Use Big Data to Engage Your People and Grow Your Church

Using 21st Century tools like big data is a proven way to engage and grow your church and create long term impact

It’s estimated that only 35% of Americans attend church weekly and 84% of churches are declining or plateauing.

In the article Christian America is in Decline, the author explains,  

“One reason so many are opting out of religion, or never opting in to begin with, is that churches are addressing the wrong questions.”

In short, members leave because they feel their church doesn’t provide enough spiritual engagement. Some want more opportunities to serve. While other are looking for ways to solve frustrations or doubts. Many even feel like church is irrelevant, and list that as the primary reason they leave, or never get involved in church.

Keep reading to see more about how you can rethink the decline in church attendance. Then learn about big data and how you can use it to reach your communities and retain congregants. 

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Churches that adopt new ways to connect with their cities and congregations are thriving

Not all churches are declining. Some are thriving as they discover new ways to meet spiritual and communal needs. One of the newest ways churches can determine these needs is with big data. 

“The typical church is not good at tracking data. We keep track of how big the offering is. We keep good track of attendance. But we honestly don’t use data well,” explains Carl Kuhl of Outreach Magazine.

The article, 7 Keys to Church Growth, states “Church members are one of the key customer groups in a church. Understanding their unique needs and ensuring their needs are met – within the scope of the vision – is critical to church growth.”

Before we jump into the ways you can use big data in your church, let’s take a minute to discuss what big data is.

You’ve heard about it, but what exactly is big data?

Google defines big data as “extremely large data sets that may be analyzed to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.”

Though the term is relatively new, the use of data to guide decisions is not. Tribespeople tracked data by carving notches in bones or sticks to calculate trading activities or determine how long their supplies would last.

In the 1660s John Graunt collected mortality data and analyzed it to determine the frequency of various causes of death. He used that same data to refute the idea that the bubonic plague spreads by contagion. He even theorized an early warning system for the plague. Though mortality information had been collected for years, Graunt was the first to use the information to make connections to disease and population.

Today analysts use big data to predict heart disease, predict the spread of malaria and, of course, to track buying habits and encourage new purchases. But, just as John Graunt used data to draw conclusions to certain illnesses and disease, the data collected today does little good if it’s not acted upon.

Big data only offers solutions when it’s acted upon

We consciously, or subconsciously, match our reactions to the information we have available, in other words Know & Match. The more we know, the better we’re able to match our responses. For example, when you connect to your weather app you know the forecast and can match your clothing or activities accordingly. You act on the information provided.

Doctors predict disease based on genetics and family history, which allow them to act by providing preventative care. As a pastor, when you see data indicating your members are at risk of divorce, you can act on that data by planning sermons that focus on building stronger relationships or promoting marriage support groups.

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You can access and use big data for your church today

There are many ways to collect data to understand the needs of your congregation and community. Here’s a few tools you can use today.

Use analytics from social media to know more about your following

There are many ways to collect and analyze data from social media. Facebook has Insights and Twitter has Analytics. More tools are available through Linkedin, Instagram and other social media channels.

Surveys and assessments give you first party information about your people

Many churches use surveys to assess the needs of their members. These can be done through software like SurveyMonkey or SurveyGizmo to assess the spiritual and temporal needs of your congregants.

Some churches find it helpful to collect data through formal assessments. Data can be collected in meetings, private interviews or detailed reports from church leaders.

Demographic reports tell you information about ages, income and more

Demographics can provide a lot of insight into your community. Through these reports, you can often access religious affiliation, marital status, household income and the ages of residents.  

Third party data vendors  create models that predict people's likelihood to get divorced (and much more!)

While some data can be collected from individual sources, there are services that gather, sort and provide data for their clients on a much larger scale, searching millions in their databases and producing thousands of data points per person for analysis. This information can be used to create predictive models of behavior. That means, you'll be able to know things like:

  • A specific person's likelihood to get divorced
  • If your congregation needs support when it comes to money 

If you decide to use a data analytics platform, make sure you select one that corresponds with the data you need  to reach your local community and congregants, and one that also provides a high degree of privacy. More about that in a minute.

What about privacy?

When you use big data and analytics you need to keep those details private.

When you work with a data analytics platform, all identifying information is kept private. The data is processed, scrubbed of any personal details, and then returned to you with only relevant information.

big data for church

Churches that take advantage of modern tools to know their people and match their approach based on those insights give themselves the best opportunity to grow

It’s important to remember that big data is predictive, not prescriptive. It should organize known ideas, habits, demographics and activities then allow you to organize the information to represent the whole and act on it. Churches that use the power of big data in this way are able to predict struggles, pain points and in general, know more about their congregants and community. When they use that information to tailor their message, they’ll see long-term engagement that leads to growth.

As Carey Nieuwhof explains,

“I’m trying to read the minds of the people in the audience, in the congregation every week and I’m trying to think through the minds of a church person, of a non-church person, someone on the verge of divorce, someone who’s single … You run your message through a lot of filters, but with big data, you can actually know.”

Using big data in your church is about understanding your congregation’s needs and then matching those needs with relevant solutions. As you learn more, you can match more accurately and take a proactive approach to ministry.

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