Healthy Church by the Numbers (Part 2)
How do I track my attendance today–in person and online? Are people in my church taking next steps? Answering these questions isn’t as easy as it used to be.
In Part 1 of this series, Amy and I walked through healthy numbers for staffing and salaries. This week, we’ll break down the “what” and the “how” of tracking your front door, connections, and discipleship. (Listen to Part 3: How to Find & Measure Leaders in Your Church).
TRACKING FRONT DOOR, CONNECTIONS, AND DISCIPLESHIP
In this episode, Amy and I are discussing the key metrics you should be tracking, provide benchmarks for health, and explain:
- How to measure attendance and growth
- How to track online engagement
- The “becoming known” metric
- Measuring spiritual growth & discipleship
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. While the church’s mission to go and make disciples is clear, it’s really difficult to gauge our effectiveness if we don’t have a way to know how many people are connecting with our church and if they’re taking steps. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy continue our series on gauging church health by the numbers with a conversation on how churches can measure the health of their reach and connection strategies. Before you listen today, make sure you subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re going to get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including our leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive and bonus resources that you won’t find anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now, let’s join Tony and Amy for week two of Healthy Church by the Numbers.
Well, welcome back for today’s conversation. Last week, we started a new series called Healthy Church by the Numbers, and that first episode was all about staffing and salaries. And if you didn’t hear that conversation, I’m guessing you might want to go back and find out how much we recommend you pay your staff today. Today, though, we want to talk about reaching new people and helping them connect to faith in the church. So, Tony, let’s begin with the question everyone is asking: how do we measure attendance with so many people watching services online now?
Let me start here, and I’ll just create the uproar in the very front of the podcast today, Amy. We think you should stop counting people who are showing up online in your attendance numbers. In other words, only count the people that are showing up to your buildings for your services in person in your attendance numbers. Now, should you stop tracking all the people that are engaging your content online? Absolutely not. But they’re online engagers; they’re not in your church. And the key thing here is we need to stop looking at 2019 as if it’s the baseline. You, as an example, may have been a church of 2,000 people in 2019, but today, let’s say you have a thousand people back for in-person services. At this point two years later, if people haven’t come back to church, they’re probably not going to come back to church. So, instead, we need to start acting like we’re a church of a thousand people, and we need to invite those thousand people to join us in the mission to help us reach their friends, their family members, their coworkers, their neighbors and help connect them to faith in church. So, what we’re seeing, of course, is churches are still using multipliers to count on online attendance. And let me say it again: stop that. If someone watches a few seconds or even a few minutes of your service, that doesn’t indicate that they’re attending your church and that they’re engaged in your ministry. Multipliers: they make us feel better, but they’re clouding the reality of where we really are as churches and preventing us from engaging in the necessary conversations about how we need to move forward from here. So before I move on, Amy, any reaction or reinforcement of that?
No, I think it’s great. I would add around that online, as you’re talking, I guess keep thinking, “Maybe eventually we have to figure out how to staff for those online people so that we can help them take next steps.” But I totally agree with you that we just have to call it what it is. Get back to who’s actually attending our church.
