The shepherd doesn’t say, “I have around 100 sheep.” He knows he has exactly 100, and that is why he goes looking for the lost sheep when he only counts 99. Numbers matter because they represent lives.
Yet most pastors didn’t get into ministry to look at spreadsheets or to become data analytics experts. Generally, life change is the motivation. It’s about seeing people become authentic followers of Jesus, not about beating the numbers from last year’s event or those of the pastor down the street.
Numbers aren’t all bad, though. As the attendance and budgets of the average church have grown, so has the need to understand, use, and, yes, even appreciate numbers. Properly understood and utilized, numbers can help you in numerous ways: effective planning, decision making, prioritizing, determining, and choosing.
Becoming proficient with numbers isn’t easy for most ministry-minded folks. It can feel like a maddening shell game—no matter which number you choose, the meaning can be elusive.
Like most games, once you understand the basics, you can develop some strategy and skill to handle the game better. Numbers, once properly measured and understood, can provide you the kind of accurate information that will help you and your ministry team become more efficient and effective. Then you’ll have more time to focus on people—thereby helping you build the authentic community of believers you’ve always desired.
Tracking attendance might seem like a no-brainer, but there are many churches that don’t track attendance of any kind—worship services, small groups, children’s ministry, or events.
An accurate understanding of attendance data gives an overview of what’s going on. It’s the 30,000-foot view of the ministry. It’s the pulse-reading of the church, telling you how many people are involved, where they go while on campus, which ministries are growing, and which are in decline.
Tracking overall attendance isn’t enough to grow community, however. Without personal connections, many people will eventually stop attending your church, and you will only have the change in numbers to tell you about it. That’s because in larger churches—say, 250 people or more—it’s easy for individuals to get lost in the crowd. They can attend and then disappear without anyone else knowing about their daily lives. That’s why raw numbers don’t help you grow community. The unconnected people will disappear, become mere turnover stats—and you won’t know why.
Since attendance numbers alone will not tell you why people come and go, you need to look at the other dimensions of The Numbers Game to get a clearer picture of retention and turnover within your church community.
What can your leadership team learn through analyzing the attendance patterns at your church?
Generate the Attendance Overview Report regularly for insight into the attendance trends across all groupings for a specific week or month.
This is where raw numbers turn into names and faces—real people who are connected and connecting to others.
In the church community, it’s the volunteers who are on the front line. They are the parking attendants, the greeters, the nursery caretakers, and the children’s ministry teachers. Their roles are vital. Many of these people will eventually make their way toward missional ministries—taking a direct role in expanding the church’s gospel impact. Therefore, tracking their involvement and how well they serve will reveal a lot about the retention rate of your church.
The involvement patterns of this group tell a story. When a volunteer drops out, it is a yellow caution flag. It might be a sign of a behavioral change or a personal issue. When visitors rarely become regular attendees or members, it might be a sign your front line is lacking in friendliness.
By tracking and ministering to its volunteers, a church can reduce unnecessary turnover. Regular contact with this group will avert crises, and sudden changes can be quickly handled.
However, without a way to track individuals, the issues they are facing might never be addressed.
What are the prerequisite steps for someone to be a volunteer?
Set up a process queue to work members through the volunteer vetting process, ending with automation into a serving position.
There are two primary ways people get involved in ministry opportunities—service projects and ongoing ministries.
Service projects are event-driven. This would include a service day at a local homeless shelter or nursing home. People might work in short-term disaster relief or participate in a work day at the church campus or other community service organization.
Ongoing ministries happen week after week, requiring a deeper commitment. We often think about ministries to children and youth, small group leadership, and so forth. These people are key players in executing the weekly events of the church.
From a retention perspective, we want to know who isLike what you read? Take it with you. involved and at what level. Through data management, we can track individual records and watch for sudden changes in participation. This will help us see if people are sticking to their commitments or if they are hesitant to commit at all.
People who are involved in service projects are more likely to serve in an ongoing ministry if given the opportunity. By tracking participation, you can determine individual interest level and invite people to participate in a ministry that matches these interests and abilities, as indicated by their individual track record.
What is your strategy for moving people from marginal to missional engagement?
Set up a Service Project attendance grouping. Put all service events into this grouping and take attendance. Then you can use attendance reports filtered by attendance grouping to see who in the church is involved in service events.
Tracking your church’s digital presence offers great insights into The Numbers Game. This can be a tough change for some leaders because they remember a day when churches didn’t have websites and dynamic online content. Today, however, churches are using technology to create opportunities for people to worship, give, and study the Bible. Most people use and appreciate online resources and the access to information it affords.
