There are a lot of helpful tools to use when trying to inspect the community around a church, but how many tools help you know the heart of your present flock? Are you ministering to:
Blue collar worker? White collar worker?
Anglo? Hispanic? Asian? African American? American Indian?
Boomer? Buster? Millennial?
Affluent? Economically stable? Financially destitute?
And the list goes on and on! Knowing who is sitting in the chairs or pews of your congregation, as well as those outside the walls of the church, is vitally important. Churches normally reach those who are similar to those within the group. So, how can we ascertain the true identity of those in our congregation? Yes, it is harder than merely gazing at the group this next Sunday. People can mislead and even lie to us every Sunday without ever intending to do so.
Congregational Analysis is a valuable tool in finding the “sweet spot” of ministry within your cultural setting. Demographics are a valuable part of this process. They disclose the broad scope of who is in the community, but do not often define the personality of those already in the building. They don’t reveal the character of the “fish” you have already caught. This tool will assist you in knowing the mind and heart of your people so you can be more effective for the Kingdom of God.
If you are into laboriously-helpful resources, I recommend Studying Congregations, edited by Nancy T. Ammerman, Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, and William McKinney. This reference work is filled with helpful information, but is like reading an encyclopedia to determine the time of day. It is definitely worthy of inspectional reading, but I found Chapter Seven: Methods for Congregational Study by Scott L. Thumma to be the most valuable for this topic.
There were some thoughts that gave way to creative additions to the research tools we were already practicing in our Church Revitalization process. From this point forward I will offer you the tools that have fit well in our toolbox for the past few years. I pray they will aid you in identifying what type of listeners you are speaking to each Sunday and how to effectively speak their language.
The Lawless Group Church Health Survey (http://www.thelawlessgroup.com/) is a written questionnaire requiring 160 responses to a myriad of subjects in an attempt to discern the strengths, weaknesses, attitudes and perceptions the congregant has of the church as a whole. It focuses on the purposes of the church and determines which purpose(s) need the most energy for the future effectiveness of the body. This is the only tool that requires a consultant. Only a certified consultant has permission to purchase and offer this tool. It is worth the cost and the exploration. The congregants get to offer their praise or concerns.
Second, and in no order of importance or significance, are personal congregant and staff interviews. Asking the same question of everyone gives a baseline that leads to clarity and truth. Studying Congregations gives some great hints for interviewing in Chapter Seven as well.
The personal interviews begin by explaining the value of the personal interview. These questions give greater clarity and definition to the survey which is raw data and information-oriented. Confidentiality is ensured. Disclosing the process of using numbers rather than names is reassuring to the respondents. Interviews are requested on the day surveys are taken. The pastor helps to gain a broad section of interviewees. Variables include male, female, age, and length of membership. Once an adequate number of interviewees set appointments the interviews begin.
The questions are: 1) How long have you been a member of this church family? 2) What brought you to this church? 3) What does this church do well? 4) What do you believe are the greatest challenges for the future of this church? 5) Are there additional challenges you sense are pressing, but are not as important at this time? 6) In your opinion, how are major decisions made in the church? 7) How is the church’s past impacting the present state of the church? 8) In a graded format the next three questions are posed (1-10 with 10 being best) How is trust between staff members? How is the trust level between congregants? How would you rate the overall morale of the church?
Finally, if this church were a restaurant, what restaurant would it be and why? If it were a color, what color would it be and why? If you could choose a preaching message or topic you would like hear, what would be the message/topic and why? What question have I not asked that you thought I would/should? What is the answer to that question?
The responses to the interviews are combined with the raw data of the survey in the report presented to the church at the Congregational Workshop.
