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

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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