The Next Church-Growth Fad: Big Data

Credit: WaPo

One of the several quiet revolutions introduced into American life by the two Obama Administrations was the use of “Big Data” to target voters. To that point no campaign had harnessed the power of the internet the way the Obama campaign had. According to political pundits and reporters, they were light years ahead of the competition. According to a new report in the Wall Street Journal, a decade after the Obama campaign pioneered the approach, the church-growth gurus are now marketing the algorithm to churches. Khadeeja Safdar writes, “A small company called Gloo has put itself at the forefront of an effort to analyze Americans’ personal data and online activities to help churches reach people most likely to be open to their messages and join their congregations.” In distinction from political campaigns and commercial marketing, in this case “the focus is on more personal data, and analysis is organized around trying to identify some of the most difficult moments of people’s lives.” Why? “People facing a personal crisis are most likely to be open to outreach efforts, churches say—and Gloo crunches data to try to identify them.” When the WSJ began reporting on Gloo, they adjusted some of their practices. How many churches are using Gloo? The company has about 30,000 customers. The premium level costs $1,500.00. The company offers similar services to addiction treatment centers. The story describes how a congregation in Kansas City, KS is using Gloo to target people in financial distress and a congregation in Dallas-Ft Worth is targeting people with marital difficulties. The Seventh Day Adventists are also using Gloo.

The Medium Is The Message

For anyone familiar with the modern history of the church-growth movement, this is all quite familiar. When “boiler rooms” were all the rage a company came out with “The Phone’s For You.” Before that, Evangelism Explosion modified the techniques of the door-to-door sales model. Before that, it was difficult to distinguish traveling revivalists from the traveling medicine show. In short, American evangelicals have always imitated the patterns of the culture and they have always defended such appropriation on the grounds that media and technology are “neutral.” Students of media, the field is known as “media ecology,” however have long known—Marshall McLuhan (1911–80) was noting this in the 1960s, e.g., The Medium Is The Message—that no medium is “neutral.” Every use of a medium carries with it an inherent message.

One way scholars of the ancient church distinguish between orthodox Christian groups and Gnostic groups is by their distinct media. Christians tended to favor the codex, i.e., the book. The church formally prohibited images of God the Son whereas the Gnostics made an image. The message of the early church was conveyed through the oral preaching of the Word, the use of the holy sacraments, and the the careful copying of written texts. The church rejected certain media (images and instruments) and favored other media (preaching, sacraments, and the written text of Scripture).

It is not as if the Reformed churches have not given thought to or expressed firm convictions about media. We have always had a high view of what we call the media gratiae, i.e., the “means of grace.” In Westminster Confession 1.7, the divine spoke for all the Reformed when they confessed:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

The German and Dutch Reformed Churches had expressed essentially the same thing in Heidelberg Catechism 65:

65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.

Calvin wrote extensively about the media (means) the Spirit uses to bring the elect to new life (regenration) to true faith in Institutes books 3 and 4. Calvin and his orthodox successors shared an understanding of Paul’s view of media. Romans 10:14–17 says,

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (ESV).

On the sacraments, Paul wrote of Abraham’s circumcision: “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised…”. Like baptism, circumcision did not create faith nor did it confer justification. It did seal what God had already done, i.e., it is a testimony to our senses that what the gospel says to believers is true for me. It also signifies to all what Christ promises to believers in the sacrament. We see the same in Luke 22:20, in the institution of the Supper, when our Lord declared that it is the “new covenant in my blood.” In the Ancient Near Eastern world, a covenant was ratified, i.e., confirmed, in blood, over the slain body of sacrificial victims. Christ is that sacrificial victim for us. Just as God the Son went between the pieces (Gen 15:17) so now, incarnate for us and for our salvation, he became the sacrificial pieces that God might be at peace with us. This is why Hebrews 10:29 says, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (ESV) Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works for us and his is the blood of the covenant of grace for us.

So much to say that the Lord has instituted his means. These should have priority over all other means. This is what is signified when people distinguish their approach to ministry by describing it as an “ordinary means ministry.” Some congregations seek the “extraordinary,” i.e., the unusual, the spectacular, and the remarkable. The spiritual life of such congregations is intended to be a series of weekly “mountain-top” experiences. Each Sunday is a mini-revival complete with a 30-minute concert of “praise and worship” music, which is increasingly less about praise and worship and more about therapy for the worshipers. The P&W session is followed by a therapeutic TED talk. In such a case we might say, the medium is the massage.

