As a church leader, you should do everything possible to understand the needs of your church, community, and first-time visitors. The more information you have, the better you’re able to make decisions that improve the overall impact and influence of your church.
If you’re serious about putting your finger on the pulse of your church and community, surveys can help. A good survey not only gives you clarity about your church’s wants, needs, and feelings, but it can also help them see that their input matters.
They can help you do things like….
- Define or rewrite your mission and vision.
- Measure the impact of ministries.
- Evaluate leadership.
- Identify problem areas and concerns.
- Improve operations and services.
But for a survey to be useful, you need to follow some best practices.
What’s Your Survey’s Purpose and Audience?
If you want to create an effective survey, you need to know exactly who you’re talking to and what you’re hoping to learn. A survey should have one clear purpose. You can define that purpose by asking yourself a few questions:
1. What is the objective?
Are you trying to get a read on your Sunday school classes? Do you need to decide on a new building project? You should know exactly what you’re hoping to learn from a survey.
2. What do we need to know?
Once you’ve identified the overall objective, you can focus on the kinds of information that will be integral to meeting that goal. If your survey is intended to help improve the music, you might need to know what people think about things like:
- Song selection
- Length of your worship time
3. Who should we talk to?
An excellent survey can go off the rails if you’re talking to the wrong people. Isolate the group that’s going to give you the most helpful feedback.
Keep Your Survey Short and Simple
Once you commit to a survey, there’s a real temptation to bloat it with too many questions. Fight that urge and keep it simple and straightforward.
If a survey is too long, a lot of folks aren’t going to finish it. This means that only the most committed people are going to make it to the end—and they’re generally the people that you already hear from the most. It’s likely that the effectiveness of your survey is going to depend upon getting good feedback from voices on the margins.
Once survey takers pass the 15-minute mark, they start dropping out. So think about brevity as you’re creating questions. Identify and eliminate similar questions, and cut down on open-ended questions that require in-depth, time-consuming responses.
How to Write Good Survey Questions
Your survey is only as good as the questions you ask, so you need to focus on writing the best questions possible. Here are seven tips to improve what you ask:
1. Speak the surveyor’s language
It wouldn’t do you any good to create a survey using Egyptian hieroglyphics or Wingdings. If you want a survey to be useful, the people taking it need to understand what you’re asking.
If you’re giving this survey to first-time visitors or people in your community, make sure that someone wouldn’t need an MDiv to decipher it. You also want to make sure it’s void of insider language and terminology. For example, don’t ask visitors questions like this:
Do you feel like this is a church where you could find meaningful fellowship?
Not only have they probably not attended long enough to answer a question like this, but they might not even know what fellowship means. Every question needs to be crystal clear to the person taking it, or else it’s a wasted opportunity.
2. Simplify questions as much as possible
Don’t make questions too complicated. If you’re trying to understand how people feel about your sermons, don’t ask them questions like this:
Are the pastor’s sermons fun and informative?
This is actually two different questions. Maybe the sermons are fun, but they’re not informative, or vice versa. Another weakness of this question is that it’s entirely subjective. Breaking this into multiple, specific questions will give you more actionable feedback.
3. Don’t allow bias to color the questions
The way you word questions can push people toward particular answers, and that’s not helpful. When you’re coming up with questions, make them objective. This ensures that the answers reflect people’s actual opinions and not the questions’ bias.
Obviously, this means that you don’t start questions with “Don’t you agree that….” Make sure that others go over the questions to see if they’re not leading people toward specific answers.
4. Cover all the possible answers
If you’re asking multiple choice questions, give people all the choices they need. This means that there should typically be options for “I don’t know,” “No opinion,” or “Other.”
You might feel that options like these will screw up your outcome, but that’s not actually accurate. Forcing people to pick incorrect answers will do more damage to your survey. If a lot of survey takers don’t have an opinion about a question, it can help you re-prioritize that issue. And by adding a blank field to a question with an “Other” answer, you can get information you never thought to ask for.
Quick Tips on Survey Formats
While this post is focused on survey questions, there are a couple of things you want to keep in mind when you’re formatting your survey:
1. Include a progress bar
Most survey apps give you the option to include a progress bar. The point of a progress bar is to give people an idea of how much further they need to go to finish. If you’re using an app or tool that doesn’t have a progress bar, at least tell people upfront how long the survey will likely take.
2. Check the survey on multiple devices
If your survey doesn’t work well on mobile devices, tablets, and computers, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Before it goes live, test it on as many devices as possible.
3. Don’t force answers
Some apps will allow you to force responses by not allowing users to move on unless they answer every question. This is a mistake. Respect your survey takers by enabling them to bypass questions that they don’t feel comfortable answering.
What Kinds of Survey Questions Are There?
One of the keys to taking a good survey is formatting the questions well. There are quite a few ways to present questions and they all have strengths and weaknesses. Considering the time you want people to spend on a survey and the depth of the data you want to pull from it will help you decide the format of the questions.
Most of the questions you’ll ask in a survey are close-ended. These ask the respondent to choose the best answer (although you can include open fields in some formats). Close-ended questions help keep people focused and ensure that the data is helpful. If you have too many open-ended questions, you’ll end up with a time-consuming survey that can end up providing too many meandering and unhelpful responses.
Here are some of the different close-ended questions for your survey:
1. Likert scale questions
Likert scale surveys are one of the most popular styles. This style focuses on attitudes and opinions. Instead of asking yes/no questions or encouraging respondents to choose from a number of potential answers, it asks them to indicate how much they agree with a statement or to gauge their feelings about a question.
For instance, a Likert scale question might look like this:
How satisfied are you with the church’s coffee?
