You know that feeling in your chest where you suddenly realize that He's at it again—that God is at work in your heart and in your soul—orchestrating each and every moment? He's there with you whispering in your ear.

All you need to do is be still and listen...

Research inspired by the Spirit

A few weeks ago I had one of those moments. We had just finished our second design sprint at STN. We'd tested with 12 members of the congregation. We uncovered this one big idea and wanted to know if the idea resonated other church leaders.

The next big milestone was to understand whether other church leaders experienced the same problems we did at STN and whether they valued the problems in the same way...

So, in true lean startup fashion, we decided to run two more design sprints. For the first sprint, we recruited six church leaders from across the UK to speak with us about the obstacles they face growing church in the digital age.

Hearing from leaders of resourced churches

The exercise wasn't intended to produce statistically significant results, but rather to generate qualitative insights about the problems our potential customers face and the priorities they hold.

We presented a list of problems that confront growing churches and asked participants to prioritize the list according to which problems were most important to solve (right being most important). We made sure that each participant understood what each item meant and asked if there was anything missing.

Research Overview

Taking an average across participants, this was the prioritized list of most important problems to address when growing a thriving church community:

  1. Developing a true sense of belonging for members
  2. Creating and maintaining genuine relationships
  3. Matching the right people and opportunities to serve
  4. Connecting with younger audiences
  5. Pastors becoming a bottleneck
  6. Existing digital tools don't share church values or build genuine community
  7. Cashflow

(If you're interested in seeing how each participant prioritized their list according to their church size and context, scroll to the appendix at the bottom. Also, you can see the spreadsheet where I analyzed the data to come up with the above.)

One key takeaway

We learned a lot in just six hours of interviews with church leaders. Below is an overview of the one key takeaway along with some big questions that it opened for us.

Belonging

Out of all the problems presented to the six research participants, one theme consistently surfaced to the top. It is something we are referring to as 'belonging'.

An illustration of the journey of belonging.

Each stage of this journey represents a unique milestone in the path to discipleship. Being released into service is the crucial moment in a Christian's life which allows them to go out and create more disciples, thus becoming disciples themselves.

During the interviews, we confirmed that our understanding of belonging matched theirs, but what we didn't expect was the influence that church size had on people's ability to be known, valued and loved.

A church growth tipping point

There seems to be a breaking point around 400-500 people in a church congregation. It becomes easier to get lost. People come and go. No one notices. This creates a whole host of hidden challenges for church communities.

These symptoms are the beginning of the highly-produced consumerist church culture that has become so prevalent in Western society. If we want to cultivate a community of engaged disciples rather than passive observers, we need to be very conscious of how we as leaders respond to our church's growth at this stage.

It's easy to invest in high-quality production on a Sunday. It's easy to design better fliers and produce better media.

But how do we know whether our efforts are more effective in creating disciples? If we just measure attendance on a Sunday and in weekly groups, how do we know we're not missing the mark?

Distracted by vanity metrics

Currently, every church leader I know measures three things:

  1. Sunday attendance
  2. Group attendance
  3. Giving

These metrics are helpful indicators of a church's ability to create disciples, but they are not granular enough to provide leaders with data to make informed decisions. This is akin to a business measuring the total number of customers against total revenue. There isn't enough detail to effectively optimize the journey of discipleship.

Opening up some big questions

The research gave us a lot of answers but as it usually does, it opened up even more questions:

  1. What if we could measure each and every stage that a person makes along their path to discipleship—starting from being welcomed as a newcomer and ending with being released into mission?
  2. What if we could effectively identify each and every person's gifts as they come through the door so that we can connect them with opportunities to serve and with like-minded people in the community?
  3. What if we had one central home for everything in church life such that members could check in day and night, regardless of location, to find out how to get involved?
  4. What if we could empower our leadership teams with tools that gave them more volunteers and more support so they can bless and serve more people in our community with less administrative support?
  5. What if we could identify people who are becoming inactive in our congregation so that we can reach out to them and see if they are alright?
  6. How might those people feel when a key leader in a large congregation notices that they haven't been engaging with the church in a while and reaches out to check-in?

Join us in our journey

We're really excited about answering these questions that emerged out of the research. We're going to start off by building a digital tool for St. Thomas Norwich that solves the top problems above. Once we feel satisfied that the tool is working well enough for St. Toms, we'll start inviting other resourced churches to the platform.

This could be one of those moments where something incredibly useful emerges out of a genuine human need. In this case, it's a need for people to be known by others amidst all that is going on in a large church community.

Silicon Valley has had its third industrial revolution. Don't you think its time for us as church communities to have ours?

Join us in our journey as we explore how to create disciples in the digital age by requesting Early Access to use Cultivate before anyone else

Sign up for early access

Appendix: Deep dive

In case you're interested to dive deeper into the individual responses, below are the six different prioritized lists, one list from each of the participants. Even with just six lists you can begin to see a correlation between church size and the importance of problems.

Participant 1 — Head Vicar of 500-600 person congregation

  1. Connecting with younger audiences
  2. Developing a true sense of belonging for members
  3. Creating and maintaining genuine relationships
  4. Matching the right people and opportunities to serve
  5. Existing digital tools don't share church values or build genuine community
  6. Cashflow
  7. Pastors become a bottleneck

Participant 2 — General Manager of 1100-1200 person congregation

  1. Matching the right people and opportunities to serve
  2. Developing a true sense of belonging for members
  3. Creating and maintaining genuine relationships
  4. Existing digital tools don't share church values or build genuine community
  5. Pastors become a bottleneck
  6. Cashflow
  7. Connecting with younger audiences

Participant 3 — Vicar of 150-200 person congregation

  1. Pastors become a bottleneck
  2. Cashflow
  3. Connecting with younger audiences
  4. Creating and maintaining genuine relationships
  5. Existing digital tools don't share church values or build genuine community
  6. Matching the right people and opportunities to serve
  7. Developing a true sense of belonging for members

Participant 4 — Vicar of 450-500 person congregation

  1. Matching the right people and opportunities to serve
  2. Developing a true sense of belonging for members
  3. Pastors become a bottleneck
  4. Creating and maintaining genuine relationships
  5. Cashflow
  6. Existing digital tools don't share church values or build genuine community
  7. Connecting with younger audiences

Participant 5 — Vicar of 2000 person congregation

  1. Developing a true sense of belonging for members
  2. Creating and maintaining genuine relationships
  3. Existing digital tools don't share church values or build genuine community
  4. Matching the right people and opportunities to serve
  5. Connecting with younger audiences
  6. Cashflow
  7. Pastors become a bottleneck

Participant 6 — Curate of 450-600 person congregation

  1. Connecting with younger audiences
  2. Creating and maintaining genuine relationships
  3. Developing a true sense of belonging for members
  4. Pastors become a bottleneck
  5. Matching the right people and opportunities to serve
  6. Cashflow
  7. Existing digital tools don't share church values or build genuine community