What Digital Ministry Really Looks Like (Part 2)
How important is data and what role should data play in your ministry strategy?
In part two of our series on What Digital Ministry Really Looks Like, we sat down to talk with the team from Sun Valley Church about the data they are tracking, how they are measuring attendance, and whether their digital strategies are affecting their in-person attendance numbers.
Paul Alexander, the Executive Pastor at Sun Valley Community Church, and Mika Casey, their Digital Strategies Lead Director, join me and Amy Anderson once again to talk through practical questions around digital ministry strategy including:
- What should churches focus on and measure?
- Should you be data-driven or data-informed?
- Can churches opt-out of digital ministry strategies and just focus on in-person ministry?
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Download our FREE resource The Ultimate Guide to Digital Ministry Strategy.
- Why Your Discipleship Path Is More Important Than Ever
- Need help? Let’s talk. If you need help with your digital ministry strategy and structuring your staff to support it, take a look at our Strategic Planning Process for Digital Ministry.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be unstuck church. On last week’s podcast, we kicked off a two-part conversation to dive into a real life example of a church that’s building and executing a digital ministry strategy. This week, Tony and Amy are once again joined by Paul Alexander and Mika Casey from Sun Valley Church for a conversation about the data they’re tracking, how Sun Valley is measuring attendance and whether their digital strategies are affecting their in-person attendance numbers. Make sure before you listen today, though, to stop and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. Every week, you’ll get one email with our leader conversation guide, all of the resources we mentioned during the episode and access to our podcast resource archive. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony, Amy and the team from Sun Valley for today’s conversation.
Well, Tony, last week we kicked off a great conversation with the guys from Sun Valley church in Phoenix, Paul and Mika. And we had so much to talk about, we actually had to cut it off early. So we’re going to pick it up now with the questions around data or data. However you say it.
That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. I say data. You say data. Tomato, tomato. I don’t know what it is either. But yeah, I opened the conversation here by asking Paul about the importance of data. Not only as it’s driving digital strategy at Sun Valley, but how it’s impacting their overall ministry strategy. I just wanted to see what role does data have in the ministry of Sun Valley Church. And here’s what Paul had to say.
Let me say this on the front end of that, Tony. However, I know the data conversation has been elevated in church world in recent years. And particularly with COVID, it’s accentuated that. Data’s not King. Jesus is King, okay? Data informs us and helps us make decisions. We’re not data-driven. We’re data informed. Okay. However data is very important to us, and we’ve tracked things like baptisms, how many kids are in our kids’ ministry, how many students are in our student ministry, how many people are in groups, how many volunteer leaders we have, ratios to attendance. We’ve done that for a long time to measure health. And, you know, at the end of the day, we want to know if we’re being successful in stewarding the gospel that Jesus has entrusted to us. And if you’re not keeping score, how do you know if you’re winning? And, man, life is too short to lose at this game. This is a heaven and hell game. This is about eternity. It’s not just about getting a bunch of people in a room and feeling good about, wow, this is great to have a bunch of people in the room. I feel deeply responsible to help people meet Jesus and get to know him and follow him. And if we can’t measure that, my goodness, that’s scary. So, it probably is, you know, wrapped up in some of the responsibility I feel to steward the gospel well and what Jesus has entrusted to us. And so, yeah, we’re chasing data all the time, and now we’re investing so much time and energy into digital platforms. That elevates a whole new layer of data for us. And some of it’s really interesting and some of it’s actionable. If it’s not actionable, we try not to listen to it.
Yeah. I want to go there in a minute, but, Paul, one thing that you just said, well, I’ll reflect on it. You’ve made an investment in this digital strategy team. And so what I hear you saying is we need to be data informed because we don’t want to waste those resources on things that are not working. We need to have enough information to know do we keep going after this, or do we have to pivot and try something new? Is that what you’re saying?
I don’t think it’s any different, Amy, than the church out there that really hasn’t adopted a digital strategy yet. If they’re still spending 50 to 60 cents on the dollar on staffing at their church, that’s a tremendous investment. What’s the ROI on that? What’s the cost to actually get somebody in the room? What’s the cost to actually help people meet Jesus?
On a webinar, we did a webinar we did recently. I was talking to one pastor afterwards and he actually said, you know, when you guys talk about measuring things, you know, and having goals, don’t gloss over that. There are so many churches that don’t have any data right now. They aren’t tracking or chasing any goals. They’re just doing ministry. And that was a surprise for me because my whole experience, the team that I was on, we were data informed as well. So pastors, if you’re out there, you don’t know what your goals are, you don’t know what the wins look like, start there before you launch a digital strategy. Otherwise you might just be losing some money, but Mika, speaking of data, I never know if I should say data or data. Tony’s always a data person. Other people are data. I’m kind of down the line. So, but Paul shared with Tony and me some reports showing how people are engaging your online content. So what are you learning in this early run that will shape your future digital strategies?
