Differences Between Growing and Declining Churches
Some people watch sports. Some go to concerts. I analyze spreadsheets. I know, I’m really weird. (I actually do all three of those things, but I probably geek out most about data.) And I have some new data to share with you…
Why? Because I’m hearing that word come up more and more often when we’re serving churches.
The trouble is, it’s a loose term. You could really define it however you want. Personally, I wanted to know if churches are including in their definition of engagement both a desire to reach out and to better connect with people already inside the church.
If engagement doesn’t include both factors, it’s a metric that could make us feel like we are “winning” as we grow increasingly insider-focused. Not a good thing.
I hope you’ll download the full report. It’s free and you can get it here or by subscribing to my email list this month. But in this episode, Amy and I previewed the report and added in some stories that help the numbers come alive. We discussed:
- The differences between growing and declining churches when it comes to engaging first-time guests
- How often the average person attends services, and whether whether growing or declining churches see a higher average frequency of attendance (and what those numbers really reveal about the health of the church)
- Why you should be regularly analyzing your website metrics related to new and returning visitors, what that info really tells you, and how it impacts your “front door”
- Differences in engagement on Facebook and Instagram, and why Amy and I think it’s an important nuance to consider
- What the data says about sharing video content online, and how that should probably influence the bigger discussion many churches are having about whether or not video cannibalizes attendance at weekend services
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Download (for free!) the Church Engagement Report 2019
- Unstuck Church Assessment (also free!)
- Differences Between Growing & Declining Churches (2018 blog series)
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Tony: 00:00 Here at The Unstuck Group our team of consultants work hard at helping church leaders grow healthy churches by guiding them through experiences that focus vision, strategy, and action. When churches are unstuck, we would hate to see them get stuck all over again. That’s why we partner with organizations that help effective churches thrive. If your strategy for multiplication includes planting or multisiting new campuses in a rented facility, Portable Church Industries are the experts we trust. Learn how their process works at portablechurch.com/unstuck.
Sean: 00:40 Well, welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Over the past few years, many churches have began changing the win from measuring attendance to tracking engagement. So much so that engagement has become a bit of a buzzword in the church world. Well, last year The Unstuck Group in partnership with Blackbaud set out to gather data from churches around specific points of engagement. Today on the podcast, Tony and Amy share some of our fascinating findings from our survey. This week’s podcast is an excellent time to use the show notes and download our Leader Conversation Guide. In fact, if you download the show notes, you’ll get access to the full results of our engagement survey. You can find them at theunstuckgroup.com/episodeninety, and if you haven’t yet subscribed to get the show notes and your inbox each week. You’ll get one email with all of the details including the leader guide, resources we mentioned and bonus resources to go along with the content. You can sign up by going to the unstuck group.com/podcast to subscribe. And now here’s the conversation on church engagement with Tony and Amy.
Amy: 01:43 Tony engagement is kind of a buzzword right now. We’re hearing it a lot from leaders at the churches we work with at The Unstuck Group, but it’s kind of a loose term, I think. I mean you could kind of define engagement however you want, but because it’s such a hot topic, you know, we recently partnered up with Blackbaud to survey church leaders from across the country to find out about how church leaders are actually defining and measuring engagement.
Tony: 02:08 Yeah, that’s right. At the root of this discussion is an assumption that engagement matters, that something critical is at stake if we don’t have it. And all church leaders know that measuring weekend service attendance isn’t enough. I mean it just tells us part of the story. It doesn’t tell us how well we’re reaching people outside our walls or how well we’re encouraging people to grow as disciples or how well we’re connecting with the next generation. So with this project, which we started back at the end of last year, we aimed to learn a little more about how churches are defining and measuring engagement today. And the fun part about this is we actually had 176 churches participate in this research. They shared their current practices and the trends from the last year and these areas that are going to help us understand a little bit more clearly what engagement is all about.
Amy: 03:06 Right. And so if I know you, you’ve spent some significant time analyzing the data that we got back from this study. And so share with us, what did you find most compelling?
Tony: 03:16 Yeah, some people watch sports, some people go to concerts. Tony analyzes spreadsheets. I know I’m really, really weird. I do, I geek out about that type of stuff and there is some interesting data in this research in particular, the data showed some compelling differences in engagement between growing and declining churches. And anytime I report on differences between growing and declining churches, people seem to tune in. In fact, I did a blog series on this a year or two ago and I’m going to share the link to that blog series in the show notes as well. What was really interesting in this data was that there was a slightly higher percentage of smaller churches included in the mix of growing churches. And that’s key because it would be easy to make the assumption that a few of these results that I’m going to share are happening because some churches are larger than others. In fact, both small growing churches and large growing churches, we’re seeing some of the same trends and vice versa.
Amy: 04:22 Gotcha. All right. So can you preview for us a few of the insights that the report shares and maybe we can even talk through how that relates to what we’re seeing on the ground with the churches that we serve.
