ERICA, Part III: What a Simple Nose Count Can (and Can’t) Tell You

October 7, 2008

In the “church growth” industry, perhaps the easiest number to come up with is a simple nose count.  Contribution level is a notoriously-bad indicator of congregational health and committment, as the number of varibales affecting the total receipts is staggering.  Likewise, any attempt to “survey” comgregational attitudes and behaviors would rely on members to self-report, and while most would probably do so honestly, there is the question of how accurately anyone knows his or her own feelings.

There is also what I call the Heisenburg Rule of Social Behavior, namely that the fact of being watched changes how people act and feel.  The goal of any research method should be to take as accurate a picture of the situation as possible, not to manipulate it into creating a result.

From a methodological standpoint, then, counting noses is about as good as it gets when it comes to data collection in churches.  But that said, “as good as it gets” should not be mistaken for “ideal.”  After all, nose counting does have its limitations.  For instance:

1) Nose-counting must be taken in context. A Sunday morning worship assembly is a completely different animal than a Wednesday night Bible study.  When collecting and analyzing data, like must be compared with like.

2) Every Sunday is a snapshot. Numbers posted in a given church bulletin provide a snapshot, much the way a single animation cel shows a single event in a cartoon.  The real story is told not by any single picture, but by how the picture changes from cel to cel.

3) All Sundays are equal, but some are more equal than others. Many churches see an attendance slump in the summer, on holiday weekends, and during off-campus youth activities.  Likewise, churches see upticks on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the major religious holidays.  Daylinght Savings Time can also create a bit of havoc with people’s schedules.  The start of the school year also brings vacationers home and gets families with kinds in the habit of getting up early.  If attendance is significantly up (or down) over last Sunday, the reason might be as simple as a change in the calendar.

ERICA is designed both to take advantage of the strengths of nose-counting and to account for its weaknesses.

1)  ERICA is a measure of rolling averages. Rather than simply collecting snapshots, ERICA watches how an average week changes over time.  ERICA is not even particularly concerned with the actual movement, but with the rate of change.  ERICA is what math people would call a “derivative index,” since its rise and fall reflect the volatility of the data rather than the raw numbers.

2)  ERICA accounts for the difference between Sunday morning assemblies and other kinds of meetings. In fact, that difference is the very premise behind ERICA.  In ERICA, we equate “investment rate” with the average percentage of Sunday morning attenders who return (or come early) for other services.  The “consumption rate,” likewise, is the percentage of people in attendance who come just on Sunday morning.

3)  ERICA is a measurement of group behavior over time, not a basis for judgment of individual actions. Church statistics are much like an impressionist painting — the closer you stand when you look at it, the less sense it makes.  It’s only when you stand back at a distance that the picture begins to make sense.  ERICA is not — I repeat, not — a way to track individual attitudes.  There are simply too many variables that can influence individual behavior.  All ERICA can do is watch how the totals move.  Likewise, ERICA measures moveemnt over time.  Conclusions drawn from its results become more reliable when it covers more time.

More to come.

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ERICA, Part II: Consumers and Investors

October 3, 2008

Imagine you are in the grocery store, looking at the peanut butter aisle.  You see all the different brands, formulations, packages, shapes, and sizes.  Your task is to pick one.  Which do you choose?

How you choose depends entirely on why you are choosing.  Some folks look at peanut butter entirely as a consumption item.  As such, they weigh the cost against the benefit.   Is the reduced-fat recipe better for me?  Is it better enough to off-set the sacrifice in taste?  Is the national brand sweet enough to be worth paying more than the price of the generic?  Which brand goes best with grape jelly?  Which brand is best for cooking?  Will I finish off the big jar before it starts to turn, or should I buy a smaller jar and pay more per ounce but throw less away? How many more miles will I have to jog to burn off the extra caloires in the better-tasting peanut butter, and is it worth the extra effort?

Cost versus benefit.  Or, in the language of sales, “What’s in it for me?”

A rare few, however, look at the peanut butter aisle with an entirely different eye.  Instead of asking only consumption questions, they are always looking for an opportunity to invest in something.  A new formula might work well in a niche market.  The price point on a generic brand might not offset the production cost.  A new bottle shape might help this brand, where a new logo might help that one.

