By Aaron Earls
In 2018 sports, analytics is king. Minute pieces of data drive multi-billion-dollar decisions. But for the church, Jesus is King. And the Holy Spirit should guide eternal decisions.
Can churches be data-driven and Spirit-led?
Christian researchers and many pastors have discovered that data and research can play an important part in following the Spirit. Churches already are using data, often without realizing. If you know how many people attended your worship service last Sunday, you have a piece of data about your church.
But as more data about communities and individuals becomes available, how do churches sift through piles of numbers to find the right information to help them make wise decisions?
Everyone knew basketball players could “get hot” and begin making more shots. The beloved classic arcade game NBA Jam even had the announcer yell, “He’s on fire!” after a player made three shots in a row. But then a 1985 sports analytics paper seemed to douse those flames.
The initial research, “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On Misperception of Random Sequences,” claimed an NBA player’s perception of being “hot” did not predict a hit or miss on the next shot. In other words, the raw numbers said hitting a previous shot had no bearing on the likelihood of making the next one.
However, thanks to advancements in data tracking, a 2014 study found NBA players who were shooting well often attempted more difficult shots and faced tougher defense. When accounting for those variables, the researchers found a “small yet significant hot-hand effect.” NBA Jam was right after all.
Similarly, researchers say there may be things churches aren’t accounting for because they simply aren’t using all the available information.
“I have seen churches celebrate the fact they have had 25 percent of people attend a church who have never attended before,” says Matt Engel, research fellow with Leadership Network.
“But when they looked at the next step in the data—did those new attendees come back?—the answer was no.”
Virtually every church tracks bodies, budgets, and baptisms. “The best next step,” says Eric Swanson, director of engagement and big data initiatives at Leadership Network, “is to begin combining different data points in order to get insights. How do giving, baptisms, and attendance compare from this time last year? Are trends going up, down, or are they flat?”
In addition to tracking trends in their churches, leaders can evaluate their communities to better understand those they are trying to reach.
“Pastors can learn so much more about the city and their people and then begin to act on that data to increase what is going well and decrease what is going bad,” says Swanson.
Research helps church leaders understand the best strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission, according to Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.
“It’s less about if and more about how,” says McConnell. “Research can direct churches to the most effective means of reaching the people around them with the gospel.”
Numerous free demographic research reports are available. Churches can use websites such as census.gov and city-data.com to explore the makeup of their city. Other websites, such as TheARDA.com from the Association of Religion Data Archives, provide useful information about the spiritual demographics of American counties. Entities of denominations, such as the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, often have research available to churches upon request.
The idea of using data and research strikes many pastors as antithetical to what Scripture teaches. Paul told the church at Corinth to “walk by faith, not by sight.” Is being informed by data the opposite of that? Paul commanded believers at Ephesus to “be filled by the Spirit.” Are we in danger of being filled with numbers, instead of the Spirit, if we evaluate research before making a decision?
A broader look at the Bible gives us a different perspective.
In some ways, our spiritual understanding can be an additional data point. Swanson points to Hebrews 11:27 saying Moses left Egypt “not being afraid of the king’s anger, for Moses persevered as one who sees him who is invisible.” Knowledge of God and His character allowed Moses to make what seemed to be a dangerous decision.
Similarly, Caleb and Joshua accounted for God’s promise when they suggested the Israelites go into the Promised Land, while the others made their choices based on the size and strength of the inhabitants.
For Swanson, one of the most applicable biblical examples is Nehemiah. When his brother and other men from Judah returned to the Babylonian city of Susa, Nehemiah asked them for two pieces of data: How are the people? And how is Jerusalem?
“The answers changed his life because he began acting upon the data he received,” says Swanson. “He let the data emotionally touch him.”
This motivated Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem to do something about the information he was given. He spent the first half of the biblical book rebuilding the broken city and the second half rebuilding the broken people.
“Nehemiah figured out a way for data to be actionable,” says Swanson. “The bottom line is pastors and Christian leaders should figure out what is most important to them, then figure out a way to measure it.”
For Christopher Keefer and First Baptist Church of Poolville, Texas, what was most important to them was reaching their community. They found some data that opened their eyes to the needs around them—and opened doors for the gospel.
Making the shot
As a bivocational pastor and a public school teacher, Keefer could see the community around the church was changing, but the 140-year-old congregation didn’t quite grasp what was happening outside its walls.
He says the church had ceased to reach out to its immediate community and needed to rediscover its mission field. So his first step was gathering data to show his church exactly what was happening.
Keefer worked with his local Baptist association to get demographic data and develop a profile of those living within a two-mile radius of the church. Because of his teaching background, he knew how to obtain the Texas Education Agency’s report on Poolville Elementary School, directly across the street from the church. The church completed a survey to discover the needs of local people. He also partnered with the Percept Group, a ministry research firm, to produce a “ministry area profile” for his community.
Members of the church had not come to grips with what was happening around them. “Before the research, they spoke of the community like nothing had happened,” Keefer says. “So many people mentioned how the community did things back in the 1950s and ’60s.”
But the church members actually lived in neighboring cities, leaving a “doughnut hole” around the church building where only one member lived, according to Keefer.
“This project and research turned their eyes back to the community they worship in,” he says.
First Poolville realized a growing number of Hispanic families lived nearby. More than 6 in 10 students at the school were classified as “economically disadvantaged.” Parents often work in surrounding areas and don’t get home until well after dark, Keefer says.
The data showed the need, but the church relied on the Holy Spirit to help understand how to meet that need. Keefer says the research was a “prompter” for the congregation, but it was the many hours of prayer and the unity within the church during the discussion and planning that demonstrated the Holy Spirit’s leading.
The congregation of fewer than 30 people decided to start a weekly after-school program for kids. The physical needs of the children are met. They are fed, given more food for home, and provided with school supplies. The kids often make a craft to give as a gift to their parents or other family members. They also participate in a Bible study.
In the small community, nine children have attended the church’s Kids’ Club. Five of those are new to the church, four of whom are unchurched.
Research didn’t make that happen. But research gave Keefer and First Poolville the information needed to make a wise choice.
Data-informed, but Spirit-led
“Nothing in Scripture says we are to be irrational,” says McConnell, “or that we shouldn’t care about reality. Jesus knew about the reality around Him. He recognized the need and met it. That’s what research best enables us to do.”
Still, the church leader must always be ready to “walk away from the rational to follow the Holy Spirit,” McConnell says. The Spirit’s leadership should always be the determining factor.
“We don’t put our trust in surveys,” says McConnell, “but in our Savior.”
For Christian researchers, it’s not about following the numbers at any cost. It’s about using data to make decisions—taking information into consideration, and then following the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
The data-informed, Spirit-led congregation can have even more confidence than the basketball player who feels he can’t miss. That church might even be on fire.
Aaron is online editor for LifewayResearch.com