Yeah, and by the way, if you believe your Sunday worship experiences are important to your mission of making new disciples of Jesus, you should actually count those people. It’s important that we count those people, and you should also count how many new people or first-time guests are showing up because this is important information to help us make better decisions in the future about how our Sunday services have to change in order to encourage people to take their next steps towards Jesus. So, I don’t want you to hear either in this conversation that attendance isn’t important to church health. It is. But it can’t be the only measure of church health. And likewise, it’s also important to know if new people are engaging our services. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll be able to make new disciples of Jesus. So it’s important that we track that engagement. Whatever your weekend service attendance is today, you need to remember that not every first-time guest is going to connect to your church. In fact, what we’ve found over time is that if you do guest experience really, really well, and they have a great experience in your services with their kids, and then you do a great job following up with them after the service to encourage them to take next steps, what we commonly see in those best practice churches like that is 20% of first-time guests will eventually connect to your church and hopefully connect to faith. And so, sometimes I hear from churches, “Well, we have a backdoor problem because we had all these first-time guests, and look, there’s only a few of them, maybe 20% of them, that have stuck to the church.” And actually, if 20% of them stuck, you’re doing a great job when it comes to first-time guests. And by the way, it’s a reminder because, and we’ve talked about this recently about that natural attrition rate that happens in churches, it’s a reminder of how many first-time guests we need to come through the doors in order for us to continue to maintain a growing attendance in our churches if that’s a priority. So, as an example, for a church of a thousand people today, rather than continuing to spin your wheels trying to get a thousand people who used to be in your church two years ago to come back to the church, I think it’s a much wiser investment of your time to figure out how are we going to reach the next 1,000 people who will visit our church for the very first time. And I really do believe that’s how we’re going to return to having growing kingdom impact in the communities around us.
So, Tony, let’s go back to kind of where you started. You weren’t suggesting that we should ignore online engagement in our services, right?
Like if people are still watching online, you’re not suggesting we should stop streaming our services so that people will come back to church?
Yeah, no, not at all. So, and actually, let me address that second question that you just mentioned first. NFL attendance through the first five weeks of this (Oh, by the way, the national football league and that’s American football for those of you who are listening overseas) was up 3% from the first five weeks of 2019. So, NFL, regardless of the pandemic, was seeing a growing attendance at the football games. COVID hasn’t impacted in-person gatherings for the NFL. They didn’t stop showing games, by the way, on TV or stop streaming games online to increase that attendance. I mean, that has continued. And this is what we hear from churches periodically, either they do, or they’re talking about, “We need to stop streamers streaming our services; because if we did that, maybe people would come back to church. And they’re not coming back to church, so maybe it’s because we’re showing the services online.” But people who are still watching services from their living room, if you did that, they would just find another church to watch online. So that’s not going to help you. I think if you stop streaming your services, you’re going to miss all those people who may be watching a service online before they come to visit your church. Today, the vast majority of people who attend your services for the first time have probably already watched a service online. And if you don’t believe me, ask them. I think you’ll find that online has become the new front door for church as well.
Let’s go back to the first question. How do we engage with our online viewers? How do we track that?
Yeah, so, we do; we need to monitor online engagement, and we need to monitor how many people are viewing services or at least parts of the messages online. And the way we do that, of course, is to track how many views of services both live and on-demand. You need to decide, “How long are we going to expect people to view a part of our service or a part of our message to count?” But I would just encourage you: pick a number. You don’t have to match what other churches are doing here. You need to just pick the length of someone watching a service, and then stick with that number. Let that become the baseline for you so that you can monitor trends over time of how many people are viewing your services or your messages. And then do the same thing with Web traffic, social media and email lists. Find at least one metric around each of these priority platforms, and monitor your engagement over time. And again, the goal is to get better information so that we can make better decisions about our digital strategies, about how we’re engaging new people that we’re trying to reach. And, of course, all of this then is going to help you monitor the effectiveness of that digital ministry strategy. I mean, Amy and I, with our team at The Unstuck Group, we provide consulting services to help churches clarify their digital ministry strategy. And if you have any questions about this, we would love to engage with your church around this and help you think about, “How can we leverage digital strategies to open the front door of our church as well?” So if you want to reach out to us, we’d love to talk with you about what that can look like in your ministry.
Well, Tony, I’ve heard you talk about the real win of a digital ministry strategy isn’t actually how many people watch services online or social media engagement. The real win is how many people are actually taking steps toward Jesus and the church and becoming known. How can we measure those types of things?
