Technology, engagement and growth

North Point’s 4-step engagement process

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

Photos by Garrett Lobaugh

Not many people can speak firsthand about the growth of one of America’s largest and fastest-growing churches. But Rick Holliday — Executive Director of Ministry Services at North Point Church in Alpharetta, Ga. — is very blessed in this regard.

That’s because Holliday is one of the original six staff members at this 22-year-old church founded by Andy Stanley. His beginnings in church administration? Quite humble, in comparison. 

During graduate school, Holliday was on staff at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, which was led by Andy Stanley’s father, Charles. “I started out washing dishes, running a printing press, working in the gym, those sorts of things,” he recalls.

But, with a graduate degree in business information systems finance in hand (coupled with an undergraduate degree in finance), Holliday soon found himself in an IT role at the church. At 24, he started running what he calls “a fledgling little IT department” there.

In 1995, when North Point Church was launched by Andy Stanley, Holliday says the Atlanta area — like many cities — didn’t need another church.

“It needed a different kind of church,” he clarifies. “We really wanted a church for people who were unchurched, or were returning to the gospel, or had never had an experience with God — or even had had a bad experience with God and decided to give it another try. We wanted those people to feel really comfortable here.”

That, he says, remains the hallmark of North Point today. “We’re creating churches that unchurched people love to attend,” he says. “It’s the thing that keeps us all attached.”

But, what role does administration play? According to Holliday, it’s all about facilitation: “We’ve created some really good systems that let us measure and manage, very accurately, the engagement process.”

The elements of engagement

For North Point (and for any growing church), ensuring “full engagement” is the goal. Here, it’s achieved through four objectives: Group, Serve, Give, and Invest and Invite.

“We’re very cognizant of the fact that we can’t force anyone to have a relationship with their Heavenly Father,” Holliday points out. “But we’re also aware that there are some critical activities which we believe — once you’re engaged in them — make that relationship much more likely.”

As Holliday explains, the Group aspect of the engagement process is a high priority. “One of our key phrases is, ‘Circles are better that roads,’” he explains. “So, the only numerical goal we’ve ever had related to Groups is how many people we can get into them.”

To this end, Holliday points out that North Point is really a collection of hundreds (if not thousands) of smaller churches. “People meet in homes throughout the week, and we come together on Sunday morning for a common purpose.”

The next objective — Serve — is attained when individuals reach the point where they’re willing to do something for others, not just for themselves. “That’s very healthy, spiritually. It’s a hallmark of growth,” Holliday says.

“And honestly, Give is also super important to spiritual growth,” he adds. “When I recognize, Wow, God owns everything, giving is another expression of my commitment to a relationship with my Heavenly Father.”

Invest and Invite, then, represents a final, pivotal step in the engagement process. “If you invest in the lives of your unchurched friends and then, at a critical moment, invite them into the right environment, we feel like God works in that mix,” Holliday says. “That’s one of the secrets to our growth. We don’t advertise a lot; mostly, it’s word-of-mouth — primarily by people investing and inviting in the lives of their lost and unchurched friends.”

Where technology comes in (big time)

At North Point, technology doesn’t just drive these four elements of engagement: it also enables the church to gauge and measure them.

In addition to a relational database management system, much of the “measurement magic” at the church is driven by tools like Tableau: an interactive data visualization product focused on business intelligence. “What we do with the data, and how we analyze it, is a fairly critical part of what we do,” Holliday says. So much so, in fact, that North Point recently added an Executive Director of Ministry Analytics to its management team.

Specifically related to the Group and Serve aspects, Holliday admits it can be difficult to know when an individual isn’t involved in a small group, even with the help of technology. Primarily, this is because it’s something the church prefers to let happen organically.

“Although it would be great to have a pew attendance document, it’s contrary to our culture,” he explains. “We value people’s desire to be anonymous. We don’t know who’s only attending our services or watching them online. Until they take one step toward us, we don’t have a way to know if those people have the potential to be in group.

“For some people, [that happens] the first Sunday they get here,” Holliday adds. “For others, it’s years before they’re comfortable taking that step.”

And the form it takes when it happens varies. Sometimes it’s a person joining a small group; more often, it’s a person providing their contact information. “If someone gets to that point, we’d definitely know if they’re in group or not,” he says.

Beyond that, the leadership team at North Point purposely stops short of using data to identify which small groups and opportunities to serve an individual might be best suited for. Instead, they let members know where the church’s biggest needs lie and make those opportunities known.

“We don’t really have a system set up that asks — and I’m not being critical whatsoever of systems that do this — ‘What’s your spiritual gift? Therefore, you should serve here, or here, or here,’” Holliday says. “We’re just very open with people to tell them where our biggest areas of need are, and then ask them to consider those.”

