An interview with Josie Seto, who has analysed the data of 70+ churches across Australia, and the trends she is seeing.
In 2018, Reach Australia saw a need to assess the health of churches. The team began walking alongside church leaders to help them pursue their biblical mission effectively through church consults.
Josie Seto, Church Analyst for Reach Australia, is seeing the health and challenges of 70+ churches across Australia and New Zealand by digging into their data.
Reach Australia has a vision of seeing thousands of healthy, evangelistic, multiplying churches across Australia. How do church consults help churches understand how they’re tracking?
In every church there’s a mix of theological, cultural and practical challenges that hold them back from making the most of their contexts. In this process, I’m working with churches and consultants to analyse a church’s data as a jumping off point to facilitate open conversations.
I’ll ask churches to send me the data they already collect. This includes historical attendance figures, conversion numbers, newcomer attendance, staffing ratios, the organisation’s structures, and personal reflections from pastors and elders.
It’s great to see the stats (how many are serving, how are the finances) but at its heart this is about people, not just numbers. We work with churches to understand the stories of where God is working and what it could look like to move forward.
The bulk of the church health assessment is hearing from key stakeholders in the church, facilitating a safe space to reflect and ask hard questions, and then planning for the future.
How can you know if a church is healthy just by looking at data?
Well, the short answer to that is you can get insights, but you need to be careful. Churches are about people, not data points. Communities are complex, and every church has a different history and context. The raw data is a conversation piece with church leadership, rather than a battering ram.
One of the ways we look at the data is comparing it to health snapshots from churches in similar contexts across Australia. Where there is significant deviation, consultants use that point of difference as a conversation with the church to try to interrogate reality. Sometimes there’s a contextual reason for the difference (e.g. city churches nearly always have a higher staffing ratio than regional churches), but often we find that the data points us to some hard truths about where a church might be stuck.
This can be challenging for church leaders. We find time and again when facilitators are working with churches that there is a desire to face the hard truths. They realise the enormous privilege of shepherding God’s people and of stewarding his resources, and so are willing to make difficult decisions to see the lost reached.
If we were just to push into data and metrics, do you think churches capture enough data?
On the whole, I’d say no, but it might be more accurate to say they’re not always tracking the right data or have clarity about how to interpret it.
Most churches aren’t tracking much more than the minimum their denominations require. That data may or may not reflect the things they really need to know in order to get helpful insights. How are people growing? Are they being mobilised for mission? Are the lost being reached? If those are some of our goals, we need to have enough information to know whether we’re meeting those goals.
But it’s not just having the data. It’s knowing how to use it and interpret it. Just looking at last Sunday’s church attendance first thing Monday morning could be ineffective. For something like attendance, you’re generally looking at trends over months, quarters and years.
If you’ve got the data, you can start to work out how to use it to inform decisions and planning. For example, Mike Hastie at Toongabbie Anglican Church asks his staff members to bring one piece of data to every one-to-one catch up they have with him so they can discuss it. This serves as a discussion moment around ministry in the church, and it’s a training piece for leaders to understand how to interpret data through a healthy, theological lens.
What patterns are you seeing that are encouraging?
Most churches we’re speaking with across Australia have either returned or are starting to grow past their 2019 membership numbers. It’s great to see that churches are back into a growth pattern, or at least back into whatever trend they were in before COVID.
Small groups are a strength of many churches. Our snapshot for small group participation is 75% of the total number of members. Quite commonly, churches will be exceeding that number. Small groups are a big priority for churches in Australia, which is quite different when compared to the data from American churches.
What are the biggest areas of concerns for churches?
The most confronting stat that comes back off is around mission and evangelism. On the whole, churches aren’t seeing large numbers of people come to know Jesus and moving from death to life.
A snapshot we often refer to is what we call an ‘evangelistic effectiveness’ of 5% or higher in a church. That is, for every 100 adults in the church, the hope is to see five people come to know Jesus each year. While there are a few churches which are above that, very few are hitting that number at the moment.