Amy, I really think there are two numbers that many churches don’t track that they really should. We’re going to talk about one of them today. Maybe we can talk about the other one in our next episode. But churches track attendance and giving, but this is one that should also be, I think, on your primary dashboard that you’re watching on a regular basis. And it’s this question or data point: how many people are becoming known to us? And tracking the number of new people that are becoming known to our ministry. And I think the easiest way to measure this is to look at how many new people by name and contact information have we added to our church database. Somewhere along the way, you’ve probably made a connection with these new people, whether it was through online content or an event or a service or some other connection where they trusted you at that point in time to give you their name and then give you some piece of contact information. And with that information, of course, our goal is to continue to develop that relationship, to nurture that relationship and encourage them to take their next steps towards Jesus. This metric is important because it helps us confirm that our reach strategies are really working. And if they are, we should be seeing an increase in the number of new people that we’re adding to our database over time. So what you can do then is to look at how many new people do we have in our database this month. And then how does that compare with the same month last year? And hopefully, you’re seeing some increase in those numbers. Or, at the end of the year, how many new people did we add to our database this year? And how does that compare with last year? Again, it’s not uncommon, Amy, when churches reach out to us, oftentimes they’re seeing declining attendance and they are concerned because they think it’s a backdoor problem. People were connected to their church, and now they’re leaving for some reason. And several years ago, I was engaging with a church that was trying to convince me that they also had a backdoor problem. But I asked for this information that we’re talking about. I asked them, “Show me the number of new contacts that you have had in your database over the last 12 months. And then let’s compare that over previous years.” They were able to provide five years of data. And every year, they were seeing a decline in the new people that they were adding to their database. And what that told me was, “Well, this church doesn’t have a backdoor problem. They actually have a front door problem. Their reach strategies are not engaging new people to connect with their church.
And by the way, that was pretty surprising for that church. I was in the room with you on that one. And as the discovery was happening live, you just saw a lot of lights go on, like they started to reframe that it was such an important metric.
Yeah, Amy, the primary reach metric that we can be tracking is the number of people saying yes to Jesus and going public with their faith through baptism. And again, the key here is to monitor that trend over time, as well. And let me just be straightforward with you. If you aren’t making new disciples of Jesus, if you don’t have anyone or very few people saying yes to Jesus, you need to start asking the question, “Why is that happening or not happening? Why isn’t the church seeing life change, and what would need to be different for that to change?” And if you’re curious about kind of benchmarks around people saying yes to Jesus, whatever your attendance is, multiply that number by 5%. So, if 200 people attend your church, your number would be 10. If 2000 people attend your church, your number would be 100. That’s been the average number of people saying yes to Jesus in churches that we’ve served through the years. And so, if you’re wondering people, giving their lives to Jesus, people going public with their faith, people saying, “Yes, I’m following Jesus now,” if that number is 5% of your attendance, you’re on average with what we’ve seen in previous churches. Now we should be celebrating every person that crosses the line of faith, but this will at least give you a sense of what other churches are experiencing.
Well, Tony, let’s shift focus a little bit, and we’ve talked about the numbers related to our front door and reach strategies, but let’s talk about some of the key metrics around helping people connect with the church and experience spiritual growth. What should churches be monitoring here?
