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How We Used a Database to Bring Thousands of People Back to Church

September 27th, 2023 | 8 min. read

By Patrick Miller

How We Used a Database to Bring Thousands of People Back to Church

Rachel Bristow is a 27-year-old elementary teacher living in flyover country. She grew up attending church infrequently, and she casually left her faith in college. It was a slow drift, driven by the quiet allure of online fads, self-help influencers, and progressive online content.

Rachel wouldn’t say social media changed her. But it did. She spends four to six hours every day online. Shopping. Scrolling Instagram. Watching TikTok. Streaming Netflix. She is almost completely unaware that every piece of content she engages with—news articles, blogs, videos, images, and ads—was supplied to her by a sophisticated recommender algorithm. She never contemplates that everywhere she hovers on screen, stops the scroll, clicks an ad, or reads a piece of content, her actions are tracked. Or that her facial expressions in videos and photos, where she lives and travels, and whom she associates with are collected. Or that information she’s supplied about herself in emails and during online purchases has been cataloged and sold until nearly every app, streaming service, and online store she frequents knows more about her than even her closest friends.

To Rachel, what she sees online is simply a serendipitous parade of entertaining content. But the truth is far more dark: what she experiences online is no accident. Her slow drift from faith was algorithmically engineered by media orgs that want her trust, attention, and subscription fees. They want their platforms to be her church, their influencers to be her pastor, and their pages to be her scripture so they can sell her more stuff.

Her media diet gradually transformed her into a statistic. Into the kind of person who checks “none” when asked for her religious self-identification—making her one member of the largest, fastest-growing religious demographic in America.

To ruin Rachel’s faith, big media only needed one thing: Rachel’s data. This is why tech and media CEOs all agree with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella that “Data is the new currency.” Everyone wants to change Rachel’s habits and keep Rachel’s attention, so they all seek to know everything they can about Rachel, collecting her personal data with abandon.

Everyone, that is, except for Christians.

How Rachel Became a Statistic: The DeChurching of America

Rachel’s story is not unusual.

In 2021, our organization helped fund the largest qualitative and quantitative study of dechurching ever undertaken in America, working with world-class researchers to determine 1) how many Americans have left the church, 2) why they are leaving, and 3) what can be done to stop this sociological shift. Their findings were collected in what is (probably) the most important book of 2021 for Christian leaders, The Great Dechurching.

That study revealed that we are currently living through the largest religious shift in American history. Forty-five million Americans have dechurched in the last two decades. Contrary to popular assumptions, most Americans aren’t leaving the church in anger. They’re leaving casually. Why? Social media and online entertainment have slowly boxed out Jesus. Remarkably, we learned that most Americans remain open to returning to church. Thus, if Christians want to see Gen Z and Millennials in churches, they only need to invite them. To do that, they need to go where those generations live: the internet.

Of course, Christians are already online. But they’re losing the war for the soul of America. Why? Not because of a paucity of content, but because they’re fighting cutting-edge secular media—armed to the teeth with big data and machine learning—with last-generation technology. Until Christians realize that we’re in a technological arms race with secular media for data, we will only know the thrill of pyrrhic victories.

We will never win the war.

The Data Arms Race: Why Legacy Christian Media Is Failing

Today’s legacy Christian media orgs were launched by the previous generation’s greatest pastors, speakers, and thinkers. These individuals excelled at communication. They created content and developed blogs and publications to disseminate it. If they met Rachel Bristow, they would assume that her problem was a lack of knowledge and that the solution is the same as it’s always been: create more content.

But they, just like Rachel, do not comprehend our data-driven, algorithmic media environment. They assume that big names, celebrities, brand recognition, and quality content can win the war against big media. But that’s like using muskets in a battle against AI-operated war drones. No seminary taught these founding communicators what they needed to know for the era of the smartphone, big data, and social media: data infrastructure is everything. Media companies are no longer content mills; they’re data and technology corporations.

I write this without an ounce of self-righteousness. Even world-class secular media orgs like The New York Times were slow to realize this change. But after Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013 and pioneered new, data-driven strategies to drastically improve its subscription revenue, everything changed. Data collection became the chief goal of every media org.

Once they began to strategically collect data, they swiftly realized that collection is not an end in itself. Data needs to be refined, algorithmically analyzed, and deployed for meaningful purposes. Information needs to be transformed into actionable insights. By 2018, The New York Times had collected enough user data to launch Project Feels, an AI-driven tool that is able to predict the emotional impact of individual articles on readers before publication. They used this information to sell ads and increase subscriptions by manipulating the emotions of readers.

Legacy Christian media never caught up.

In most Christian media orgs, user data is stored haphazardly (unclean data stored across multiple databases), collected at random (user behavior is rarely tracked, demographic data is rarely requested), left inert and unanalyzed (never used to create funnels, user journeys, or lookalike audiences), and deployed indiscriminately. The data they do have is limited. Almost none of it creates actionable insights.

As a generational regime change occurs across Christian media, new leaders and boards match the profiles of their predecessors: they are pastors, writers, and thinkers. Their seminaries did not prepare them to operate technology companies skilled at collecting, analyzing, and deploying data to reach more people with the gospel.

Furthermore, many orgs are entrenched in pitched theological, political, and cultural battles with one another. They believe they’re competing with one another for user attention. But the truth is far more frightening: they’re competing with Disney, Netflix, The New York Times, YouTube, and TikTok for attention. Christian media is doing so poorly in this fight that even troll farms run by nefarious international actors seeking to destabilize democracy have outperformed them. In 2019, nineteen of the top twenty Christian Facebook pages were run by foreign trolls.