Sure. So there’s a lot I could talk about, but we did a really deep dive into our online message. We looked at the first five part series that we did this year, not just views on different channels, but also the average view time, the retention curve, which means when are people tuning in, when are they closing out? And we found a lot of really interesting information from that. So for example, for our live services, which are on church online, YouTube live and also Facebook live, the curve was very much the same. So there was a buildup in the audience through the pre-hosting and worship all the way to the sermon. Then that would kind of stay steady until the message was done. But the view times, the average view times were very different based on platforms. So on church online, it was 47 minutes. So they were catching, you know, pretty much — our average message is about 30 minutes right now — so they were actually watching, you know, the pre-hosting and staying for the worship. YouTube live was much less, it was 32 minutes. And so to that, I should say, you know, we learned that let’s make sure that the most important thing that we want our pre-hosts to say is set at the last part is part of hosting when the audience has kind of peaking before the service starts. But then also keep our format. I think there was a question, you know, should we go to less songs, you know, are people watching the same length online as they would in person? And the answer was yes. In the live format, they are. But we also learned that 45% of our views were on demand through YouTube or the app. And that audience was scrubbing. We could tell based on the data data we saw from YouTube and also the average view time, they were skipping the worship music, even though we were making it available and going right to the message. So from that we learned, let’s only upload the sermon to YouTube for on-demand viewing, and let’s cut right to the hook. So if there’s any kind of, hey, hope you all had a great weekend or any kind of introduction, let’s go right past that and get right to something that’s going to, you know, engage the viewer so we don’t lose them, because we were seeing when we looked at that curve, that a lot of people were dropping off in that really the first couple seconds. So just some editing things that, you know, cater to the audience, that’s consuming that content.
That is gold, Mika. That’s gold.
Yeah, but it didn’t really take a lot, you know, it’s really just looking at the data you have. I mean, if you’re on YouTube, you have that access to those same analytics, not any kind of special tool. We also noticed there was a 6% drop rather each week the series went on. So in that five-part series. And if you think of it, kind of, as people watch TV shows, or well, I guess now we consume a lot, consume them a lot differently, but when they actually used to air on TV broadcast, you know, the longer a show went, the more seasons that went in, the viewers would kind of gradually drop off because it was hard for someone who said, well, I didn’t see the first few. I don’t think I can jump in now. So I don’t think we’re necessarily going to change the length of the series we do, but we did change our naming on YouTube so that each message kind of stands alone. It’s not, you know, January Series, Part Three. It’s the title of the message because anyone can gain something from that, even if they haven’t caught the first two. So just changing that name around, I think, might change how many views we get, for example.
I think this is a really good example of, a really good tangible example, of being data informed. So people are saying stuff to us all the time and, Tony, you and I have had this conversation in the past that, by what people are clicking on on our website, what they’re clicking off of, what they’re watching and what content they’re interacting with, they’re saying something to us in what they want. They’re telling us what they want. Most churches just simply aren’t listening. They’re not taking the time to look at the data, follow the clicks and see what people actually want. Ultimately know what they need is Jesus, but if we can connect their want to what Jesus provides, that’s what we’re trying to get to is life change. And so, as we’re able to look at what actually happened over that teaching series in the month of January. We all had hypothesis of what we were going to find. I was surprised. I was really surprised. I thought that people were just like going to go right to the sermon. And that was it. And when the data showed me I was wrong, people were actually watching the entire thing, I was completely shocked.
Yeah. To recap that, the live experience, when they commit to that on whatever platform it is, they’re all in from beginning to end, including the worship and the message and everything it sounds like. But on demand, they’re looking for something specifically. And so how you’re delivering the content in those different platforms, the data is helping you make better decisions there. So Mika, you kind of alluded to this. I mean, the amount of data connected to digital strategies, it is endless. I mean, this is, just the Google analytics behind how people are visiting our websites and what they’re interacting. I mean, it could just go on and on and on and on. So this is, because of that, I think this is one of the primary questions we’ve been getting from churches is how do we know we’re winning? And behind that question is what should we be measuring then to know we are winning. So what encouragement would you give to other churches on among all that data, where maybe should they be focused?
