Pastors have lost many of their touchpoints over the past several months. The inability to shake someone’s hand or take them out for coffee leaves many church leaders feeling unsure of how to check on their congregants in that simple, essential, eye-to-eye, “Hey, how are things?” kind of way.
Technology can help, but the answer isn’t to download every app or subscribe to every service.
“Churches engaging their members well in these times are not merely digitizing their services,” said Christopher Lee, founder of the career-consulting firm PurposeRedeemed. “It's not business-as-usual—except online. They are considering the needs of their communities and thoughtfully, prayerfully, tailoring their messages to create virtual or hybrid ministry groups to meet those needs.”
We talked to church leaders and communications experts to identify five tools they recommend to help pastors do just that.
Reverend Merianna Harrelson, pastor of Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia, South Carolina, connects with her congregants through a private Facebook group. While Garden of Grace does have a public Facebook page for live streaming their Sunday service, the private group keeps the church body informed throughout the week.
“Our private Facebook group is used for updates, daily devotions, prayer requests, and calls to action for social justice issues,” said Harrelson. “Our music director designs a playlist each week, and we share that on Music Monday. We send out a weekly e-newsletter via Mailchimp for members with updates about missions, worship services and our current book study or Bible study that is then posted to the private Facebook group.”
In such groups, members are able to connect with each other, church leaders can pin announcements, and congregants can host watch parties to view Bible study materials or come together for a group movie night. It is even possible to create smaller divisions within the private groups called rooms where members can video chat with each other, perhaps helping facilitate a Tuesday night small group or Sunday morning prayer.
Through their Facebook group, Garden of Grace puts into practice what Brady Shearer—founder of Pro Church Tools, a company offering free and commercial tools and training programs designed to help pastors reach their flocks—calls “using social media for ministry, not simply to promote other ministries.”
If you’re staring at your website stats and struggling to decipher practical, usable information from all that data, implementing Google Analytics may be a great next step according to Josh Stutt, founder of ABCD E-Commerce, which provides customized website and software development services.
“Google Analytics is free and more powerful than many paid analytics systems,” he noted. “With this tool you can see how people are finding your website: Did they come from a Facebook post? Did they search for local churches? Did they click a link in a blog post on another site where you were referenced? You can see all of this and more.”
Google Analytics not only provides information about your visitors but also about their behavior: How many people are finding the homepage? How long did they spend reading Friday’s devotional? And where did people go after they found the registration page for VBS?
Darrel Girardier, creative director at Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee, finds Google Analytics invaluable when it comes to tailoring his church’s website. “Google Analytics serves as the primary driver for how we design our website menu and our homepage,” he said. “We use data from Google Analytics to determine what visitors are looking for and what is resonating with our church members.”
Insights+ by Gloo
“How do you pastor 73 ‘likes’?” asked Kenny Jahng, founder of Big Click Syndicate, a national team of strategists, content creators, and digital media specialists dedicated to helping churches and nonprofits build a better experience for their audiences. His point? Digital reaction metrics—sharing a tweet, liking a Facebook post, or double-tapping an Instagram image—don’t provide church leaders with the depth of information they need.
“Many leaders are tempted to hyper focus on vanity metrics,” said Jahng. “Quantity versus quality. Height versus depth. Those traditional metrics have value, but unfortunately in today’s environment, attendance online is an IP address. Is that one person? Four in a family? Or a bot?”
Pastors need information that helps them connect with their people rather than simply transmitting information to them. Enter Gloo’s Insights+ tool, which uses analytics and profiles to bridge the digital gap between church leaders and their congregants. Rather than simply tracking website engagement or live-streaming attendance, Insights+ is an online analytics software that helps pastors know more about the people coming to their website, including spiritual needs, relationships, health, finances, and more.
By offering an aggregate profile of those who have visited your website, Insights+ allows pastors and church leaders to develop a more holistic, accurate view of their congregation and community. There’s no need to guess how people are doing because pastors can go behind the data in Google Analytics and get to the hearts of people engaging with their churches online. Pastors can learn about the strengths and needs of their local contexts, which, in turn, helps them shape their church’s online presence and opportunities.