Next are observations and evaluations. These are not for the purpose of being critical or negative. Observations are to help the church make a great first impression and to correct things that may be a distraction or “turn off” to new guests. Observing the worship service can be the most arduous and invasive. Pastors and staff rarely like to think of their work as needing adjustment or enhancement, but we all need positive correction or reinforcement. The entire worship event is examined and adjustments are offered from the start time to the final benediction prayer. Sound, lighting, music, announcements, offering, sermon, invitation, etc. are all examined. No stone is left unturned. Nothing here is sacred or untouchable. The first three are segments of our “Windshield Observation.”
Facilities – sidewalks, parking lots, bathrooms, wall decorations, room sizes, floor coverings, nursery cleanliness, child safety, etc. are all placed under the microscope to determine if they are helpful or hurtful to the growth of the church. I have seen walls that are in need of a fresh coat of paint and base boards that have a thick layer of dust and lint. God’s house is expected to be clean and safe. Let’s make an extra effort to lift up the Lord and His meeting place with His Bride so people are turned to Him and not turned off by us!
Parking – it is a statistical fact; once parking lot spaces are filled to about 80%, guests and irregular attendees feel they are intruding and will turn around and exit the lot. We should provide adequate parking and safe parking. Guest parking should be easily seen and Handicap spaces should lead safely to the main entrance. Be sure that you provide clear directions to these special parking areas. They should be near the “Welcome Center”. Just a note of irritation to me - if you have a designated “Pastor Parking,” put it in the back lot. Guests should be given the best spots and remind your congregation of this often!
The traffic flow should be easily maneuvered, especially if you have multiple services. Adequate time between services to exchange cars safely is a must. I have been to some multi-service churches where the lot is as safe as walking across the Indianapolis racetrack on race day. Offer plenty of time for the exchange of cars between services. What you don’t see outdoors is inviting frustration and anger to enter the sanctuary. Remember, there is indoor traffic to contend with as well! Crowds are exciting, but they can also become frustrating. How well do you like someone invading your private space at the theater? Point made!
Signage – do your signs reflect your congregation? Are they old and rusty or are they bright and inviting? Can guests navigate your lot and buildings without needing a GPS? Is guest parking clearly designated? Are the buildings marked for unchurched guests? What does “Building B” mean to a new guest? Nothing of course! Try using terminology that everyone will recognize (Worship Center; Youth Center; Children’s Building; Preschoolers, etc.). Make sure signs on roads and highways are kept free of weeds, vines, and obstructions. If they need new lettering or paint, do not wait until you get a call from Code Enforcement before you do something about the condition of your signage. People often judge a church by its social media presentation and signage. Give paramount effort to putting your best foot (sign) forward!
While we’re on the subject of signs – how definitive are your interior signs? Can someone locate the necessary areas of interest (Worship venue; nursery; children’s area; RESTROOMS)? Have you ever observed retail stores and how they offer copious signs to major areas of need? And, have you ever scorned the grocery store that has inadequate signage? WHERE ARE THE CRACKERS? Let’s learn from what we deem desirable and what we loathe.
Technology – many churches have opted to use Facebook instead of a web page. This is acceptable if you remember the vital information that must be a part of any social media site (service times, address, office email, phone number, etc.). Having a Facebook page that is filled with sweet sayings and Christian videos is nice but doesn’t really draw the unchurched to a point of salvation or involvement. Being genuine about who the church is and what type of ministries you offer is imperative. Churches that promise a high-energy, innovative worship experience and don’t deliver on Sunday are deceptive. We must never present ourselves or our church as something bigger or better than we regularly deliver. Yelp is a way to advertise similar to an online Yellow Page ad. Of course, every social media system has good aspects as well as the questionable ones. Be careful and monitor your site often. Twitter is a good way to keep people up to date on what is happening at your church. With Twitter, the rule of thumb is “Brief is better.” You can tell too much! The key questions to ask a healthy social media are: 1) Does it have a valuable purpose? 2) Does it speak genuinely about who we are and why we are here? 3) Can users gain clear information about our organization? 4) Does it honor the Lord and draw others to Him?
