service they would be interested in.
- Don’t under-estimate the work of analysis Your analyst needs to be able to carry the work out quickly and easily (using whatever digital tools they are comfortable with). Rather than just totals, produce results divided into multiple categories such as the number of men in the congregation aged under 40 living locally.
- Learn lessons and take action Then aim to learn three or four basis lessons and take action on those. With every piece of statistical information ask ‘What is the key message
of this analysis?’.
JOHN Truscott is an independent church consultant and trainer who champions the ministry of creative organisation. Visit his website and check out the Resources section for a growing range of over 170 items which you can print out and/or download. You can follow John on Twitter @johnnvtruscott. Church Administrators should join the UK Church Administrators Network (UCAN) at www.churchadministrators.net