Toward the next step of engagement, Give, North Point aims to make the act of generosity a natural, organic part of the process. To do this, they offer the option to give via echurch powered Pushpay

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 in the context of an app where other church content — sermons, messages, and other media — is also hosted.

“Having all those points of engagement in one tool, in the app, is super helpful,” Holliday shares. “It lets our lead pastors, or anyone else, stand up and say, ‘Hey, pull out your phone to support this effort.’ It has increased engagement for us over the last year or so.”

Prior to this option, the church used its own in-house giving tool that let people give through credit cards and ACH. Now, because Pushpay can be “white-labeled,” North Point is able to rebrand the tool so that it appears to be an extension of the church. “They’ve been really great about recognizing that we need to keep a relationship with our attendees,” Holliday says.

Another benefit of this giving tool is the ease with which it facilitates progressive giving — more specifically, “percentage, progressive, prioritized” giving. Holliday explains:

Percentage is simply, ‘Pick a percentage and go for it; use that one.’ Prioritize is, ‘Consider making your giving prioritized over all those other commitments or desires you have.’ Progressive is, ‘Consider, on an annual basis (or whatever basis you choose) to increase the amount of your giving.’”

Every time someone gives via the echurch app, they have the option to make that gift a recurring one. As a result, Holliday says, the church has definitely seen an increase in the number of recurring givers. “We’ve also increased the breadth of givers,” he adds.

Using technology to help drive and manage the Invest and Invite aspect of engagement at North Point is, according to Holliday, a work in progress.

“We pretty much can only tell if someone is investing and inviting if they say they are,” he says. “I guess we can also ask people who show up, ‘Hey did you show up at the invitation of someone?’ But, compared to the other [engagement objectives], this one’s a little more difficult for us to measure.”

Even so, the church has identified a few “invite” methods of its own, with great results. Leaders are experimenting with Facebook and Facebook Live to deliver unique content to people in their communities with whom they don’t already have a connection.

For example, the church recently promoted a program called “Parent Unscripted” on Facebook. It basically asks (and answers) a top-of-mind question for many people: How can I be a great parent? The church targeted its message to people within a certain radius of the original Alpharetta campus who appear to be young parents. “People who’d never heard of our church said, ‘Yes, I do have a desire to be a better parent, and I want to come hear your content,’” he says.

“And we didn’t hide who we were,” Holliday points out. “We weren’t trying to ‘sucker them’ into coming to our church.” 

Aside from unique-content efforts like this, just having an online presence has proven beneficial for North Point in terms of seeker-friendliness. “Lots of people will stay in their pajamas and check us out online, and watch our service there, before they’ll get in their cars, drive to our church and interface with people they don’t know,” Holliday acknowledges.

When they do “tune in,” seekers seem to like what they see; in fact, North Point’s services have been likened to TED Talks.

“The ultimate compliment we’ve gotten is, ‘Hey, that was like a Ted Talk and a concert rolled into one,’” he says. “And we’re like, ‘Yeah. Exactly.’”

Sustaining full engagement: technology’s role

Once a member is “fully engaged” at North Point — as measured in these four areas — technology can (and does) play a role in helping the church maintain that engagement over the long term. Ironically, much of this depends on the ability to identify “red flags,” or gaps, in the engagement process along the way — and, more importantly, to react to these indicators as the ministry opportunities they are.

“Each time there’s a withdrawal of engagement, it’s an opportunity to reach out and find out what’s going on,” Holliday explains. For example, if a member stops giving, maybe he or she lost a job. If they stop volunteering, maybe someone in the family is ill. If they stop going to their small group, maybe they had a bad experience. The key in every instance: getting to why.

“Sometimes it’s a simple as, ‘You know, I’ve been in group for 18 years, and we just decided to take a break for a year,’” Holliday shares. 

But what about those instances when someone really is at risk of leaving the church altogether? Well, as Holliday points out, the first step in stemming that exit is still the same: Why?

“Churches, in general, are pretty good at looking at the front door and knowing who’s coming in,” he says. “I don’t know that all of us are so good at looking at the back door — knowing who we’re losing.”

Once at-risk members are identified, the same technology can help the church try to re-engage them. It might be that a church leader has the information he or she needs to simply touch base with those individuals. The church is also contemplating conducting surveys among people who look less engaged than they used to be, to find out why.

“In our experience, when they’re asked with the right motivation, people are happy to tell you what’s going on,” Holliday says. “It’s one way we can make this really, really big organization much smaller and more personal.”


QUICK FACTS ABOUT NORTH POINT CHURCH

Year Established: 1995

Location of main campus: Alpharetta, Ga.

Number of locations: 6

Number of staff (full- and part-time): 460 / 75

Combined weekly attendance: 35,000

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