The Free Offer

The church-growth turn to targeted marketing is not new but it has become more high-tech and even more targeted. Churches are no longer looking for sinners but for sinners with particular kinds of problems, those who might be even more receptive to the message. The church-growth adaptation of the Obama campaign strategy was predictable. It is also ironic. The Reformed are often criticized for thinking that they can tell who are the elect when it seems as if the church-growth folks have beat us to the punch. It is almost as if our Lord said, “You know not where the algorithm blows…”.

In truth, the Reformed churches have always believed in, taught, and confessed precisely the opposite of the caricature. We confess that we cannot know who are the elect. We preach the gospel to all indiscriminately. In the Canons of Dort 3/4.8—again, ironically, since so many assume that the Canons are all about restricting God’s saving grace—we confess:

Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called seriously. For seriously and most genuinely God makes known in his Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to him. Seriously he also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe.

Why then does not everyone turn in faith and believe? Again, the Synod of Dort defied the caricature of Reformed theology:

The fact that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not brought to conversion must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called. Some in self-assurance do not even entertain the Word of life; others do entertain it but do not take it to heart, and for that reason, after the fleeting joy of a temporary faith, they relapse; others choke the seed of the Word with the thorns of life’s cares and with the pleasures of the world and bring forth no fruits. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13; CD 3/4.9).

Christ is offered to all in the gospel. Tragically, people do reject the free, well-meant offer of the gospel but we offer salvation and justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ, to all. Indeed, whosoever will may come.

As we say about worship (in Heidelberg 98), we should not be wiser than God. We should commit ourselves to those means to which God has attached his promises: the preaching of the gospel, the use of the sacraments, and prayer.

Are there hurting people in your neighborhood? Certainly. Do they need the gospel? Yes. Should churches be targeting their neighbors on the basis of the internet searches made by their neighbors? No. It is one thing to get a list of people who have moved into the area. It is another thing to target the recently divorced. What if we simply loved our neighbors? What if we simply and honestly invited them to join us whatever their perceived need? What if, instead of manipulating them or capitalizing on their time of crisis, we speak honestly with them about their need for grace and forgiveness? What are we offering people anyway? If our neighbor is searching for happiness on the internet what shall we offer him? “Wait, there is more happiness in Christ”? Is that our message to a needy world? Let us reach our neighbors for Christ. Let us love them. Warn them, graciously, about the jeopardy of being outside of Christ and invite them sweetly to come to the Savior but whatever we do let us not trade in our reliance upon the Holy Spirit for reliance upon the algorithm.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. “we preach the gospel to all indiscriminately”

    To be fair Mr Clark in my experience the biggest problem in many churches (but especially) the reformed is that many only preach the gospel to those in the press. A valid ministry no doubt, but not one that could be characterized as preaching to all.

    Do you have any ideas on how to encourage ones minister to reach all in their parish with the gospel?

    • Lauraùs,

      I don’t know your experience I’ve been around confessional Reformed churches for 40 years and it’s just not true that we only preach the gospel to those in the pews. I have personally spend many hours in the streets, knocking on doors, handing out pamphlets, and even preaching on street corners etc.

      We do evangelism proper, however, in the church and we do see the church as the Lord’s evangelism agency. We’re not pragmatic.

      If you’ll take a look at the resources below the post I have written at length about how God’s people can give witness to the faith (the objective truths of the law and the gospel) and to their faith, i.e., their personal appropriation of the faith.

      The Reformed paradigm is not the 18th-century revivalist/evangelical/pietist paradigm, but by our own lights we are seeking to reach the lost and the Lord does bring people to hear the gospel, because he is that sovereign.

    • Don’t forget the Christian laymen in our workplaces and neighborhoods. We do a fair amount of witnessing outside the pews.

      • Tom,

        This is a really important point. I’m not a fan of “every-member evangelism” (see the resources listed in the post above) but I do think that there is a fairly strong biblical case for lay witnessing to “the faith” (the objective truths of the gospel) and to “my faith,” i.e., to one’s personal appropriation of Christ and the faith.

        In a chapter on witness I (see the resources) I argued from John 9 that the man born blind hardly knew anything but he was able to give a remarkable witness to Christ—such that John contrasts him with his parents who knew but who refused to give witness.

        I know that this is done regularly by lay members of Reformed churches but it is quiet and doesn’t get a lot of attention.

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