- Very satisfied
- No opinion
- Very unsatisfied
The reason that the Likert scale is so popular for surveys is that it allows you to pull quantitative data that’s incredibly easy to analyze. The fact that respondents are allowed to be neutral if they choose means that you don’t have to worry that forced responses will skew your results.
2. Semantic differential questions
If you want to measure attitudes or feelings, semantic differential questions can help. They’re very similar to Likert-style questions, but they remove some of the bias that might exist in a question.
For instance, you might want to understand how people perceive your Sunday school classes. With a Likert-style question, you might end up with a question like this:
I feel that the Sunday school classes are helpful.
- Strongly agree
- No opinion
- Strongly disagree
The reader is left to decide for themselves how to define “helpful,” and then they have to base their response on that. A semantic differential question allows them to give more concise attitudes.
Please rate our Sunday school classes on the following:
Informative ੦ ੦ ੦ ੦ ੦ Shallow
Relaxed ੦ ੦ ੦ ੦ ੦ Regimented
Social ੦ ੦ ੦ ੦ ੦ Formal
Short ੦ ੦ ੦ ੦ ੦ Long
The advantage of this style of questioning is that it allows people to express their opinions about a concept, idea, or ministry more completely. The Likert scale only allows people to communicate their level of agreement, but the semantic differential allows for more nuance and a better understanding of their attitudes.
3. Multiple choice questions
Multiple choice questions allow you to shape the answers. The survey taker gets the question and a predetermined list of answers to choose from. The answers can be simple “yes/no” responses (dichotomous), or it could include a wider variety of answers:
What is your preferred method of giving to the church?
- Website form
- Mobile app
- Recurring giving
Multiple choice questions are easy on respondents and tend to make for quick surveys, and the data is relatively easy to compile and analyze. But there are some weaknesses, too. For one, unless you include an “Other” option with an empty field, you don’t know if they would rather make another choice. The data also doesn’t help the analyzer understand the why behind the answer.
4. Dichotomous questions
As a subset of the multiple choice question, dichotomous questions give you a simple either/or response like yes/no, agree/disagree, or true/false. You’d use this choice when you want a cut-and-dry opinion or response.
I wish we took communion more often.
A dichotomous question is simple to score, but it doesn’t give a lot of usable data. For instance, you would be able to tell from the question above that the respondent would like to have communion more often, but you would never know how often.
5. Rank order questions
Sometimes you want to see how people would prioritize various opportunities or compare items against each other. This is where rank order questions come in handy. Here’s an example of a rank order question:
If we had a surplus in our budget, where do you think it should go?
Please rank the following responses by dragging and dropping them in order.
- New sound system
- Re-pave the parking lot
- New chairs in the cry room
- New pew Bibles
Rank order questions help you assess what matters most to your respondents. This will give you a quick statistical breakdown of your survey takers’ preferences. When making decisions, this style of questioning can be extremely beneficial.
As is the case with multiple choice questions, you’ll never know why someone has chosen to rank items in the order they did, and there’s no real way to tell how much higher something is prioritized over another choice. It could be that they’re pretty close, but the respondent is required to rank one over the other.
Sometimes you want survey takers to provide their own answers, and that’s what open-ended questions are for. Open-ended questions are going to give you a lot more depth, but a lot less structure. Analyzing a bunch of survey results is a painstaking business if it’s full of open-ended questions. But when they’re used sparingly alongside other kinds of questions, they can give your survey a lot of depth and breadth.
Here’s an example of a practical open-ended question:
What is one thing that we could be doing to fulfill our mission better?
Open-ended questions can be helpful for a couple of reasons:
- They allow the survey taker to give you any information they feel is relevant.
- They allow for a lot more detail.
- They give you insight into the way people think.
- They offer answers that you couldn’t have predicted.
Example Questions for a First-Time Visitor Survey
Now that we’ve looked at how to build a survey, let’s look at an example of some survey questions. This survey would be the kind of survey you might email to first-time visitors who have filled out a contact card:
1. Age range of adults in your home:
- Other (open field)
This question can help identify if there is a demographic that’s attracted to your church. You might think of yourself as a church for young adults, but experience could say that you’re consistently drawing people in the 46–55 range.
The open-field response is for people who don’t fit into these ranges, such as those with adult children in their home.
2. What is your prior church experience? (Mark all that apply):
- No experience
- Attended church as a child
- Attended youth group
- Attended college ministry
- I used to attend church regularly
- I currently attend church regularly
- Other (open field)
This question can help you understand the religious background of the people your church attracts. By having them mark all that apply, you can know when or where they dropped out of attendance.
The open field response allows for information that the respondent might find relevant.
3. Please evaluate your experience with our church:
- Children’s classes
- Overall experience
These would be Likert scale questions with the following breakdowns:
- Very unsatisfactory
- Very satisfactory
4. Were the nursery and children’s ministry helpers courteous and helpful?
- If no, we apologize! Please explain: (Open field)
One of the most important factors for visitors is how they perceive the children’s ministry. The whole point of this question is just to make sure you see your nursery and children’s ministry from the perspective of others.
5. How did you hear about our church?
- Social media
- Church member invitation
- Other (Open field)
This might be the most important information you receive on this survey. It’s going to tell you what’s working and what isn’t.
6. Would you recommend ____ to a friend?
- If no, tell us what we could do better: (Open field)
If you really want to know what someone thinks about your church, ask them if they’d recommend it. If they wouldn’t, ask them why. The answer might be difficult to hear, but the changes that can come from it are outstanding.
Surveys Are Incredibly Useful
They may take some planning and effort to put together, but a survey can give you insights that you can’t get anywhere else. The great thing about them is that you can keep working on them until they’re just right.