Church Analytics: A Blessed Assurance?

The analytics concepts used in business also have a place in the operation of a church, although the results of any analysis could lead to calls to either hail OR nail the leaders.

Bryan Beverly, Statistician, Bureau of Labor Statistics

October 6, 2016

3 Min Read
Credit: Pixabay

When I am not at work, home or on the A2 boards, the balance of my time is usually spent in church. I've been in church from the womb to the present, and have used some form of church analytics since 1982.

Whether tracking Sunday school and worship attendance, giving, baptisms, web site visits, or making demographic profiles of the membership, statistics have been a part of the work that I do in church.

At this point, some of you may be saying that analytics should not be used in the work of the faith community. After all, what do frequency distributions have to do with matters of the heart? Can parametric statistics be used to predict one's eternal outcomes? Can a P Value <.01 give the blessed assurance that people seek? Didn’t Thomas Bayes push the envelope enough when he used density functions to infer the probability of theological beliefs?

Valid arguments can be made for church analytics if one understands that they serve as thermometers and not as thermostats. Capturing the metrics of the life of the church help the leaders to know:

  • the degree to which the members are willing and able to support the assembly with their time, talents and tithes

  • the rate of worship visitor follow up, evangelical productivity and membership retention

  • the volume and frequency of church seekers browsing their web site

In effect, church analytics are informative but not tools of spiritual formation; they can reflect habits but cannot effect change in people's hearts. Pastoral care, discipleship programs and caring relationships among the congregants are the thermostats that regulate the spirit and soul.

Church analytics are best understood when examined in the context of the external environment. Factors such as jobs, affordable homes, good schools, and other quality of life/community anchors serve as determinants of who comes to church, what they give and how long they stay. Hence the statistical profile of the church needs to be interpreted in the context of the community in which the church exists.

Please note that church analytics tend to be embraced when they point to good news. The opposite is also true; they are cast aside when they identify areas of underperformance. When the numbers trend in a positive manner, leaders hear, "Hosanna, blessed are those that come in the name of the Lord". But when the numbers trend in a negative manner, the leaders hear, "Crucify them". As the numbers shift, the cries to either "hail" or "nail" the leaders can happen in similar patterns. Hence, whether the analytics are regularly published or dismissed ("Oh those numbers aren’t important; what is important is that we love God and each other.") depends on which way the numbers are flowing.

What are your thoughts about the necessity and role of church analytics? If a church is big enough for data mining, then is it too big to meet the personal needs of the members? Does using analytics suggest that people are only data points for church policy makers? Is there a danger that using statistics will cause leaders to misplace their faith?

About the Author(s)

Bryan Beverly

Statistician, Bureau of Labor Statistics

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