Security Protocol – Having clear, well-described safety plans and processes are critical. Are children checked in and checked out securely? If not, research processes that other churches use and have proven to be safe and successful. Do you have an active-shooter strategy? How are your facility and parking areas secured when services are in progress? Here are a few things to consider: 1) When a crisis occurs who is the voice of authority? 2) Do all workers have to submit to a background check? If not, why! 3) Do you have an emergency action plan? Who calls 9-1-1? 4) Are your greeters and security team members trained in how to de-escalate a suspicious or hostile individual in a non-threatening way? 5) Do you have emergency response personnel and supplies? The worst plan Is NO plan.
Secret Shopper Evaluations – inviting three to five couples/families, unknown to the members of the church, to visit a struggling congregation on several consecutive Sundays can give you a strong picture of the church’s attitude and normal function. The shoppers must go with the recognition that they will need to detail their experience. Ask them to write down impressions of their visit. Have them fill out a short survey about features they felt revealed quality ministry and what they sensed needed adjustment to be a contender for a return visit. Try to use groups representing multiple generations and some with children and/or youth. This is not to criticize the church concerning their style of worship or ministry, but is about the church’s presentation, practices, morale and policies. They will record what they enjoyed and what distracted them or turned them off.
Community Interviews – I love this part! Talking to people in the area surrounding the church divulges oodles about the church’s reputation or lack thereof. The interviews are best performed on Sunday as that is the time others will be searching for the church. I train 2-3 church members to go with me to ask the questions (only one gets out of the car with me to ask the questions). Once I had a church member in a Congregational Workshop accuse me of fabricating answers. She almost called me a liar! I do it this way so the members hear directly what the community is saying about their church. The questions are posed to people who would normally be approached by travelers looking for a specific location (gas station attendant; quick stop cashier; fast food worker; grocery store cashier; donut shop sales person; etc.). There are three simple non-threatening questions? 1) “Can you tell me how far I am from name of town/city?” 2) “I am actually looking for a church located in that town. It’s called name of church, do you know where it is?” 3) “Have you ever heard of the church, or know anything about it?” Make sure you leave your smartphone in the car or they’ll ask why you don’t just Google it on your phone. I once had a college-age female employee in a donut shop go get her smart phone and look up the church. She wasn’t even aware it was just 2 blocks away – and it was a huge facility! One church member was in tears when she asked about the reputation of her church and found the community thought they were unkind to new guests.
Church Documents/Promo Materials – I worked with a church that had the church meeting times in their Constitution. They couldn’t adjust their service time without a two-week, notified meeting and a seventy-five percent affirmative vote. That’s crazy! Constitutions are the non-negotiables, the hard-to-change issues (Who the church is; What is the purpose; Statement of beliefs; governance; How to amend; Dissolution). Bylaws are easier to change because they represent function (affiliations; how to join; how to break fellowship; staffing and workers; committees/teams; officers; meetings; format for business; etc.). Make sure the documents free up the church and not place it in bondage.
Finally, the Congregational Workshop – this is a church-wide, interactive event. Everyone who wants a voice for the future good of the church should show up! The elements of the workshop include:
“A Healthy Church” presentation
The survey findings (previously disclosed to the pastor and staff)
A History of the World – a timeline and discussion
The History of the church – also on the timeline; recognizing how the world has affected the church
Discussion of Values or Purpose - developing a fusion of ideas
Unpacking the areas of Greatest Need
Showing what offers the Best Hope for the Future
Detecting probable Barriers to Success
Gathering possible solutions to the Barriers
Sending the discoveries to the Church Revitalization Team
Gathering these tools, together with a strong demographic package, will aid you in gaining a clear picture of the environmental, sociological and cultural mindset normally found within the walls of your worship center. May these tools help you reach those who have yet to experience your church’s Kingdom ministry. We better understand our congregation by listening to their heart. May your entire church family thrive in helping others experience His salvation!
Tracy W. Jaggers, M.Div.