Improvement.  Profitability.  Or, to twist around the sales language, “What’s in me for it?”

How you choose thus depends on why you are choosing.  Are you merely looking for something to consume, or are you looking for an opportunity to invest?

The same quandry faces church members as they make decisions about whether to attend a particular church assembly or function.  As they look at all the available ways they might spend that amount of time on that particular day, how they choose depends entirely on why they are choosing.

For some, the question is “What’s in it for me?”  They approach a church assembly wondering what they are going to “get.”  An inspiring sermon?  An uplifting song service?  Food?  (Don’t laugh; just look how much attendance goes up in your church on Potluck Sundays.)  For these, church and spirituality and religion are something to be consumed.  Thus, the choices they make will be based on cost vs. benefit.  If the benefit is not there, or is not present in sufficient quantities to justify the cost, they’ll simply do something else with that time.

On the other hand, you have the folks who are asking “What’s in me for it?”  They come to church not because they are looking to reap some benefit for themselves, but because they believe they have something to contribute.  They see their presence as an opportunity to serve, not to be served.  They want to help the church grow, or help save souls, or help encourage others, or whatever else.  The investors seek to give of themselves so that the church will be better off.

With ERICA, an elder or ministry leader can learn to differentiate between a consumer and an investor.  ERICA’s goal is to Evaluate the Ratio of Investors to Consumers using Attendance figures.  If you look at the right numbers, and look at them in the right way, you can tell a lot about how invested your congregation’s membership is in its growth and prosperity.  You can also get a sense of how appealing your congregation is to the consumer, and how effective it is at turning consumers into investors.

And all the data you need is probably in your church bulletin.

Next week, ERICA, Part III:  What a Simple Nose Count Can (And Can’t) Tell You


ERICA, Part I: A New Way of Looking at Church Attendance Numbers

October 2, 2008

“A statistician is someone who is good with numbers, but lacks the personality to be an accountant.”

The church growth industry is awash with numbers.  From denominational totals and growth/decline trends (most of which are dubious at best) to congregational demographic patterns to opinion and interest surveys, the focus is on posting bigger, better numbers.  The primary number most folks in the industry focus on is Sunday Morning attendance, or its equivalent.  To preachers with an ego (like, for instance, me), the idea is to find ways to put more and more people in front of them when they speak each week.  A second, and not to be overlooked, consideration is that more people in the seats means more money in the collection plate.  Investment, then, is usually in those programs and efforts that will pay off with more bodies in the pews.  “Church growth” is measured in stark terms, often on scoreboards prominently placed near the front of the church building.

The problem is, ministry leaders who are sincerely interested in the advancement of the kingdom of God know that getting the body in the seat is not the true objective.  It’s not even enough to mass-produce baby Christians; we want people to mature, develop, grow closer to God.  Likewise, as Christian communities we want to know more than who we can count.  We want to know who we can count on when times get tough.  How prepared are we, as a congregation, to deal with a crisis?  How enthusiastic are we, collectively, about advancing the cause of the Kingdom of God?

Anecdotes are abundant demonstrating the lack of correlation between congregation size and effectiveness.  Similarly, a dramatic change in congregation size — up or down — is no real indicator of what that group is now capable of or not.  The phenomena of “addition by subtraction,” “congregation surfing,” and “conversions to the preacher” among others render the question of “bigger or smaller” pretty much invalid.  Bigger is neither better or worse; it’s just more.

But that said, there is something to be learned from observing patterns of behavior.  The choices people make do, in fact tell you something about them.  Even in group settings, the size and composition of the group is a valuable piece of data regarding the group’s nature.  When that size and composition changes, very often there are clues in the data as to why the change took place.  You just have to know where to look, and what you’re really seeing.

That’s where ERICA comes in.

Named for my oldest daughter (her younger sister Katie was born 45 seconds later), ERICA is a way to measure not just how many people are coming, but when and, to some extent, why.  It evaluates not only the mass of the congregation, but also the direction.  In certain cases, it can even be “retrodictive,” allowing church leaders to pinpoint the moment in time when the warning signs of impending change began to be visible.

How does it work?  Stay tuned.

Next:  ERICA, Part II:  Investors vs. Consumers