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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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Does VBS Still Work?

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How many of us, while growing up, attended a Vacation Bible School? Probably a great many of us.

The practice of doing VBS in the summers between school years has been going on for as long as any of us can remember. In fact, the earliest VBS in the modern era was likely started in 1894 by a public school teacher, D.T. Miles, who created a 4-week summer program in Hopedale, Illinois to train and engage with children in the summer. Though much of the arrangements and execution of a VBS look different today than back in 1894, the concept is essentially similar.

Some church leaders have asked good questions about the use of VBS in their specific cultures over the past several years. In these conversations there have been good questions asked about the role of VBS in churches of all models. One of my favorite questions to ask in these discussions is: how many of you attended VBS as a kid? Usually almost every hand goes up.

So, does VBS work in our churches?

Over the past week, the church where I serve hosted our annual Vacation Bible School. We had about 2500 involved in our VBS which last from Monday through Thursday. Our VBS runs in the morning, from 9:00-12:30. If we were to look at the programming side, the children involved have all the traditional bells and whistles of a VBS: crafts, music, Bible lessons, activities, and dramas that play out over the week. This is a model shared by many churches across the US.

I can honestly say that I think VBS is one of the best things churches can do to reach their communities and members and it leverages multiple cultural access points to allow a local church to do ministry beyond what it normally might provide during the rest of the year.

Does VBS work? Absolutely.

The next statement is: if it is validated and led appropriately. I’ve been involved in VBS weeks in small churches to mega-churches and many sizes in between. Each one has several shared keys to success that aid in producing an effective VBS.

A chief key to success is the appropriate validation and support for a VBS. This means high visibility in the church calendar, multiple mentions from the platform, the key church leader(s) encouraging people to attend, and appropriate budgeting support. For many churches, regardless of size, a great VBS begins with how well the leadership of the church plans for VBS and provides the means to accomplish a goal for producing a successful one. One of the great things that many churches do in bringing together a wonderful VBS experience is have an “all hands on deck” mentality for their staff. This provides an infrastructure of support from our key ministry leaders and helps distribute the burden of ministry across all levels.

Second, the leadership of VBS is crucial. Whether it is lay people or paid staff, the leaders of VBS are critical to raising up great volunteers, setting the mark for excellence, working behind the scenes to produce great environments, and leading the training of volunteers for the VBS. Everything rises and falls on leadership, says John Maxwell, and when it comes to VBS he is certainly on point. A great VBS can carry the energy and focus of changing lives in these young hearts like no one else.

Another key is outstanding environments. From the first moment a child walks in to the last day when they walk out, outstanding environments will have a lasting impact. As you can see from the photos above, the environment created in the worship center, sanctuary, or meeting room is key for getting kids involved and wanting to come back. Lazy efforts or high barriers to changing rooms and venues will have a resounding impact on your VBS experience. Children today are being brought up in a heavy media saturated time, and while we don’t play to that, we can leverage it to have fun.

Finally, VBS needs to be fun, fun, fun. This is the street front window for so many of our churches with those people on the fringes and margins of Christianity in our different towns and cities. One of the rules I’ve seen for the last 15 year in ministry is when you get the kids excited the parents will bring them back. Some of the best VBS experiences (from small church to big churches) have been when the kids are engaged with great teaching, fun worship, and terrific activities to bring everything together. We love getting kids on their feet, moving, and singing. Its amazing to watch a worship center full of kids singing, moving, and enjoying their time. In the drama you have a moment to speak to them in tremendous ways while also allowing them to hear the Gospel at an important age.

VBS works as well as we allow it to work. If it occupies a central part of your overall strategy there need to be intentional next steps in following up, providing other programmatic and connecting event strategies, and seeing that every new family is seen as a valued connection. Then, celebrate the win. Talk about it and praise the leaders. A properly praised VBS can be a great change agent for a church that desires to connect the Gospel with families and people in their community. It still works.

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Follow Up: A Key to Growth

Well this week is our annual VBS at Sugar Creek. It is a highly validated event that brings in over 2,000 children into our ministry space, many of whom are from families whoa are not connecting regularly with our ministry. So by the end of our time we’ll potentially have several hundred new families for follow up.

In business one of the primary goals is to turn new customers into repeat customers. Repeat customers spend about 33% more than the same number of new customers.

For churches our bottom line is different. We shouldn’t be measuring things by how much someone “spends” or “gives” monetarily, but we should be measuring successes in terms of connection and involvement. The metrics are different but the goal is the same: assimilation.

Churches of all kinds see visitors and guests throughout the year. If you haven’t seen any for a while something is clearly wrong. No ministry is sustainable over the long term if there aren’t new guests and visitors, and it is even less sustainable if there is a lack of new people period. When we do see guests and visitors our primary obligation to them in the following week is to follow up and at least extend a welcoming greeting to let them know that our church is unique and might be a good place for them to return and check out.

From week to week one of the key activities a church staff should be involved in is the appropriate follow up with new guests and visitors.

There are some outstanding books and talks out there. Two that I recommend are: Fusion, by Nelson Searcy and Beyond the First Visit by Gary McIntosh. While there are others out there, including some great thoughts on first impressions ministry, these are a helpful way to get started. Some things that I’ve found work well with guests and visitors:

  • A handwritten thank you card with a $5 gas card. 
  • Having a person from a life stage appropriate group contact them and invite them to a group time.
  • Sending them a short 5 question, anonymous survey about their experience.
  • Snail Mailing a letter and short info guide about your church.
  • Phone call (even if voicemail) thanking them and letting them know we’re here to minister to them.

 

For many guests and visitors our facility is new and confusing. Clear signage and helpful welcoming people are going to be key in directing them to a comfortable place of worship. Being careful not to be too forceful while also caring enough to guide them is a great balance for ministry.

Summer is a great time to follow up with new guests and families. We should leverage this time wisely and find a treasure trove of new guests and visitors who can, through a couple easy moves, become engaged members.

How are you doing follow up? What are some successes you’ve had? Where do we all miss connecting with guests and visitors?

19
Jun 2013
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Church

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