I recently read an article published in 2014 that was probably ahead of its time, called Big Data and the 21st Century Church. In this article Michael D. Gutzler outlines – you guessed it – how Big Data can be used for good in the 21st century church.

What is Big Data in a Church Context?

You probably use a ChMS at your church. If you do not use one, I’d recommend planning center because it is priced based on the size of your church. No, I don’t get any kickbacks from them, though that would be awesome. Once you are using a ChMS you are recording several important data points: attendance, volunteering, personal information, giving and personal development.

Using Big Data at Church to Track Commitment

You may be familiar with Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, and the circles of commitment that he describes (If not see this article). The basic idea is that a person who is physically near your church would be a part of the “community”, a person who has any sort of connection to your church would be the “crowd”, a person who is involved would be included in the “congregation circle”, a person who is highly involved and possibly in low-level leadership is a part of the “committed circle”, and finally a person who is one of the leaders that is critical to the church’s mission and workings is a part of the “core circle”. See the chart below from the article previously mentioned:

circles of commitment church

You may or may not add a circle for those that your church has sent out to begin a new church or ministry somewhere else and call them the “commissioned.” The whole idea of thinking about these circles of commitment at your church is to focus on moving people toward the next level of commitment (not because that saves them – but because the hope is that moving them to a new level indicates a step in maturity in following Jesus for that person. Obviously, this isn’t a scientific fact, but it is a useful idea).

So What is New with Big Data and the Church?

Up to this point, Gutzler’s Article is basically a summary of previous ideas. But he goes on to suggest that we use the “Big Data” that your church has already to clearly delineate these circles of commitment.

Gutzler suggests that we don’t just look to assign people to the “crowd” because they attend weekly – most people don’t do that anymore! He suggests looking at the attendance data for everyone that you have, and then finding the average amount that your families attend. For now, let’s say it’s 50% of the time. So, then your crowd would include anyone who is there 50% of the time or more. For your specific church, it may be higher or lower – context will dictate the outcome.

He goes on to suggest that when defining the “congregation” we look for more than just an average attendance. Instead we start to include other categories as well. Those data points might be giving, small group attendance, some sort of service, or something else. You’ll come up with a way of deciding a baseline that moves people from the “crowd” to the “congregation”.

Next, Gutzler suggests that difference between the “congregation” and the “committed” is basically the frequency of the data points. For example, you might define the “congregation” as someone who gave at least once in the past 12mo, attended ½ the time, and attended at least one group in the past year. But, the “committed” might be someone who gave more than 4 times in the past year, attended more than 60% of the time, and attended group meetings monthly (these are made up stats).

Finally, Gutzler suggests that for a person to move to the “core” category. These might be the people who fit all the criteria for the “committed” level plus a wild-card data point such as being in a leadership position. To be clear, the difference for people between the “committed” and the “core” might be the difference between being a small group member and a small group leader. Maybe it’s the difference between serving at outreach events and leading outreach events. Measuring people at this level becomes a little more subjective because you have to be intentional about identifying the wild-card data points that differentiate between the “committed” and the “core” as you go along in real life. So I may not have a data point that differentiates someone who leads an outreach from someone who attends an outreach. But I know as a minister that there is a difference. So, at that point I would do well to create a data point in my system that reflects that difference.

What’s the Point of using Big Data in Your Church

The point of knowing what circle someone is in is not that we can look down on others because we are more committed. No! It’s so that we can provide appropriate pastoral care. Let me leave you with two examples. First, when someone calls your church, your receptionist can quickly know if the person on the phone needs to be patched through immediately even if its an interruption (what I would expect personally for someone who is in the committed or core category), or if they should take a message and let me know at a later time (for someone who is in the community or crowd level of commitment). Another example might be that I have a need for a volunteer leader in my area. Knowing if a person is already in leadership in another ministry area (in the “core” group) helps me know not to look at them. Instead, I can look for someone who is in the “committed” circle so that I’m asking the person to take a step of faith rather than stealing someone else’s leader.

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Over the past few months this post has become a one of my most read. I’ve published several other posts on the topic. You can also read “Using Big Data in a Local Church” and “Big Data Ideas for Church” to catch you up on my ideas. My latest one is called “Church KPI Dashboard.”

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Do you have any questions or comments? Please feel free to leave them below. Are you in the North Texas area, and want to hang out sometime – maybe grab coffee? Email me at jallison@greenwoodbc.com and we’ll get together!

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