I was recently invited to give a 15 minute talk to a group of church worker about how data can equip and resource a church to be a church that is more productive, more pastoral, and more prayerful. Below are the slides and the transcript for that talk.
I find this a hard subject to talk about, because there is a tension to keep. Let’s ground this right from the start Jesus drives his church, it’s his car, for his glory. And the tension comes when we start introducing spreadsheets and pivot tables into the mix…
You know Jesus taught a parable about his gospel which is freely sown, scattered widely, like chocolate cake at a kid’s party… and when we start talking about data in this mix we get the idea that each slice of the chocolate cake needs to be accounted for… as does each raw ingredient.
We have got to hold this truth, that the gospel is like a seed that the farmer scattered, with the truth that we are limited. You are finite. You and your church cannot do everything, and you have responsibility to steward what you have well, and it may surprise you to see that the Bible isn’t not anti-analytics, data, and metrics… and you probably already do some of what I’m going to talk about already.
Let’s look at a couple of cases within the early church. Grab your Bible and come with me to Acts 2v41:
The early church knew how many were in the church, those who accepted this message were baptised, and about 3000 were added their number. Luke as the historian, goes back through the records and finds 3000 people were baptised as a result of Peter’s sermon. The early church knew who was in their number, when they came to faith and when they were baptised. A couple of verses later, in verse 47, there is a similar indication that the preaching is effective as more people are added to the log.
Later on in Acts 4v32–37 you see that the early church has data around the church finances, and those on the member list who are in needs to make sure that no one is falling through the gaps, and then as the ministry grows so large they use and improve the data to provide additional staff and ministry resources to a growing ministry (that’s Act’s 6).
There is plenty more I could say here, I mean I haven’t even touched the entire book of the Bible called Numbers, but I want to move on and start illustrating with examples three reasons why I think letting data influence how you lead your church is important.
To help you remember them there are three of them, and they all begin with the letter ‘P’.
Firstly you’ll be a more productive church
When I was working at a church one of the questions I found myself asking was 'are we putting our resources, our time, our energy, our finances, our late nights, our early mornings into the right things? Is what we are doing working?
Or to put it another way… it’s easy to see when a plant has died, but it would be better to get read the warning signs to withering leaves earlier and water the plant or repot it before it dies.
I want you to get a bit of paper (or the notes app in your phone) and write down three different ministries in your church - next to them write down what the measurable aims of those ministries are…
Too often we put on events or courses and, to be honest, just hope for the best. We put them on again and again, but we’re not really sure if they are effective. This season is a perfect time to take stock as a church of what we do, and think about the way we do them…
Let me take you to my imaginary church called St. Thomas’. St. Tom’s have hosted a Welcome Café every Saturday giving out free cups of tea and coffee. It’s a good thing to do, but they’ve never really thought about any goals and targets for it. They’ve just had the hope that if they open the doors on a Saturday, people will come in on a Sunday.
In talking to Joseph who leads the kitchen, he tells me that the cafe serves 50–60 cups of tea each session, at least that’s how many tea bags they go through! So over the course of the month they are probably seeing somewhere been 150–175 unique people.
What happens if we start giving it some goals and targets? How about setting the target that when the café reopens, of the 150 individuals how come, 30 of them come to a ‘Ask your Questions’ course.
Suddenly that goal changes how the welcome café is planned, and how the volunteers / staff run it. Everyone who comes in for a cup of tea is given an invitation, maybe invited to sign up to a mailing list… they receive invites to come, the staff who build relationships with the guests invite them along through a message later on… and when the course runs and people are asked ‘how did you hear about this course’ you can track it back to that first contact at the Welcome Café.
How effective is the ministry bases on simple metrics that are trackable. The metrics do not need to be the same for each ministry - Welcome Café has welcome metrics (attend the ask your questions course), The ask your question course might have commitment and baptism metrics, your small groups my might have metrics of regular attendance throughout the year, joining a serving team, or training to lead a small group.
If your ministries are taking resource, but not creating fruit then you have clear data to review that is not subjective. You can test and change things to see if modifications are effective or not, in some cases you can cut off those outputs as not bearing fruit at all - and that is a good thing because you now have the people and resource to invest in other flourishing ministries.
Attaching goals to your ministries and measuring them regularly allows you to be more productive in what you do. It stops you from misplacing your resource, and instead investing them where they will produce a good crop.
That’s your first ‘P’, now let’s have a look at the second one, letting data influence your decision making with enable your church to be more…
If there was ever a time for people to fall through the gap’s of your pastoral care it is now. You used to be able to eyeball the room each week and see who is missing, or who hasn’t been in a while, or who isn’t looking okay and arrange to catch up with them.
