The Blissful Lie That Statistics Don’t Matter in Church


After a generation of working in various full-time ministry capacities, I have heard it all when it comes to justifying declining churches. Things like:

“If we help just one, we’re doing well.” and

“God doesn’t care about numbers.” and

“We’re like a family here, I don’t like a large church.” and

“Wherever two or more are gathered…”

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these statements. As a matter of fact, they are all at least partly true in some form or fashion.

But if we are honest, those statements are usually made to justify disorganization, inattention to detail, poor planning and decline.

Statistics matter in church.

 

Why Tracking Statistics in Church Matters

Not convinced?

In their book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Predicting, authors Phillip Tetlock and Dan Gardner talk about the value of good data as a tool for making decisions. They give a great example:

For centuries, physicians thought of themselves as artisans, akin to any trade such as a silversmith. They received training and then learned to lean on the accuracy and reliability of their own experience and perceptions. Of course, they were more wrong than right, and often administered more harm than aid. This hobbled the development of medicine and cost untold number of lives.

It wasn’t until the rise of evidence-based medicine in the 1950s that attitudes began to change. And change-resistance was high! But eventually, as professionals began to see the value of statistically reliable data, medicine began its modern transformation into an industry with standards and universally-accepted practices.

I shudder at the thought of being a patient to an “artisan doctor”.

Tetlock and Gardner argue that in many fields, such an artisanal approach remains. I think this is true in the work of ministry. This is what we do when we choose to ignore statistics and reliable information that can improve how we do what we do.

While tracking numbers isn’t the be-all, because it can lead to a focus on the details at risk of losing the big picture, data serves a useful purpose in helping make strategic decisions about the daily work of church life.

Still not convinced?

Thank God that a fan of numbers was around on Pentecost to count that 3000 people joined the church after hearing Peter’s passionate sermon.

 

How To Track Statistics in Church

We’re developing a set of metrics at my church, St. Andrew, to help us understand what is working and what isn’t.

In ministry, we have a four-part strategy: Worship, Connect, Serve and Give. Our goal is to track numbers in each area.

Worship

Worship is pretty straight forward to count, but most churches make some mistakes in their measurements.

We count Average Worship Attendance (AWA). AWA is the most well-known and reliable statistic in church life.

St Andrew’s data wasn’t always clean, so I had to do some work on it. For example, they were taking an average of the average, rather than an average of the running weeks raw totals. But now we have a consistent way to track, which I keep in an Excel document. Here’s our Worship Attendance By Service Template.

Notice how we split raw numbers with from charts and analysis.

In the analysis section, we track percentage growth, year over year, and on a 2-year annualized basis.

We also separate Christmas Eve and Holy Week worship into separate, annualized lines so they don’t skew the weekly average.

Our goal for 2017 is 5% year-over-year, annual growth. So far we’re running 9.2%.

The problem with worship attendance is, as attendance becomes more scattered and declines, its reliability is taking a PR hit. I think worship is still a great indicator. (Apparently others do as well, considering the thousands of shares I get every year on my top 25 Methodist church list.) But it is subject to life stage. When families have kids in school, they’re more likely to stay in the routine of weekly attendance. As families mature and parents become empty nesters, they quit attending as regularly. This is what is happening to a lot of churches in America right now.

Another interesting number to track is guests as a percentage of worship attendance. This tells you how outwardly-focused your congregation is. We don’t track this at St. Andrew right now because we don’t yet have a satisfactory means of getting first-time visitor information, and aren’t willing to bother visitors who don’t want to be bothered, just for our data purposes.

Connect

Connect, which we use for our groups and discipleship, is more difficult.

Our pastor over connect ministries, Pam White, and I are working on a more reliable system. She tracks attendance in various small groups, classes, Sunday schools, and the like, but their frequency of meeting isn’t standard, so it needs some statistical adjustments. This is in development.

We’re also looking at more effective ways of tracking assimilation – the process by which people join the church.

Our goal is an accurate read on the percentage of our average worship attendance who are connected in some form of groups. Our next step is to standardize our groups measure, the way we have standardized our worship measures.

As we come up with standards, I’ll post here. If you have a good system in place for this, I’d love to hear it.

Serve

Serve is straightforward but tedious.

The problem with serve is getting leaders to track it. I think it’s pretty straightforward to count heads on mission projects, but margin and reporting take time.

The same problem exists here as with serve, but as we standardize it, we can measure it as a percentage against average worship attendance.

Give

Of course giving is all about numbers, and easy to track.

You can measure per capital giving, or debt to your annual budget.

You can measure giving households as a percentage of total “constituents” or people connected to your church in some way, or to average worship attendance.

You can measure how much operating cash you have in relationship to your annual budget.

 

With any of these measures, don’t worry about “industry standards”. Don’t compare yourself to other churches. Just use them to measure your own growth. Are you improving in the measures you set?

I recently read a study that claimed that there are 65 million unchurched people in the United States, and that out of those 65 million they found that 35% are open to having conversations about Jesus if someone would just bring it up. If true, that’s 23 million people.

So I believe numbers matter, all 65 million of them.

In other posts, you may hear me argue that data is a problem in churches. And data is a problem, when we make it our ultimate goal in ministry. Our goal is to tell the story of Jesus and invite others to enter into the story. Data is simply a good, evidence-based way to help understand how our storytelling is doing.

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

2 Comments on “The Blissful Lie That Statistics Don’t Matter in Church”

  1. Outstanding piece Len. Too often I have heard churches used the excuses you mentioned when you can almost guarantee they know they don’t ave the numbers to start with, and keeping track of them would just show how poorly they are doing.

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