The availability of analytics for your website makes it easy to know what the people in your church community are viewing and what they are missing (or ignoring!). If you don’t know what people are doing online, you can’t adequately plan your online presence. If you have web pages people aren’t visiting, you need to know why. Are you answering questions no one is asking? Or do you need to find a way to make important information important to your community? Are people updating their online profiles and regularly returning to the member portal? For today’s digital generation, this is the same as involvement.
As for potential church visitors, the Web is often their initial interaction with your community. If visitors find your online community difficult to navigate, they may choose to not visit in person. Your web presence should be as friendly as your physical building.
Think of your web presence like an onion. It must be layered so people encounter the most important messages or ministries first. The secondary messages require a click.
By monitoring online activity and providing a friendly online gathering space, you can gain valuable information about your retention efforts.
How would you rate the effectiveness of your online presence? What can you do to improve it?
The Usage Stats report shows who has logged in to your online community in the given month, and also shows the total and average number of logins in your site. If engagement is low, consider promoting participation in a fun and inviting way--like offering a technology bar at the back of your church for people to sit, drink a cup of coffee, and complete their profile on an iPad.
People who are growing in their relationship with God are likely to give to support the ministry of your church. Though the analysis of financial data is a touchy subject, there are some valuable trends that can be identified by taking a look at the frequency and consistency of an individual’s giving pattern.
When someone gives regularly (weekly, twice a month, monthly), you can conclude that he or she is engaged in the mission of the church, at least to the point of offering financial support. When people stop giving, it often represents some degree of attitudinal change. This is when a close look at the individual and the timing of the change in their giving habits will be beneficial.
Did someone stop giving when the church initiated a new ministry or replaced a longtime staff member? Was there a specific sermon that contained a controversial message? When someone gets upset, often the first reaction is seen in their giving. But it doesn’t typically stop there—after they stop giving, they will discontinue serving, then participating, and eventually attending.
You can help create a culture of givers by thanking them for their faithful stewardship. People want to know their contributions are making a difference. This makes people feel appreciated and encourages them to stick with it, even during difficult economic times.
There is, however, a danger in focusing too much on giving. How do you know if this is happening in your church? It’s simple. Giving and money will be at the center of almost every discussion. There will be clever ways to persuade people to give. The pastor will address the issue on a regular basis. The list goes on and on. But hounding people doesn’t turn them into faithful stewards!
The answer to the giving problem in most churches is discipleship. People can’t be expected to out-give their level of spiritual maturity. When people are in a vibrant relationship with God, they will want to give and serve. This is evidence people believe in the ministry of the church and will continue to support it. Don’t fall into the trap of begging people to do what they should do naturally
What are the demographic and psychographic profiles of your most committed givers?
Consider sending out an email every quarter encouraging your congregation to view their giving history / access their giving statements. History has shown that a reminder once per quarter actually keeps givers from procrastinating until tax season.
Many churches plan events because they are event-driven churches. They have a women’s event in the spring, events for kids and students in the summer, and a men’s event in the fall. They can’t explain why, and they measure attendance only in numbers. They’ve never considered what the outcomes should be and what those outcomes teach about retention.
Events should work in tandem with the vision of your church. If the two don’t sync up, scratch the event. It’s a waste of valuable resources to carry out an event simply because you’ve always done it.
When planning an event, take some time to project the anticipated outcomes. How many do you expect to attend? What is the makeup of the expected audience? What are the anticipated results of the event? How does this event move people toward deeper engagement?
Once you’ve done the planning, then you are ready to track the outcome. You can learn a lot if you will track participation by individual. In other words, encourage people to register for the event and then check in when arriving.
What does event participation tell you? It tells you, first of all, who is interested. Second, it reveals the perceived value of the event. Third, it communicates to you the viability of subsequent events.
Unfortunately, event-driven churches often see the events as ends in themselves. The event is the purpose. Therefore, getting a lot of people in the room is paramount. They’ll blitz social media with attendance updates, but they haven’t clarified why they are having the event and how it connects with the vision of the church. Connect your events to retention through data analysis and you’ll begin having events that encourage participation, enhance retention, and carry out the vision.
What were the anticipated outcomes of your most recent event? How can you make sure you measure results in the future?
Using a form for event registrations allows you to gather demographic and attitudinal information about the attendees. Additionally, a post-event survey can help determine the success of the event against its vision and goals. In CCB, forms can be easily matched to individuals and recorded in a profile.