But with the livestreams, and your church service going out over the Facebooks and the YouTubes you’ve got no idea if Susan is there or not… or if you’re doing the Zoom style church you might be seeing the people, but you’re never going to get into the depth of conversation on a whole-church zoom to work out how Susan really is.
Some of might find it a bit cold to have lists of the church members and to use that for our pastoral checkups - don’t that turn people into names on a spreadsheet… and there is certainly a risk of that, and one that I’d encourage you to pray against, but if you head back to Acts… who was grateful for that list? The widows and those in need in Acts 4 and 6. Those lists meant that their needs were met.
Let me show you how this could work out in your church… let’s imagine a church of 64 adults… and you’re the pastor. If you met with four people each week, you would take 16 weeks to meet one-to-one with each member of the church. It is at best an inefficient system, people fall through the gaps, needs go unmet, there is no room for growth, at with that number of pastoral meetings, and all the other responsibilities you have, you burn out. That’s not good.
We need to listen to a father-in-law! Come with me to Exodus 18 and see how Jethro councils his son-in-law to use data to be pastoral to the Israelites in the desert.
What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out… select capable men from all the people- men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonesty game and appoint them as officals over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens…
Do you have small groups / home groups that kind of thing in your church? You’re already half way there! Our small group leaders can often see their responsibility as delivering a Bible study midweek, but that’s where the responsibility stops. What if you start encouraging your small groups leaders to be actively pastoral to the members of their group, to meet regularly and often together to pastor them.
For some of you, you’re probably thinking we’ve been doing this for years, for others of you this will take a lot of work to get going. Take small steps. Step by step by step.
If you have two leaders in a group of eight then you as a church leader of 64 can go from trying to meet and care for 64 people, to focusing on building up and equipping 16 people who can each pastor and care for 3 people each.
As you meet with your group leaders, they can let you know how their groups are doing, you can shepherd and care for the whole church by teaching and training your leaders, and occasionally stopping in a crisis.
As you start to grow you can start to allow the data to inform and shape other ministries. For example if your church runs a door-knocking ministry and one in the church meets someone at the door who is a single parent, the response that is given is going to be significantly different if over the course of three weeks 10 of your door knockers have met people in the same situation and bringing this data back. Previously you knew that one or two of your door knockers had met a single parent, but now looking at the data that is coming back you actually can see that there is a need in your community that the church can meet…
There is also the idea of flows, allowing people to work different levels of engagement. I first came across this within a church with an administrator who used this system to make sure that no-one forgot to fill in their DBS form - but the idea converts across to many different ministries… take for example this evangelism and discipleship flow…
With this system you can see where people are bunching up, or falling off. Everyone gets to the Ask your Questions course, but no baptisms yet… something is not right there…
I could spent ages and ages here, but time is short so let’s keep on moving. You can ask more questions in the Q&A!
We’ve seen that letting data influence your church decision making can help you be more productive, and it can increase your ability as a whole church family to be more pastoral. The final ‘P’ I think is the most significant. Letting data influence your church can help your church family by more prayerful.
I get that this is a bold statement, but stick with more on this one because what I’m going to say is nothing new. In fact it is a practice that the church has been doing for centuries.
How many of you keep a list of people to pray for? Why? Because it helps you to remember who to prayer, the list helps you to reflect back and see God at work, to see God’s faithfulness.
The data that we collect, the ministries with their targets and goals can drive our prayers, the records we keep from door knocking fuel our prayers for our neighbourhood.
I don’t know about you, but when I read Act 2, as a Christian 2000 years latter I see this amazing movement of God and want to praise him for how he at work in the early church, even though I have never met them.
How much more then can the prayer life of your church family be fueled with the knowledge that a goal has been set for Welcome Café.
How much more can you praise God with the knowledge that 20 people came to the Alpha or Christianity Explored course directly as an impact of the café?
How much more with your church pray for the needs of the community if those needs are known and shared with your family?
This idea is nothing new! But it is no less vital today. Previously we has resources like Filofaxes, or little prayer notebooks, those are still great tools today! We’ve also got amazing things like PrayerMate and the multitude of other digital tools to help us pray. Our churches have digital tools at our fingers, like ChurchSuite, a simple spreadsheet, or a printed and mailed paper directory, there are all data tools that equip you to pray! Use them!
As I wrap up… I want to land one word of caution that I started with at the beginning. I want to use the word influence, not driven. Let data influence your decision making, but remember that it is Christ who leads His church. Let the data inform your thinking, your planning, your reviewing, but let Christ lead as you prayerfully consider how to move forward.
Reviewing the data is powerful, and I am convinced that used well it will equip you to be a more productive church, a more pastoral church, and a more prayerful church.