Data-Infused Learning for 21st Century Ministry

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by Chris Fletcher

The local church has always sought to know the people that attend that local church every weekend. Who are they? Are they coming back next week? Is there a “thing” that we do that helps retain guests? How did they find out about us anyway? These questions race through the minds of pastors across the nation and there have emerged countless ways to track, analyze, and even action-step seemingly every piece of data.

Manna Church in Fayetteville/Ft. Bragg has been working with GLOO to begin to catalyze learning around the messages our church members are sending us every week. We have studied everything from how likely church members are to invite their friends, to how satisfied they are with their marriages, even to how likely they are to need help in breaking dependence on prescription drugs. You’re probably saying, “YES!! Sign me up for some of that data-analytics stuff!!”


Before you begin your data-enrichment journey, which I HIGHLY endorse, let me begin by outlining the two big points you must consider:

1. My data journey began when I embarked on the MA in Christian Leadership with Manna University. Shameless plug? You’re on the Manna University blog, for goodness sake!! I was given the tools to consider the power of good qualitative research and how to conduct it properly along with how to let the data drive my assumptions.

2. Which leads nicely to finding a partner who can help you create quantitative metrics leveraging the data that people are willing to give you. A word of caution, Manna Church DOES NOT and NEVER WILL data mine – we get data people CHOOSE to give us and that’s where the line needs to be drawn and stay. People control their data and share it with those who they trust and are free to REVOKE that trust. For us, this is found in the fine folks at GLOO. Leveraging a platform built on open-source data, we are able to aggregate our learnings with those found outside the four walls of our church and make well-informed decisions.


Now, I know what you’re thinking…… “This is the local CHURCH we are talking about, and we were meant to be guided by the person of the Holy Spirit and the pastor.” I could not agree with you more!! It’s very important to note data’s place at the table of our decision-making process and that can be found in a three-pronged approach to data-infused learning within the local church.

1. The Holy Spirit is in charge. Threw you a curve? Let’s not forget that our spirit (I am a trichomist, but don’t let that throw you) is made alive by the person of the Spirit, a member of the Trinity, and that living and active connection is the FIRST place that we start in our decision-making. We don’t pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance because we’ve run out of good ideas – He had better ideas than you did to START!!

2. Gut. The gut, according the author of “bible” on qualitative research Stephen K. Yin, is a valid source of data. At Manna Church, we have been led by one of the best “gut” leaders I have ever met – my father, Michael Fletcher. Sometimes, I wonder if his “gut” and point 1’s “connection to the Holy Spirit” are getting mixed up, but I digress. The “gut” is your observation and conclusion reached from observable phenomena that is processed in your “knower.” It’s the “gut” that allowed Peyton Manning to stand behind the line and just “feel” that the defense was soft on the left side and throw a bullet that took his team to victory.

3. Data that people allow you “harvest.” Data isn’t the only source for our decisions, but it MUST have a seat at the table. Our connection to the Holy Spirit still has to be processed through our fallen souls and our guts can also become very hungry leaving data to help us determine “what is ACTUALLY going on here?” Data can be found from guest cards, number of cars in the parking lot, Facebook likes/shares/comments, survey cards, children’s check-ins, etc etc. What’s important to note, is that ALL of this information (100%) was granted to you and not mined. As the church, our responsibility is to model the “best way” and that will never include shady practices of tricking people out of their data.


Scripture says that a “three-chord strand is not easily broken” and this is the same when making decisions. Enjoy the journey of learning about the people in the local church because they are the commodity for which God gave His only Son – Jesus. The thing that should get you the most amped about a data journey is NOT to grow a bigger church, but to leverage learnings to eliminate people’s roadblocks to spiritual formation. The more we KNOW people, the more we can HELP people find Jesus and the power offered by the Holy Spirit to walk out Galatians 5:16: “Live by the spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature…..” Let’s change the world.