Sure. So I would say look at the metrics channel by channel and help inform decisions on each of those respectively. One of the things we’re trying to do, so we don’t have to look so many places, is our team is learning some business intelligence software so we can do things like combining rock data with YouTube or Google analytics and have a dashboard that we can look at that combines all that for us. So that’s a little bit of legwork, but it’s a great investment in the future. But just speaking of high level, you know, digitally, one of the best places to look at is, are we getting new records, even if that’s just an email. So, you know, engaging in content is great, but are we actually making a connection out of that? What are we doing with those? That’s even an opportunity we’ve discovered is, you know, we can be engaging with those people in a way we haven’t been today. Certainly things like views matter, but what counts as a view? You know, as we did that series study, each platform had a different amount of time before they counted a view as a view. So Facebook counted a view if you viewed it for one second. So if you’re just scrolling through your Facebook feed, you know, that’s like driving by a church, I’ve heard someone say, so, you know, I don’t think that really should count. And to get some of the information, even from church online, I had to dig into the raw data and throw out all the zeros because I didn’t want those people just clicking in and out to skew the numbers of the people that were actually watching at least a minute, I felt like, so we could make an informed decision. But more importantly, and Paul referenced this earlier, but you know, what direction is your data moving in and what is our goal? So, you know, every behind every number is a person and the story. So as long as we’re growing that appropriately, you know, by channel, I don’t want to give specific percentages because they’re all different, but that’s really the end goal. And then a lot of the metrics that I want to look at, but we aren’t yet, are traditional things but in an online context, so online groups, baptisms, other next steps, like I mentioned, but if we aren’t doing anything different today, that’s not really data worth looking at until we’ve actually done something that’s going to change those numbers. So we can look at all this data, but if we’re not doing anything to change it, it’s not worth looking at, and I’ll just give you one quick example. You know, we just did a bunch of advertising for Easter. We put mailers out there, we’re doing online advertising. So, as a part of that, we’re looking at how many RSVPs we’re getting to our Easter services. We even have a pixel on there for our online ads, so we can see how many of those online ads actually turned into reservations. So that’s just a tangible example of, okay, now we’re doing something specific. So let’s measure the outcome of what we’re doing so it can help better inform us the next time we do this.
Paul, speaking of metrics, does Sun Valley use a multiplier to estimate online attendance? I’m kind of hoping your answer is no, but either way, I’d like to hear why or why not you’re using a multiplier.
Yeah, that’s a good question, Amy. A lot of people use all kinds of different multipliers, and I’ve heard all kinds of numbers thrown around this year, particularly with COVID or this last year. We don’t use a multiplier. Bottom line for us, I’m not sure it really gets us anywhere. It might make us feel better because it accentuates the number. It’s like all pastors love to be in a big, full room and it feels really good. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really solve anything for us, and to get that number real accurate, it’s kind of a waste of time. There’s no ROI on it.
Well, speaking of online attendance and how that impacts physical attendance, Paul, one of the big questions I know pastors had pre-pandemic was related to how online church might impact attendance at physical gatherings. And I’m curious to hear from what you’ve learned, was that a valid concern? Is it still a valid concern today? And do you think churches will have a choice going forward? Can they choose to opt out of digital strategies and still continue to thrive in the future?
Okay. I think you asked like three or four questions in there. Okay. So I’ll forewarn your listeners here. I have some pretty strong feelings about this, and so I can have a tendency to overstate things a little bit to move the needle and move things in a particular direction. I feel like it’s almost the wrong question. It’s almost like, okay, the printing press was just invented, and we can actually put the Bible into people’s hands, and we’ve got a bunch of church leaders deliberating about, well, should we give them the Bible or shouldn’t we give him the Bible? What if we give him the Bible and they do something like all wonky with it? You know what I mean? I feel like that’s the conversation we’re having here, man. So it’s like, come on, you know, is it more important to have a bunch of people in a room or is it more important to have a bunch of people on? The answer again that comes up is yes. We’re trying to help as many people as we can meet, know and follow Jesus. And do you think in the room, count Amazon. I mean, they’ve purchased a couple of box stores recently, right? Do you think in the store sales matter to Amazon? Oh, of course they do. Do you think online sales matter to Walmart? Of course they do. So, I just think it’s the wrong space for us to be spending time and energy. It’s just a method, you alluded to that earlier in the conversation, Tony, it’s just a delivery mechanism for the gospel. I mean, there was a point in time where if you wanted to be a missionary, you packed all your belongings in a coffin, got on a boat that was powered by wind, and you sailed to a distant land and you lived and died there. Now you can get on the internet, my dad interacts with people through a ministry he’s a part of all over the world, answering questions via email. And he’s introducing people to Jesus all over the planet from his living room. And he’s 70-something years old, man. And he’s probably reaching more people with the gospel today than he was, you know, when he was leading in a church, you know? So yeah, I can kind of keep going on with that, but you asked three or four questions in there. I’m not sure I answered any of it.
Yeah. So what about the pastor that is concerned about physical attendance? Are you learning anything about what’s happening online? Because of what you’re doing online, are fewer people showing up or more people showing up? Does it matter?