Tony: 04:33 Yeah, let’s do that. So here’s the first one that really jumped out to me. Here it is. The average person attends services more frequently in declining churches. In fact, the data showed, yeah, I mean that doesn’t, it doesn’t make sense, does it? But the data shows us that people attend 2.5 weeks every month in declining churches compared to 2.3 weeks per month in growing churches and for all the hand wringing about people not showing up to church. A higher frequency of attendance is not actually correlated with church growth. But here’s the important thing. What this number really implies then is that growing churches are reaching more first time guests and it just, it makes sense if you think about it. In declining churches, the same people are showing up more often and that’s how attendance is established and growing churches, people are actually attending less frequently. But in order to get that higher attendance number, they need to have more first time guests. In fact, 74% of growing churches had increases in their first time guests compared to only 23% of declining churches. So when I look at those two things together, I’m even more compelled that growing churches are more outward-focused than declining churches.
Amy: 05:58 You know, it amazes me still. I think a lot of churches aren’t even measuring how many first time guests that they’re getting. It’s not a metric or a data point that they’re tracking. I remember a church that colleague Sean and I worked with this past year in Nashville and when we first started working with them, on their vital signs report. They just had no idea how many guests they had and they had no systems to track them. And by the way, the church, you know, they weren’t growing and fast forward here about 14 months later this year, they’ve actually been tracking that number and they’ve, you know, they’ve created a strategy to engage those first time guests and they’ve grown by 14% this past year. I mean, I’m sure they did a lot of other things, but they started paying attention to that first time guest number.
Tony: 06:41 Yeah. In fact, Amy, I also just had a conversation recently with Jeff Brodie. You may not know Jeff, you probably know the teaching pastor at Jeff’s Church. That’s Carey Nieuwhof’s church up there in Canada, Ontario. And anyways, we worked with Carey and Jeff and the team. I guess that’s probably been maybe four or five years ago. And to their surprise, when we really started to pour in to the data from their church, they, thought initially that they were facing a backdoor challenge, that people were coming to the church and then leaving the church because they weren’t connecting to the church. And when we dug into the data, we actually found the opposite, that they had a frontdoor problem. There weren’t enough first time guests connecting with the church and as a result of that, Jeff explained to me just in the last couple of weeks they made a concerted effort.
Tony: 07:41 I love this beginning with helping people in their church recognize they need to be building relationships, identifying, praying for engaging conversations with people outside the church and outside the faith and then the church developed some strategies to really encourage those first time invitations to the church. And I could be wrong, I think he said year over year now for a couple years running, they’ve increased first time guests by 70% or more. And what that’s translated into then as far as attendance, this last 12 months, their attendance increased by more than 20%. And so here we are, we’re talking about a church in Canada, which really is a post church culture even beyond where the churches in America are today. And they are even as a mature church now experiencing significant attendance growth because of this focus on being an outward focus church and increasing the number of first time guests that are connecting to the church. So I think I twisted Jeff’s arm. We’re going to have him on a podcast at some point in the future. Because I want you to hear from him firsthand some of the shifts that they’ve made in their strategy and how they’re encouraging people in their church to invite friends and family to come see what’s happening at Connexus. It’s really a great story.
Amy: 09:10 That’s exciting you know, and I just echo, I think a lot of the churches we work with start out with a backdoor philosophy. That’s why they’re losing per se, but it’s most likely a front door problem. So. Alright, let’s move on. Can you share another one of the insights that you grabbed from looking at this data?
Tony: 09:27 Yeah, so another one that stood out to me was the difference in website and social media engagement between growing and declining churches. And again, we’re not just talking about large and small churches because both smaller and larger churches are included in this mix. So this isn’t just about having big budgets and large teams, but this is what the data says. Growing churches had more new visitors on their website in the last 12 months. In fact, 85% had an increase in new visitors to their website compared to only 60% of declining churches. But there was a really significant disparity between growing and declining churches when it comes to returning visitors to the website. Of those churches that we’re actually tracking this metric, 79% of growing churches saw an increase in returning visits while only 33% of declining churches had increases in return visits to the website. So in other words, growing churches, there’s something different they’re doing about not only getting people to their website, but how they engage with people once they land on their website. There’s something different about their web strategy.
Amy: 10:40 Yeah, I think this is an important one to talk about for a minute, Tony. You know when we help churches assess their first time guest experience in the assessment phase of The Unstuck Process, one of the things they get a score on when we secret-shop them is how well their website serves as the frontdoor to their church. So we talk about this all the time, but most churches still have websites that are not really oriented towards answering the questions a new person have. Right. It’s still set up to address the questions that our current attenders have. So if most people visit at once and don’t come back, I think that’s a great way to know whether or not this front door of your church is working because most people are going to check out your site a few times before deciding to actually visit your church in person.
