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Church and “Big” Data

If you were to pick up a popular business magazine or click through a business blog, at some point you would probably run across some article about “big data” and its implications for some facet of business strategy or performance.

Big Data is our friend...even when it wants to play a game.

Big Data is our friend, even when it wants to play a game of tic-tac-toe.

Big data is a pretty significant movement in business strategy and goals today. Simply defined, big data is gigantic amounts of data that is handled and processed to glean insights for multiple applications in business, government, scientific, and military sectors. The amount of data that is handle is so voluminous that it requires off-site data centers to handle the workload.

Properly harnessing the insights of big data has become a fundamental “best-practice” for leading edge businesses and agencies that help them better understand their key constituents, buying behaviors, market conditions, and an assortment of other important information. These aren’t gigabytes or even terabytes of data, but petabytes and exabytes.

In the millions and billions of figures of any given data set, experts look closely to see if they can gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace and better position their business, or client, for success.

Not too many churches talk about big data…but we should.

Granted, the amount of data that properly comprises a legitimate “big data” set is far beyond what most churches and ministries could ever need to use. What is important here is the the principles at play. For too many churches and ministries there is a lack of coherent strategy and sustainable vision because most plans in these categories are made on false assumptions. We believe we know who our primary constituent (from guest to member) group is, and we are able to assume how they want to be involved. This kind of reflection, unfortunately, too often begins in the mirror and stays in that reflection.

One of the primary tools that any church can learn to utilize is a properly maintained and properly updated membership database that tracks participation and involvement of our guests, attenders, and members. Having a good database is one of the first tools that needs to be established in a church and that is consistently updated by staff and lay people.

When you have a database that is able to regularly accept the inputs from the whole host of activities any given church provides throughout the year, the leadership of the church can begin leaning on that data set to learn about trends and participation. Some databases also enable a church to see different levels of potential relationships between members.

As a result, data can help understand how people are involving themselves but it can also provide key relational connections for ministry.

In some churches that can leverage the analytical insights from data sets in the community and partner them up with ongoing trends in their congregation, the larger data set can aid in crafting new ministries and developing a strategic vision. Later this week, we’ll talk about some specific practices and examples.

However, for our first purpose here we hopefully are making the case that even in a local church properly taken data can be an aid to ministry. One of the first steps for any church or ministry is to engage with a suitable database system that allows them to collect data from a number of reliable sources, perform specific searches of that data, and let the numbers help identify trends and movement.

It should certainly be said before wrapping up that this kind of data is helpful to a point, but it will never eclipse the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and inspiring vision for ministries of a church. Data sets are a tool for helping leaders understand what is going on and how they can best adjust their ministries. But data only provides an isolated view. Christian ministry is, at its core, a person-to-person practice that requires relational proximity and personal authenticity. Data provides a picture but never equals the physical practice of ministry among God’s people.

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Are All Weeks Equal?

Well, it’s summer and if you live in almost any community around the United States, you’ll have noticed that folks have a tendency to do crazy things like take vacations, or long weekends, or be out of town, and other such activities that decrease their regular, or or less, attendance at our churches.

This isn’t a growing phenomenon by any means.

There is still a school of thought in many churches that we need to count all weeks equally in order to get a picture of how we are doing. Yet when we come into the summer months, and even over certain holidays, we see dramatic downward spirals in attendance as people do, you know, life. Some churches have gotten so frustrated, or maybe just decided not to fight the shift, that they cancel services on any Sunday between Christmas and New Years.

So, when we sit down to evaluate our attendance year, should we count all weeks equally?

Now, I believe counting is important but still believe proper counting is even more important. Granted, while I was in college and then seminary, nobody ever sat us down and talked about “proper counting” or even counting. Not until I was in my first post-seminary church experience did anyone talk with me, and a couple of other guys, about this counting thing. So as a result counting is just out there as this metric that determines a lot but is understood little.

As we lay out my yearly calendars one first step is overlay the local school districts’ calendars to get a picture of when we can anticipate major breaks. Also, we add in holiday weekends (which are usually part of a school’s calendar) and try to get a picture of what our year is going to look like. If we number my weeks, 1 through 52, and compare them to previous years’ weeks to get a picture of what our attendance track might be for the same week of any year. 

There are, out of the 52 weeks of the year, about 30 weeks that are able to show the core metric of our attendance patterns and who is, or is not, connected with our ministry. Depending on our locations (suburban, metro, urban, rural, etc) this might look different, but it seems to me that the primary driver for so much of our church attendance is the local school system’s calendar. So why not harness this to test our movement?

We are left with the primary tracking weeks of:

  • From school year beginning (mid/late August) until Thanksgiving with Labor Day being skipped. (usually 12 weeks)
  • From the Sunday after the first full week of January to Spring Break (mid-March.) (7-9 weeks)
  • Then from the first Sunday after the week following Spring Break until school let’s out for summer break. (about 10 weeks)

This will show how the eb and flow of church attendance measures up to corresponding weeks in the previous years. Is there growth in your primary venues and connection points during this time? Are we seeing guests coming at higher rates as the same time last year? How is children’s and student’s check in looking as compared to corresponding years?

While we shouldn’t buy into the myth of infinite, exponential growth every year (sooner or later life cycle metrics will come into play) we can consider what our in and out looks like.

The goal is to create a tracking model that recognizes that not all weeks are created equal in your calendar year. Some are more important for seeing how things are going than others. Also, some weeks will disproportionately skew the averages if you’re just looking at baseline data with no filter (i.e Christmas and Easter but also mid-July.)

So, how are you tracking your attendance patterns? What weeks work for your setting? Does the school calendar truly have this much influence on what is going on?

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