We know that churches want to reach people, and when facilitators are working with churches they’re grappling with the challenging question of, “What would we need to change or give up to see more people have eternal life?”
Can you give us an example of a church that faced a hard truth after looking at their data?
We were working with one church and asked for historical conversion numbers in preparation for a consult. The senior pastor asked his staff team, and it was pretty confronting for all of them when they realised that none of them could think of anyone who’d been saved in the past few years. After seeing that, and post the consult, we saw them start to prayerfully consider and implement changes in their church to see this turned around over the coming years.
Are you seeing churches implement change?
Teams will often start implementing changes as a result of the discussions they’ve had during the consult, and before they’ve even been sent a full report. A church in Melbourne we were working with realised that the seating arrangement in their church was having negative impacts on their church community, so the next Sunday they’d overhauled it. These are sometimes small changes, but together they end up having a big impact on the life of the church.
What big projects is Reach Australia working on?
We’re a national network, so we’re currently working with some of the churches in our network across Australia to see national trends. We’re partnering with Growing Healthier Churches who have already developed a platform for real time metrics in the local church. From that base we’re looking to see if network churches can feed their information anonymously (i.e. attendance, integration, conversions, serving statistics) to a larger report we’ll build and distribute so the wider church across Australia can see what’s happening in other churches and contexts, and help them make informed decisions.
What’s your hope for churches?
Our vision is to see thousands of healthy, evangelistic, multiplying churches across Australia, so my prayer is that in these churches we see gospel fruit. I want churches to have tools to help them grow, to help them be healthy, and to help them multiply. All for the sake of seeing the lost in Australia won for Jesus.
A snapshot of church health
These numbers may help spark helpful conversations.
- 5-7% growth in church attendance every year
- The median age of your congregation is equal to or lower than the median age in your local area
- If your church has 100 members, 5 people are becoming a Christian every year
- If your church has 100 members, you have 100 visitors every year
- 1 in 5 of visitors stick and become members
- 1 full-time paid staff member, or equivalent, for 65-90 members
- At least 55% of your church serve regularly
- At least 75% of your church are in small groups
- At least 60% of your church gives at least 5% of their yearly income
A guide to tracking church data
Making sense of data can be complicated. The tips below may help you find some clarity.
1. Humility in meetings helps teams to get on the same page. Data can help create an objective framework to ask hard questions and collaborate.
2. Cast vision by celebrating stories as well as encouraging metrics. Remember that whenever we talk about numbers, we’re talking about people.
- E.g. We saw 4 people say yes to Jesus this year. Let me tell you about one of them.
3. Measure what you value. Identify what matters to God and what matters to your church. Find creative ways to count these things.
- Attendance and finances are easy to track – assign responsibility to someone to make sure the records are accurate.
- Come to an agreed understanding of what you want to record as a conversion (e.g. profession of faith or baptism) and commit to recording these in a shared location.
4. Someone needs to take responsibility for the data. Without regular attention, data becomes inaccurate and out of date. Data is only helpful when it’s ‘clean’ (accurate).
- Who is the right person on your team to take responsibility?
- Do you need to raise a volunteer to own this instead?
- How will you help them understand the importance of this detailed work?
- How will you help the rest of the team work well with this person and maintain their own data well?
5. Google Sheets is free and helpful for presenting data in graphs.
6. Ask someone who knows your church database software how it could be used better.
7. Set numerical goals based on Australian data and your own data trends.
- This gives you a chance to celebrate what God has done
- This helps with regularly adapting your goals in light of a gospel vision
8. Schedule a regular goal review meeting. Reflect on the last few years of data to assess whether you’ve achieved these goals.
- Why is or isn’t this trend changing?
- What significant events/issues could have caused this change in trend?
- If resources weren’t an issue, how would we try to meet this goal?