When a church wants to know what people are thinking, what do they do? Often, they create a congregational survey. Whether they’re contemplating changes in worship or programming, or calling a new minister, the preferred method is the survey questionnaire.
What I often hear, though, is that the results are less than hoped for. The most common complaint is that younger people and those newer to the church don’t fill them out. “We want to know what the others think. How can we get them to complete the survey?" is a question I have heard over and over again.
Here are some thoughts about creating better congregational surveys.
Most church surveys are put together by “insiders” – by people who are actively involved and familiar with how the church works. This can be unintentionally reflected in the way the survey questions are asked. For instance, a question like “Do you prefer traditional or contemporary music?” presupposes that people are familiar enough with the church that they know what those words mean. Someone who is new or who doesn’t attend very often may have no idea how to answer that question, and so conclude that this survey isn’t really for them.
If you want to hear from people other than your active membership (which includes most younger people), create your questions with them in mind.
Short and Sweet
Many congregational surveys are simply way too long. I saw one recently that had over 100 questions. The people who will be motivated to complete such a survey are those who are already committed to the church. Typically, that means people who are over 60, who attend regularly, and who have been members for ten years or more. A young couple, juggling work and family, may look at it and say, “I don’t have time for that.”
In general, it is more effective to have several short, clearly focused surveys than one long “omnibus” questionnaire.
Also, consider how the survey is delivered. Is it printed on paper and handed out after church? Then it's likely that only older people will complete it. If you want younger and newer folks to respond, your survey needs to be available online using a program such as Survey Monkey. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’d better ask your grandkids.)
What’s the Angle?
People, especially younger people, are becoming increasingly suspicious and cynical about those who want to ask their opinions. They assume it’s in order to try to “sell” them something. The church is not exempt from that suspicion.
“How can we provide more things for younger people if they won’t tell us what they want?” sounds like a well-meaning and sincere question if you're on the inside of the church. But to an “outsider,” it sounds like you’re more interested in shoring up the church and its programs than in hearing their opinions. So, they’ll pass.
What’s It For?
Many survey questions are prepared with little or no thought given to how the information gleaned from them will be used. For example, questions such as, “Would you like to have a church service at a time other than Sunday morning?” or “Would you like to replace the pews with chairs?” are good questions, only if you’re prepared to deal with the responses.
People tend to not be in favour of things that they aren’t familiar with, so your typical survey respondent will be more likely to say no to both of those questions. And people who might like to see those changes may believe that it doesn’t matter what they say because nothing is likely to change.
But in any case, if you have no intention of starting a new service or getting rid of your pews, don't ask for people's opinions about it.
Never put a question into a survey unless you have a clear idea of what you plan to do with the responses.
Talk To Me
Written surveys provide a certain kind of information. But they should always be augmented by face-to-face contact – personal interviews, focus groups, intentional conversations. Checking a box on a survey won’t necessarily give you a clear idea of what people are thinking.
Once you’ve tabulated the results of your survey, follow up with individual and group conversations. This will give you a richer, “thicker” picture of what people in the church are thinking than the survey alone.
And remember: If you want to hear from people other than “insiders” – those active, long-time members – you need to be intentional about seeking out their contributions. The onus is not on them to answer your survey, it's on you to make it worth their while to give you their thoughts.
Congregational surveys can be helpful sources of information, if they are easily understood, have a clear point, are not too long and are complemented with face-to-face conversations. It’s always a good idea to test out the questionnaire before you distribute it, remembering to get input from people outside the inner circle of the church. And, even if it costs a little bit of money, advice from someone with marketing experience can help you design a more effective survey.