To cut to the chase, for the pastor who’s concerned and says, man, if I invest time and energy into this online deal, will people stop coming to church? Will they choose to stop coming in person? And will they just opt in for something that’s more convenient so I can watch it online. And, you know, the fear is underneath there are they going to move further away from Jesus? Are they going to move further away from Jesus’s people? Are they gonna treat their relationship with Jesus as something that’s just a convenience factor and not take it as seriously as perhaps they once did? We have not seen any evidence that would support that view. There’s not a data point that we’ve found anywhere that will support that view. If anything, we’ve actually found the opposite to be true. Last year when COVID happened, we doubled down on a couple of things really fast, our online service, we did a lot of improvement to that, we did a midweek prayer gathering online, and we did video devotions every single day of the week, Monday through Friday. And essentially that was a key product, if you want to talk about it in that kind of a language. It was, how do we keep our people already engaged with Sun Valley continuously engaged? And it worked. As people are beginning to come back and regather physically in person, some of our online service numbers are actually going down. Our on demand hasn’t changed, but there’s a couple of services in particular that we found there that online attendance is beginning to drop as in-person attendance is beginning to increase. So, there’s a good, good relationship to that. Now that also is further evidence that we probably haven’t done a great job yet of reaching new people with the gospel through our online medium. And I think that’s probably true of most churches if they’re really honest with themselves. They’re probably not reaching new people. They’re probably keeping their people or even other church shoppers engaged.
You know, one of the things Tony asked was, do you think churches that choose to opt out of digital strategies will thrive in the future?
No. No, I don’t. I think to ignore this digital space and this world that we’re living in is to ignore people. It’s not to ignore a method. You’re ignoring people. People aren’t becoming less accustomed to screens. People aren’t engaging with digital content a little less. And if we don’t meet people where people are, I think we’re missing the opportunity to introduce them to Jesus. And so, yeah, for the church who says, we’re just going to be in person, because, you know, that’s what matters most to us. I think they’re making a decision about the future of that church. And that church is eventually going to stop reaching people.
Mika, to wrap up this conversation, I’m going to admit I’m not a good predictor of the future, so I don’t have that gift. Maybe you do. I’m hoping you do. What does the future of the church using digital ministry strategies look like? Do you have a sense of what the future holds for us?
So I wouldn’t call myself a great predictor of the future, but I do have some good intuitions from time to time. You know, I’d say, you know, we’re all in a time of transition right now, the whole world is, and, you know, people don’t like that feeling of uncertainty. You know, that will pass, but the world is becoming kind of more isolated. And just the pace of the world, the news cycle, social media, I think that’s causing a lot of people more anxiety than they’re used to. We know that God never changes throughout that. We know we need him, and we know that we need one another in relationship, but a lot of people out there don’t. So, you know, we need to keep uploading, keep experimenting with different methods, but at some point I really think we’re going to need to increase the level of kind of connection and online community with our congregation or even across congregations, you know, different churches working together. You know, one of the platforms I think of is YouVersion. You know, a lot of us have that Bible app. You know, they’re just kind of scratching the surface, but, you know, we can make friends on there. We can share what Bible plans each one another’s reading. You know, maybe there’s a day and age where AI will anticipate, you know, what Bible plans we should be reading.
But, but what I’d really see, and I don’t know how far down the line this is, but I really think, you know, churches at some point are going to have to come together. And in some ways we are, but you know, kind of sharing resources and these connection points to kind of band together. I mean, you know, we’re really unique in the world that we aren’t really competing with one another. We all have the same mission. So our biggest asset is really one another. And I hope that we can continue to kind of band together to advance God’s kingdom in maybe ways we haven’t even thought of today.
All right. Mika, Paul, thank you so much for joining us for this very helpful conversation. I mean, it really, over these last number of months, I’ve been so proud of the church broadly and the way that the church has pivoted during this season. I know not every church, but for the most part, I mean, churches have really taken advantage what was a very challenging situation and looked at the opportunity to continue to extend the gospel message, to continue to connect with people, help people take their next steps toward Jesus, and leverage the technology that I really believe God has placed before us to be able to extend the mission he’s called us to as a church. And so thank you, too, for the lead that Sun Valley is taking. You’re really leaning into this opportunity and making some investment that I know there’s a risk associated with this, but your sense is if we make this investment and continue to steward the opportunity that we have well, that God’s going to provide incredible connection with people and encouragement for people to take their next steps toward Jesus. So thank you for leading the way for churches by making that investment too.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you’re sensing that your church could use a clear plan and a digital strategy to reach new people and help everyone grow as disciples, we can help. We’ve partnered with dozens of churches over this past year to help them clarify their plan. If you’re interested in learning more about how your church can thrive online, visit us at theunstuckgroup.com/digital. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.