One of the most effective tools for connecting with congregants may be the method of communication that’s become most intuitive: text messaging.
“We've found that it's a technology that is universal amongst our congregants. It’s quick to deploy and has a high response rate,” said Girardier of Brentwood Baptist. Brentwood Baptist uses texting to disseminate the kind of information found in the church bulletin on Sunday morning.
For those who don’t simply need information, but conversation?
“When a church member texts a certain keyword (dependent on the campus), they will be directly connected with a minister via text,” said Girardier. “They can have an immediate text message exchange.”
Marcy Carrico, customer care manager for The Sunday Group at That Church Conference and director of administration and operations for The First Impressions Conference, also emphasized the usefulness of text messaging for pastors and churches.
“One of the most helpful tools is Text In Church,” she said. “It allows you to send automated texts, sequences, and one-time texts to specific groups or individuals. And it integrates with your church management software. It’s a fantastic way to connect with your congregation and guests.”
Text messaging also provides church leaders with a quick and easy method for inviting congregants and visitors to participate in other digital offerings their churches have to offer, like email lists and surveys.
Digital surveys help pastors take the pulse of their congregation. Gloo created a library of assessments as a simple way for church leaders to connect with their people and make smarter, data-informed ministry decisions. It’s as easy as 1) accessing a library of ready-to-use assessments from vetted providers, 2) deploying the assessment in an engaging format to encourage participation, 3) analyzing your results, and 4) following up to see how things change over time. They’re easy to launch and take participants less than ten minutes to complete on their phone, tablet, or desktop. They’re also customizable to your church’s needs.
Gloo has a whole library of pre-built assessments made with trusted partners that can be used to connect and engage your people and community. Assessments including their Barna ChurchPulse, Returning to Church Check-In, Parent Check-In, and My People Check-In can all be used with a free account.
ABCD E-Commerce’s Josh Stutt also sings the praises of SurveyMonkey.
“The [SurveyMonkey] reporting is wonderful, very user-friendly, and it allows you to manipulate data to get a better understanding of your responses,” Stutt said. “There’s plenty of freedom in the setup, so you're not restricted to simply multiple-choice answers. It also integrates with many of the tools your group is probably using already.”
Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, is an object lesson in the usefulness of this tool. They recently surveyed their entire congregation through SurveyMonkey.
“We asked about everyone’s level of participation before and during the pandemic—what things we were doing they found helpful or unnecessary, and which communication methods were most helpful,” said Hope Cutchins, Tabernacle’s communications coordinator. “We asked for input on what times would be good for children's and youth activities and what parents thought would be helpful for their kids. We also asked about what kinds of in-person events people might feel comfortable with.”
The anonymous survey also asked congregants for their thoughts on local issues. “There has been a lot of protesting since George Floyd's murder, which has caused some tension within the congregation,” Cutchins explained. “So we also asked for thoughts about the church's response to what was going on in the city.”
And what did they learn?
First, that their congregation appreciated the opportunity to share their experiences and ideas: over 60 percent of congregants responded to the survey. Congregants who belonged to a smaller community within the church, like a Sunday school class, prior to the pandemic expressed that they felt cared for and connected. Since those who hadn’t been part of a breakout community felt relatively disconnected, leaders at Tabernacle Baptist plan to emphasize small groups this fall.
“We also got some practical feedback about what parts of the virtual services people found meaningful and what was less meaningful,” Cutchins continued. “One of the results was that communion didn't feel very meaningful in that context, so we're working on some ideas to do that differently.”
COVID’s Call and Response
While technology can’t replace hugs, handshakes, or lingering lobby conversations, it can provide pastors with tools that help them assess how their congregants are doing and minister to them accordingly. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, the need for data-driven, relationship-focused digital communication will not. As you begin to find your way, Gloo has put together an online checklist to help you regain visibility and reconnect with your people.
The learning curve may feel steep, but all is not lost. The church’s mission and message remain the same. And there’s reason to hope: Pastors can better love their congregants and visitors by engaging with digital tools that don’t collect heaps of data but provide information that can meaningfully shape ministries. After all, even small steps are worth taking.