By Chris Jefferson
Nehemiah’s transition from king’s cupbearer to rebuilder of Jerusalem provides valuable lessons for how modern churches can set goals, define objectives, strategize methods, and incorporate tactics to help them move beyond self-preservation and begin to lead movements in their congregations and communities.
At the start of the Old Testament book, Nehemiah asked his brothers from Judah about his homeland. He specifically asked for information about two things: the people and the city. He gathered intelligence from trusted, knowledgeable sources.
Upon learning that the remnant was in “great trouble and disgrace” and that the wall of Jerusalem was “broken down, and its gates burned with fire”—Nehemiah wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed. Then he strategized a plan and asked for God’s favor in granting his plan success through the willing and helpful assistance of King Artaxerxes.
Nehemiah developed a goal: support the returning remnant and help restore their identity as a people after God’s heart. He met with the people, surveyed the city’s walls, and came up with this objective: rebuild and restore Jerusalem’s walls and gates. His strategy was to use God’s guidance, King Artaxerxes’ good favor and influence, and his own resolve to rally the people in accomplishing a supernatural feat of engineering. This strategy utilized well-orchestrated and diligent tactics that lay in the skilled hands of the willing people, and their trust in God and his chosen leader. In doing these things, Nehemiah grew from cupbearer to leading a movement for change.
Church leaders today are often quick to employ a variety of tools in seeking to minister to our congregations and communities. Sometimes we employ the wrong tools, choose the wrong tactics, misidentify our best objectives, or measure success by the wrong indicators.
If we do not know our community and its people well, we may mistake our purpose to be cupbearers rather than leaders of people called to inspire supernatural movements. If we concern ourselves with self-preservation and the indices of congregational success, we may find ourselves betting on moments and missing the opportunity to lead movements in our communities and congregations.
Progress from Moments to Movements
A key element to escaping this maddening cycle is the cogent and consistent use of ministry intelligence.Nehemiah sought out information before he strategized and managed the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and embraced the opportunity to lead God’s people.
What can ministry intelligence tell us about our people and our city? How can it be used to identify and shape how to best reach our communities? How can we inspire the desire to fulfill the church’s mission rather than being content with the typical measurements of ministry success?
Part of the answer lies in recognizing we no longer serve a culture satisfied by moments. Our culture is poised to lead movements of life change, truth, and goodness that inspire groups to action. How can we inspire a movement of the church rather than cultivate moments of attraction in our buildings? If we are only running after the vital B-statistics—backsides in seats, bucks in the plate, baptisms reported, buildings being maintained, and budgets well-managed—we may win the battle of preservation and miss the opportunity to take part in our much greater missional purpose.
Some churches and leaders will double-down on chasing the vital Bs. Eventually, however, their failure to recognize a generation’s changing needs and the key indicators of current trends and issues within their community will have consequences. (Case in point, Blockbuster Video succumbed to Netflix over a single decade.)
A single congregation can grow large and establish multiple satellite campuses, but the larger church—comprising millions of people—will begin to dominate only when it marshals its people and encourages them to reach out, engage, and genuinely impact the lives of the millions of lost people. That’s a movement. People long to be more than a member; they want to be a contributor to the mission of the church where they belong.
As the church, our goal hasn’t changed, but we must correctly identify our objectives through ministry intelligence, which will lead to better defined strategies, which can be served by intentional tactics that will not miss the mark but may instead inspire a movement.
The use of ministry intelligence—such as that provided by Barna and Pew Research—isn’t new. Knowing how many, how few, how fertile, how probable, how likely, how well off, how concentrated, and how people choose to identify themselves can be powerful intelligence.
Understand the What and Why
Many types of data can be used for ministry intelligence. We categorize these as first-, second-, and third-party data.
- First-party data is data you own and collect—your mailing list, church management records, attendance and giving records, etc.
- Second-party data is someone else’s first-party data that you obtain through a direct relationship with them; this can be procured from data collectors like census.gov or datausa.io and other purveyors of data (Myers-Briggs, S.H.A.P.E. Assessment, and StrengthsFinder).
- Third-party data comes from an entity that does not have a direct relationship with consumers; it can be collected from those who monitor actions such as Internet-search behavior or consumer-transaction behavior. Such data can be used to understand motivations, habits, propensities, and profiles of your community or congregants; it can be anonymized and grouped into different segments that can then be applied to your first-party data.
First- and second-party data identify what people do, while third-party data seek to tell you why people do what they do. When you understand both the what and the why, you can identify trends and tendencies and initiate ministry objectives that will resonate with targeted people groups. This is ministry intelligence, and it’s a powerful gift for today’s church.
To be clear, ministry intelligence is not a substitute or separate ingredient to hearing the Word (Romans 10:14, 17). It is merely a scope through which we can direct the church’s efforts at the most probable targets who need to hear and are ready to believe.