Rachel Bristow’s life is shaped and formed by secular media because she hardly sees anything from Christian media orgs. Yes, they can churn out immeasurable hours of content, but none of it matters because they’re losing the data battle. Muskets never beat war drones.

Data Warfare: The Tools Needed to Reach the Next Generation

To rescue young people like Rachel Bristow, a Christian media org would need tools strong enough to compete with and subvert big secular media. It would need to approximate the scale and quality of competitors like Disney, The New York Times, TikTok, Meta, and Netflix. Let’s imagine what tools and resources this organization would need to be successful:

  • A massive, comprehensive user database: It would need a well-structured user database incorporating tens of millions of contacts, all with relevant data points including demographic information, psychographic data, personal interests, beliefs, online behaviors, and content engagement.
  • Massive data capacity: It would need the capacity to secure, handle, store, and analyze vast amounts of data. To do this, it would need to develop and maintain a robust data infrastructure, including high-capacity data storage and powerful computing capabilities.
  • Strategic data collection: It would need clear, strategic objectives to identify and define which data would be most useful and calibrate efforts to gather that information. It would track user behavior, including website activity and email, ad, and social media engagement.
  • Data analysis and insights: It would need to identify patterns and trends in user behavior, segmenting users into distinct groups based on their characteristics and behaviors in order to predict and guide future user behavior.
  • Machine learning: To generate these insights at scale, it would need to use AI to analyze large datasets. Algorithms would recognize patterns and make predictions, enabling the org to personalize its content, predict how users will respond to different types of content, and optimize their marketing strategies.
  • Strategic deployment of data in ads using marketing best practices: It would use data to target ads and personalize ad content and calls-to-action (CTAs) to individual users. It would use lookalike audiences to expand its reach on massive platforms. Moreover, it would track the effectiveness of different ads, adjusting strategies accordingly.
  • Knowledge and human resources: It would need to identify, vet, and hire world-class talent in data, technology, and marketing. Existing staff would need training in these areas. Executive-level leadership would actively integrate data-driven approaches into the organization's strategies.

  • Revenue funnels: It would use data insights to create user funnels designed to increase donor volume, subscription revenue, and product sales. Likewise, it would increase ad inventory space by growing overall pageviews and engagement.

Unfortunately, this organization exists only in my imagination. At the moment, I know of no single Christian media organization utilizing all of these tools for at least three reasons: 1) they lack the technological knowledge base, 2) they lack the funding, and 3) they lack the data and infrastructure. This means that no Christian org can compete with big media, which means no one can effectively reach Rachel Bristow or anyone like her—no matter how open she is to Jesus.

Rescuing Rachel: How a Church Stepped into the Christian Media Gap

Rachel’s name is fabricated. But Rachel’s story is not. She’s a real person, with a real eternal destiny. Here’s the good news: God found Rachel. Before she turned 30, Rachel gave her life to Jesus, returned to church, and turned her back on the worldly wisdom big media algorithmically fed her.

But what specifically changed Rachel’s life? It was a daily devotional podcast—Ten Minute Bible Talks—that she found through a data-driven ad campaign targeting casually dechurched people, which was operated by my church, The Crossing.

We were able to target her because we spent years growing a database of dechurched people—mostly by offering email devotionals via Meta—and then used that data to create a “look-a-like” audience on Meta platforms. In other words, you give Meta a list of email contacts and ask them to help you target ads to people their algorithm deems as “similar” based on its (disturbingly) comprehensive knowledge of users. Once the ad is live, Meta’s algorithm continues to optimize it, putting your ad in front of people it expects will click your call-to-action. 

Our team does the same thing simultaneously, we regularly analyze ad results, pouring more resources into ads that get clicks and pulling resources from ads that aren’t landing well. The better an ad does, the less it costs per click, meaning that careful analysis of ads creates cost savings and results.

Of course, all of this is invisible to Rachel: she doesn’t understand why Ten Minute Bible Talks keeps reappearing on her social media feed instead of the latest self-help podcast. But eventually Rachel got interested. She clicked an ad. She began to listen. Her life was transformed. And she now knows the important thing: Jesus loves me and he will never let me go. She’s been attending church ever since.

Using our data infrastructure and strategies, we’ve collectively reached hundreds of thousands of Rachel Bristows across the United States, introducing them to Jesus and revitalizing their faith. We’ve seen well over 1,000 dechurched people get connected to churches locally through these ad campaigns.

Will our Digital Strategies Help or Hurt the Church?

As I’ve detailed in an earlier blog, the incentive structures of the social internet tend to favor Christian media orgs who actively deconstruct and critique the church, rather than supporting it. 

This is part of why Christianity Today’s top 20 articles of 2022 were dominated by stories of scandal and abuse. No one on the editorial board had a grand mission to focus on these things, but the algorithms propelled scandal to the top. When you see those kinds of results, it’s hard to resist the desire to continue writing more in that vein. 

This is precisely why Churches and media orgs committed to more constructive endeavors must be strategic. The algorithm will not help you. It will actively work against you. But by developing a database of the kind of people you want to reach, creating constructive content they want to consume, and floating ads for that content into their media stream, and then inviting them to church, you can make a real impact.

In future newsletters I will unpack more about how churches and media orgs can do this. But if you can’t wait, listen to this interview about casual dechurching and digital strategy between myself and the authors of The Great Dechurching.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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