Tony: 11:24 Yeah, and that’s certainly the case for the people that are visiting the website and the church for the very first time. But there’s really something else related to the content strategy that churches are using, which helps to get those return visitors to the website as well. And I’ve argued for a long time that churches don’t think about their content strategy beyond what’s happening on Sunday. They’re, you have to be thinking about your strategy, your social media strategy, the content you’re delivering, not only for the people that are connected to your church, but I think this is a huge opportunity for the church to gain credibility and to become a trusted resource for people on the fringes. And those that haven’t connected with your church too, especially if the content is addressing questions that people outside the church and outside the faith are asking.
Tony: 12:17 But in addition to that, this is where social media becomes huge for churches because social media is usually the precursor to even a website visit in many cases. And we saw in the data an increasing engagement on Facebook for both growing and declining churches. But interestingly enough, it was Instagram where there was the biggest separation. What we found was 44% of declining churches said they are using Instagram while 72% of growing churches are using that social media platform. Amy, this has nothing to do with how they’re using Instagram. It’s just acknowledging there’s a difference between growing and declining churches when it comes to using social media, particularly Instagram, and actually connecting with people and engaging people.
Amy: 13:08 Right. We should maybe do a future podcast on some best practices in those areas
Tony: 13:13 When it comes to social media. Yeah. Yeah. Having seen how some churches use social media, I think that would be a good idea.
Amy: 13:19 I think so. All right. Let’s go on. So what’s a one more insight, Tony, that you got out of this information?
Tony: 13:26 Yeah. The last one is kind of a hot button topic among larger churches. Right now I know at least the ones that our team is engaging with Amy and it relates to the online video content that churches are leveraging. Growing churches are much more likely to share video content through live streaming, on demand, Youtube, Vimeo, whatever the case might be. In fact, 85% of growing churches are sharing video content online compared to only 49% of declining churches, so not quite twice as much video content strategy with the growing churches compared to the declining churches. And again, I feel like I’m saying this over and over, but I just want to hear, make sure you’re hearing this. This is not large and small churches, both are included in this group of growing churches. Here’s what I found most interesting. This suggests of course, that sharing video online may slightly reduce the frequency that people attend, but it likely increases the total number of people who attend your church.
Tony: 14:36 So again, the churches that are using video content strategy, including streaming, live services, things like that, their attendance engagement is growing as well. Right? And I hear pastors talk about pulling video so that people will show up more. I don’t think that’s the answer. In fact, the data that we have here will say the direct opposite will happen. If you start pulling video content, likely your attendance will decrease. And so, I think it is important for us. I mean it’s a shifting culture, Amy. And as a result of that, every organization that’s trying to connect with new customers and for us as a church trying to engage new people, we have to be paying attention to video when we think about our content strategy, our strategy for engaging our communities.
Amy: 15:31 Right. Definitely. Well, as you mentioned Tony in the beginning, we have this church engagement report and it’s available on our website now. And so the quickest way for those of you who are listening to get it is by visiting the show notes page for this episode. And if you’ve already subscribed to the show notes, you’ll actually just get it in your inbox. So before we close this out, Tony, what are some other practical next steps that leaders can take?
Tony: 15:54 Yeah, yeah, definitely download the full report and take a look at the rest of the data. We’re just scratching the surface here and if you’re a numbers geek like me you’re going to love this report. In fact, there’s a discussion guide in it that we ran by some lead pastors and executive pastors to make sure that it would start a good conversation at your next staff or board meeting about how your church, will measure engagement in this next season of ministry and I’d also like to suggest you take the unstuck church assessment if you haven’t done that yet. The last time I checked we’ve had literally more than 10,000 assessments completed. It’s a free resource. It’s a very helpful resource from what we’re hearing from the churches that have taken it in the past and I think it will give you a good snapshot of where your church is currently in that life cycle.
Amy: 16:46 Yeah, it’s Tony. How does that tool, the instek church assessment actually connect to this topic of engagement?
Tony: 16:52 Yeah. It’s actually one of the first signs of moving from health to the maintenance phase of a typical church life cycle in that you become inwardly-focused as a church. And many times in our discussions around engagement, we have found you need to make sure you continue to think about reaching new people, healthy growing churches are engaging new people and the people that have already connected with the church. It’s a both and right, and you need to take those two measures together or you run the risk of getting stuck. And so the unstuck church assessment, again, it’s free. You can take it at any time. And I want to encourage you try to do that not on your own, but with your ministry team. It will help you honestly assess whether or not your church is still focused on reaching outside the walls of your ministry.
Sean: 17:43 Well, thanks for joining us today for this look at engagement in the church. Don’t forget to download the leader guide for access to the full results of the survey. You can do that at theunstuckgroup.com/episodeninety. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider leaving us a review on your favorite podcasting platform, and if you have questions about this topic or any of our episodes, use the #unstuckchurch and post them on your favorite social media channel. As always, if you’d like to learn more about how we’re helping churches get unstuck, visit us at theunstuckgroup.com.