How are you applying the intelligence gleaned from the data you own and can access to guide objectives, strategies, and tactics?
Today, nearly all businesses—from mom-and-pop grocery stores to huge catalogue retailers—use data to guide their objectives toward reaching their overarching goals. What households are most probably looking for a new automobile? What search criteria identifies someone as “in the market for” a new set of dishes or snow blower or vacation bargain?
This information can lead to strategies and then tactics, such as targeted radio, television, and newspaper advertising. It may involve purchasing third-party data to deliver web banners to mobile devices of specific audiences. Goals lead to objectives that form strategies that define the best tactics.
The church can use such information for a far more important purpose: to help move us from latency to activity.
How many households in the community have troubled marriages or family members struggling with chemical dependencies? Is there a single-parent crisis in town? How many people are struggling with debt or face foreclosure? How many in the community are lost? What is the church’s best track for introducing these people to Jesus? This last question begins to move us from ministry intelligence toward strategy.
Place the Right Tools into Your People’s Hands
We want to lead churches that are Spirit-led and Christ-centered, but which are also data-informed. Like Nehemiah, we need help to identify the patterns taking place in our community, and toward objectives, so we can envision good strategies and place the right tools (tactics) into the hands of our people who want to be part of the solution.
In this data-informed age, we can peer into communities and groups of people, identify objectives, and apply our congregational capacity for change through strategized contribution.
By using data-driven ministry intelligence, we may discover that 23 percent of the households in our community contain a married couple in need. This intelligence may help shape a ministry objective to try to impact 10 percent of these households by strengthening marriages and helping decrease the divorce rate by year’s end. We may then strategize to offer marriage-specific programs in the spring and fall. Ministry intelligence will help direct us to develop sermon series, small groups programming, a special weekend retreat or event, web-based resources, and a couples video series to inform and fuel tactics like our internal and external email communications, social media, digital ads, and direct mail—all aimed at addressing this issue. All of these tactics are controlled and probably led by church staff.
We can use this same ministry intelligence to shape the objective and state the strategy, but we should develop tactics that require contributions by the congregation. How might we encourage and build up marriages within our congregation and then release them to tactically impact the marriages of their neighbors, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances?
One church recently created a date-night event featuring a well-known comedian. Married and dating couples in the church invited couples from the community to attend. Social media, website, and digital advertising tactics supported the event; free tickets were distributed to couples in the community. The event “sold out” with more than 1,200 attendees, two-thirdsof whom had never attended the church before.
A five-week series on relationships, dating, and marriage followed with more than 300 moving from the date-night event to the sermon series. Church folks inviting people to an event strategically designed to fortify marriages allowed attendees to become contributors in executing the strategy.
People are less interested in church programs and activities today and more desirous of really contributing to a church’s ministry objectives. If we support the goal of the church Jesus gave us—as I’m sure we all do—then the data-informed objectives discovered through ministry intelligence, perhaps unique to every community, will be something the entire congregation wants to support.
Christ’s call to love your neighbor can be objectively driven by ministry intelligence. This is the only way to create a movement . . . to turn thousands into millions. Multiplication takes place when believers strategically and genuinely impact the lives of neighbors, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is a feat of supernatural engineering.
Empowering the saints vs. simply gathering the saints together requires creativity, ingenuity, teamwork, and ministry intelligence. Data is simply another tool to provide our people with an opportunity to build community and help them become contributors.
Why did Jesus leave the 99 to search for the one? That question, I think, drives home the point about using ministry intelligence as a tool to help accomplish the work of the church in every community. If numbers were the point, this action would seem foolish. Certainly, the more enterprising, responsible, and cost-conscious shepherd would recognize that the needs of the many supersede the effort and cost of seeking the one. This is where ministry intelligence is a game changer. Jesus knew about the one, and this made it an easy decision to leave the 99, whom he knew were safe. This knowledge compelled the good shepherd to seek to save.
Embracing ministry intelligence is all about forming the right objectives to identify the best strategies that allow community to flourish and empower contributors. Using this wisdom to bless and bring real change to our communities and congregations starts with knowing about the one.
Nehemiah asked about only two things: the people and the city. A focus on such intelligence is useful in shaping the right objectives for ministries today. But be careful, as it can fuel passion that turns rubble into a supernatural feat of engineering. Knowledge may change your church’s direction toward a strategic plan to address the growing issues that face your community. It may redefine your congregation’s passions and provide a new identity for your church in the community you serve. It may make you uncomfortable, force you to your knees, and cause mourning, fasting, and heartfelt prayer before the Lord. It may change you from being a cupbearer of an organization into a movement leader of the King.
Chris Jefferson is the marketing director of managed services at Gloo, a Boulder, Colorado, technology company specializing in supporting and serving champions who help people grow in relationship, spirit, and wellness. Chris is also director of marketing and resource development at Spire Network.