Assimilation is a way to measure how well we keep up with faces and names. This is the test of familiarity. We typically push people through a new members class and give them our contact information so they can call us if they need us.
What happens after people leave that class? Is it possible for people to fall through the cracks and drop out of sight? Absolutely. If you don’t have a data management application that allows you to track people throughout their journey in your church, you will find it impossible to keep up with everyone.
By analyzing assimilation, you’ll be able to discover the differences between the behaviors of members and attendees. This is important because the behaviors of members establishes the culture of your church community. Tracking assimilation allows you to differentiate between attendees and those who are being retained.
Without an awareness of assimilation, you will struggle to accurately determine the retention rate of your church and its ministries.
Why is it important for you to know the people in your church?
Create an assimilation process queue that moves first-time visitors through different phases of assimilation and retention. Tracking the percentage of people that move through the process can help reveal the effectiveness of the church’s assimilation process
How do you measure spiritual growth? And how do you identify the places and ministries in which spiritual growth is likely? Answering those questions may seem a bit elusive. But spiritual development is at the core of who we are and what we do in ministry. It can be measured, but not by numbers, attendance, or some mathematical matrix. People need to be known. When they are, we can ascertain their propensity toward obeying what they know God has said. The pace of movement toward obedience is the number one indicator of spiritual growth. Knowing people personally is the only way to know if they are on pace for a life of obedience
Many churches today substitute participation for spiritual growth. They point to the number of groups they have and the number of people in groups as a sign of spiritual health. That’s not an accurate measure.
Real spiritual growth results in life change. You want to know, for each individual, how they move from uninvolved to involved, from non-givers to givers, from watching to serving. This is the evidence of spiritual growth and results in higher retention because people are engaged in Kingdom-building work, in their own hearts and in the lives of others.
Real spiritual growth is a long-term play. It is a lifelong pursuit and involves both internal and external elements. We must be okay with the idea that growth is a process and, in particular, that spiritual growth is a customized process.
Understanding that spiritual growth is unique to the individual, we can give freedom to an individual to take responsibility in a particular area. Then we can simply focus on how to best provide a context and an environment in which spiritual growth can happen.
Where do you see life change taking place in your church? What are you doing to capture those stories and expand those ministries?
Set up significant events within an individual’s profile to keep track of those events which are important participation and spiritual growth. Diligently update profiles so that when you need to run a report, the data is accurate and extensive.
Attrition is the opposite of retention. If you know how many people you are retaining, you can determine the attrition rate.
We all hate it when people leave our community—sometimes so much so that we really don’t want to know the reasons. Finding out and tracking why people have left can help us adjust and create a better future. Sometimes we have to measure our failures to discover new opportunities. Don’t speculate about a person’s reason for leaving your church. You need to be talking to people and analyzing the data you collect. In the process, you might discover a huge hole in your ministry plan or an area of ministry that isn’t effective. If you hear a reason once, take note. Twice, investigate. A third time, change. When you talk to those who’ve left, try to gain a clear picture of what happened. Learning is sometimes tough but it will bring great results as you adapt where you can to meet the ever-changing needs of your community.
When done properly, the analysis of the attrition in your church can lead to new ministry opportunities that might otherwise never have been considered.
How can my church use data to connect with people and build community?
Create attendance reports regularly to find people who haven’t been to church (or group) in a while. Give them a call, send them an email, or write a little note to find out if they’re okay. Create a custom field within their online profile that captures why left, and you can build a custom report to analyze and glean trends from that specific field. Also, make sure all group/team leaders are coached on how to do this so the senior leadership is not left with all the responsibility.
Wrapping it up
Churches that are doing amazing ministry in their communities and connecting with people in advanced ways are not content with just knowing the numbers who show up to their services every week. They truly care about who those people are, why they showed up, whether they will come back, and what works best in terms of getting them more deeply engaged. These churches are also thinking critically about how they can better measure, monitor, and manage the process of moving their people and their ministries forward—to the place they believe God is leading.
The questions leaders are asking of themselves are tough, but the answers will lead them to a whole new level of church growth and impact. They understand community matters in the discipleship/growth equation. The staff recognizes tracking member activity is important for validating and interpreting growth. However, there is a tension between their desire for these metrics and their desire to serve and support a very flexible, laid back, and over-scheduled culture. The bottom line is they don’t want to be seen as control freaks.
Retention is a numbers game—and one you don’t want to lose. It isn’t about keeping people from leaving by external means or manipulation. It’s better than that. Retention is about engaging people in community to create meaningful relationships and to ensure people stick.