The statistical decline in the American church is an ever-present anxiety. Each time there is new research published about the church in America it gives us new figures to share ominously from the pulpit while we admonish a hastened and hasty discipleship.
Pew and Barna can’t tell us anything we don’t already know. The anxiety of these numbers covers the church like a fitted sheet not only because the statistics foreshadow a future where the church is marginal, but also because those statistics represent sons and daughters.
Growing up, the only numbers I remember were the previous week’s attendance and offering posted at the front of the sanctuary in block-white letters under the weekly hymns. Times have changed. I am a 30-year-old pastor, and part of my week is spent swimming through numbers my pastor-dad before me never had to consider.
Heeding Pew’s number less and taking stock of more relevant numbers can help churches understand the story of their congregations. The small church I pastor has grown about 20 percent over the past few years and paying attention to a few numbers has helped that happen.
Here is what I look at each week:
Year over year growth. February attendance was down six adults against last year’s attendance. I try to find that six in my mind. Maybe we have lost a family or a few individuals that I am unaware of. So and so was on vacation, such and such was sick. The weather was worse this year. Maybe it was the polar vortex. Probably. Maybe it was my preaching.
I check our website traffic to see how many people are discovering our church online each week. A vast majority of first-time attendees visit a church’s website before attending the church. Almost 100 percent of visitors to our church go through our website before they go through the doors of our church. If the website is not hospitable, it will not matter that our church community is. We had more unique visits to our website in February. Perhaps, then, our website isn’t resulting in visits on Sunday morning. I make a note about particular pages people are spending their time on. I’ll update the website when I get a chance. Digital hospitality.
I open our email server and check the open rate of our emails. Fifty-two percent of recipients opened the weekly email this week. Pretty good. But not as good as last week’s email.
Later in the week I will check how our Google Ads are performing. There are grants available through Google to get free advertising, which churches are eligible for as nonprofits. Ninety-six percent of our search traffic comes through Google. We have a free account and a paid account through Google. Spending some money through Google can feel a bit wasteful. It is less expensive to pay for advertising than it is to have no one new walking through your doors.
I don’t spend too much time on Facebook. Getting likes and shares is exhausting. I do find it a fun way to share exciting things happening in the life of our church. Same goes for Instagram.
None of this sounds like the work of a pastor. I didn’t learn this at seminary and I am not sure how to justify it biblically. Maybe something about the Great Commission?
The truth is that our small church has grown consistently since we started paying attention to some of the metrics that I mention above. We have grown in racial, denominational, and generational diversity since we have invested time on our online hospitality and the metrics that go along with it. I cannot turn my nose up at that.
The other side of the coin is this: I’m drowning. Metrics have made the ecclesial rate race measurable. Clicks, likes, and the week after week feedback nurse my fears and conceit. Either I really am running this church into the ground, or I am the second coming of the Apostle Paul. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I find myself coming back to the numbers to validate or wallow.
When I suffer statistical overload, I stop at two core numbers: How many first-time visitors are coming to church? And how many of those first-time visitors are returning? It is a problem if no one new is ever attending a church. What might that mean?
Perhaps it never occurs to the congregation that they could invite people to church. Perhaps members are afraid to invite people because they fear that friends or family would have an inhospitable experience. It may also be something less missionally sinister: a website that hasn’t been updated since 2008 or instructions on the homepage to find the church entrance on a street two blocks over (it only took ten months for me to address that). Regardless, count your visitors. If you don’t have any, ask some questions.
Visitors never returning is also a problem. As obvious as that sounds, very few churches pay attention to this number. I have read that seven percent is a good retention rate. Tracking the retention rate can be a difficult and inexact science, but if visitors are making the decision not to return, some significant questions need to be asked. Are there ways to connect beyond Sunday morning? Is the language of the service welcoming to someone experiencing it for the first time? Is anyone introducing themselves or inviting visitors over for dinner?
All of this is important. Not for Barna’s line graph, but for the person wondering if they are welcome at the church they pass each week, whose website they finally decided to check out. It matters for the family moving to town that is deciding whether church will be a part of their new rhythm. The numbers don’t just tell a story about the demise of the American church; they can also help the local church understand its own story.