The data driven church

A whopping 153 large fish suddenly filled the disciples’ empty nets once they’d slung them over the other side of the boat. Judas gave up Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. And 22,000 oxen and 12,000 sheep were sacrificed to the Lord at the completion of the temple.

The Bible is full of numbers. And they count.

Then there are other numbers. 59.3% of UK people ticked a box that identified them as a Christian in the 2011 Census. Across the country 813 Methodist churches closed between 2008-2013, while 1,937 new churches of smaller denominations opened. And an estimated 50,000 – 70,000 Christians are in North Korean labour camps right now because of their faith, expecting to die before being released.

Some numbers are meaningless and offer no insights. Some are interesting. And some demand us to act.

The world is getting excited about numbers – or rather, data. Steps per day. Calories. Retweets. Likes. Tesco points. Ebay feedback ratings. Search engine optimization. If you’re in the UK, you have already been classified by Experian into one of 15 groups, based on more than 450 pieces of data about you. This information is then sold to a range of companies who might want to sell you their products.

They say data is the new oil. But what does that mean for the church?

The number of people who respond to an ‘altar call’ or ‘pray the prayer’. Baptisms. Church members. Sunday service attendance. You could say the church has already got a fairly established set of indicators to measure its perceived success or effectiveness. But I think it’s time we used much more data to inform what we do and how we do it.

I followed the Christian Twittersphere with interest following the Bishop of Burnley’s comments at New Wine recently. The Rt Rev Philip North criticised the way the Church of England has focused on the needs of the wealthy, stating that “the poorer you are, the less the church values you.”

Few seemed to disagree that this is a general pattern, and that those other churches better get their act together.

It’s prompted me to roll my sleeves up and do some number crunching. To see what’s going on beyond the Church of England. My day-job involves looking at data and finding trends that provide actionable insights. So, that’s my intention with this blog. To dig out data not currently easy to find and use it to help, encourage and challenge the church to action. Data that counts. Stay tuned.

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