Yeah, of course, it’s very difficult to measure true spiritual formation because it’s difficult to measure the fruit of the spirit in someone’s life. It’s difficult for us to measure everyone’s Bible engagement. It’s difficult to measure someone’s attitude towards continuous prayer or sharing Jesus’ heart for the lost. But at a minimum, we do need to track the things that we can track that give us an indication of someone’s pure spiritual formation. And I would argue some of the easiest and obvious places for us to consider is whether or not someone’s serving. Are they using their spiritual gifts someplace within the body of Christ to engage our mission? Are they connecting in relationship with other people? And that might take the form of a Bible study or a small group, but are people connecting in relationships so that they can be not only encouraging others to take steps of faith, but also being challenged to do the same thing themselves? To look at giving, I mean, this is a place where we can get a sense of someone’s true heart and desire to follow Jesus by what they’re giving financially to the church. And I also think we should look at how people are taking steps in leadership. And so, you might be asking, “Well, what specifically should we be looking for when it comes to serving?” Here, I would encourage you to look at the number of people serving, and by the way, not the number of roles filled. That’s the actual number of people in your church that are serving, and divide that by the number of adults and students that you have in weekend attendance. And the benchmark that we’ve seen is churches have 45% of their adults and students serving on a monthly basis on a regular basis, somewhere in their church. Likewise, if you want to monitor how are you doing with small group or Bible study connections, take a look at the number of people that you have in groups—again, not the number of groups, but the number of people in groups—and divide that number by the average number of adults and students that you have in weekend attendance. And the benchmark there is 60% of adults and students that are engaged somewhere in a group connection. Again, Amy, this is a reflection of all the data we’ve collected through the years. Let me, by the way, just kind of go back to where I started this episode. Let me shoot straight with you. If you’re including all of those online engagement numbers as attendees, good for you. But then the expectation is you should be using the same benchmarks of 45% serving and 60% in home groups based on that total attendance, which would include that online attendance number that you’re tracking. So that’s another indication. Should we really be including these online numbers as attendees? Well, if you decide to do that, then I also think and would challenge you that you need to be looking at every other next step that you’re encouraging all of those online attendees to make, as well.
Alright. You’ve talked about serving in groups. What else you got, Tony?
Let’s talk about giving, and according to Jesus, it’s possible this may be the best metric of a person’s heart change. I mean, it was Jesus himself that said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So, you know, you might want to look at tracking the number of giving units in your church, and here you can pick a minimum dollar amount, determine what your baseline number is and just monitor over time: how many giving units do we have at that dollar amount? Again, if I’m a pastor, I want to invite every person into biblical stewardship, but I don’t want a church where every person is giving to the church. If so, that’s probably an indication that the church isn’t really reaching any new people, or more specifically, people who aren’t yet believers in Jesus.
That’s probably true about the serving and groups metrics, too.
You know, the reason we don’t want those at a hundred percent is because the higher those numbers are, often the more insider-focused the church is because they have no new people bouncing those off.
And then, finally, I was going to mention leadership. I mean, we need to look at the number of people stepping into leadership responsibility. Again, that’s an indication of connection and spiritual maturity in our churches, but we’re going to save that for next week’s conversation, Amy.
That’s great. Well, as we wrap up today, any final thoughts you’ve got on this topic?
Yeah. If there’s one thing I hope you heard loud and clear today, it’s this: stop acting like it’s 2019 because it’s not. This is a new day, and the vast majority of us are leading new churches. On the outside, it may look like the church that has been around for years or maybe in your case for decades. But on the inside, it’s a brand new congregation. And here’s what I believe. Not only is it a new day and a new congregation, but the church, your church, is just getting started today. Today, we stop looking backward, and instead, we engage the mission to go and make new disciples of Jesus. And if you haven’t been reminded of this recently, God has you perfectly positioned in your church and for this mission that he’s called us to. So, you were called for such a time as this. Now is the time to really lean in and look at how we move forward as a church to accomplish his mission. And as a side note, related to all of this conversation around benchmarks and metrics and data that we can be tracking to look at the health of our ministries, we’re offering our Vital Signs Assessment for free to help us boost the data that we’re trying to collect right now, so that we can help your church kind of compare where you are to the other churches that are engaging with our content, as well. So, over the last decade, we have found that the Vital Signs Assessment has provided thousands of churches with a picture of their overall health by looking at the key metrics and how those metrics compared to other churches. So, typically this is a $49 assessment, Amy, but we would like to offer that for free. And you can find out more about that assessment by going to theunstuckgroup.com.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Like Tony said, don’t forget to access your free Vital Signs Assessment by visiting theunstuckgroup.com/vitalsigns. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team and action. With every tool and process we develop, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. We’re here to help you get your church unstuck. You can start a conversation with us by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week