Finding What We Look For

Scott Kline, a professional driver, managed to wreck a million-dollar prototype hybrid car when it was first being tested.  When asked to explain what happened, Kline reported,

I got so engrossed looking at all the dials and gauges and screens on the dashboard that I forgot to look where I was going.

There is an important cautionary word in this for our church — as “dashboards” to count and measure and track become the new toy we get all excited about in the church, we need to remember that collecting data and monitoring statistics has virtually nothing to do with making disciples of Jesus Christ.  You cannot evaluate quality by focusing on quantity.

Our new “Vital Congregations” emphasis has all the marks of steering us in the wrong direction.  While its leaders talk about “goal setting” and “missional objectives,” the underlying message is that numbers are the ultimate indicator of health and vitality.  Having high blood pressure, myself, I can attest to the fact that large numbers are not always to be desired.  Having MORE people, small groups, projects, pastors, ministries, and money seems, on the surface, to be a good thing.  However, there is an implicit given that must be taken into consideration, and that is a presumed quality.  The presumption that our future growth will all be high quality denies our current reality: if we’re not doing very well with what we already have, it is highly unlikely we will do better with more.  A few examples:

Professions of Faith — it has long been assumed that we are doing our evangelical job if we can get non-Christians to drop the “non-” and become Christians.  Good as far as it goes, but when I did my study of congregational vitality last decade, I found that the number of professions of faith is conditional on “sticking-power.”  Four churches from the south-central jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church reported these numbers for a three-year period.  Church A: 45 professions of faith; Church B: 49; Church C: 7; Church D: 9.  By our current standards, Church B is doing the best job — and, by golly, they were featured in magazines and on websites.  However, at the end of the three-year period, how many of the professions were still fully engaged and active in their congregation?  Church A: 9 (20%); Church B: 7 (14%); Church C: 7 (100%); Church D: 8 (89%).  If we focus on engagement and retention rate, then C is doing the best job with D dogging its heels.  Integrity topples size.  The number of professions is not as good an indicator as integration and staying power.

Number of Small Groups — once again, simply having lots of groups and staying busy is a poor indicator of health.  Some of the most toxic congregations in our denomination have some very strong small groups — that act independently and subversively and do more damage than good.  Also, the structure and focus of the groups is incredibly important.  One large church I visited had an active small group ministry, and in the few days I was there I went out to dinner with one group, went a movie with another, had “pizza and prayer” with a third, and sat and bitched about politics with a fourth.  The fellowship was fine at each, but spiritual formation and focus?  Not so much.  Yet, books have been written about this church’s approach to small group ministry.  In Oklahoma, I attended a very small church that only had about half its members in small groups.  However, each group met once a week for prayer, Bible study, “to discuss ‘and how is it with your soul,’ and to engage together in one act of missional service beyond the congregation.  Which church has the strongest small group ministry?

Worship Attendance — visiting a campus ministry, I was deeply impressed by the number of students engaged in leading worship.  Perhaps seventy people attended the worship service — and over fifty were involved in leading or participating in some part of it.  The level of engagement was spectacular.  It was obviously a meaningful experience for everyone involved.  There was nothing passive about the service, and no one came as a “consumer.”  Worship was treated as a verb, not a noun.  The “worshipping community” is not the same as those who “attend worship.”  Worship isn’t about the spectators, but the players; not about the audience but the performers.  To engage in worship is a very different phenomenon than merely observing it.  Getting more people to sit in the pews at a service is as healthy as gaining weight — it does little to promote health, and over time can cause more harm than good.  When passive worship becomes the norm, moving people to any kind of action becomes more difficult.  Christian worship is more than just showing up.

More Money for Mission — this one is a “yes, but…”  When I did my vital congregations study, I was struck by the number of churches that commit one-third to one-half of their total budget to missions.  In our day of difficult economic times and exorbitant infrastructure costs, it takes a huge commitment to give so much to missions.  Churches that give a lot do so because missions and service are a deep core value — where the treasure is, there the heart is found, also.  Too many of our churches struggle to give to missions because missions are defined as something to “give to,” rather than to “engage in.”  No church I found that gave sacrificially to missions did so without a significant portion of the congregation involved in “hands-on” mission.  Many of our churches that pride themselves on missions have a small handful of people doing mission work on behalf of the larger congregation.  Then, another segment throws money into the plate in support of the small group doing mission work, and the whole church takes pride in how “involved” it is.  Mission giving must be multivalent — measured not just in terms of money, but time, energy, presence, skills, and knowledge.

Number of Disciples Engaged in Ministry — this comes from the language of the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops.  Once more, I would say that it is less about numbers and more about percentages (and I simply don’t think we have enough “disciples” to measure at the moment…)  Time after time, I visited churches of varying sizes where the larger was viewed as healthier than the smaller, yet the smaller congregations had a much larger percentage engaged in “hands-on” ministry.  In one town, a church of about 500 had 70 people engaged in active ministry on a weekly/daily basis (14%).  A few streets over, a church of approximately 40 had 35 members engaged in ministry seven days a week (88%).  The focus on numbers hides the fact that the smaller congregation is doing ministry together while the larger congregations enjoys a handful of people doing ministry in their name — a very different thing.

Tracking numbers is a way of doing something when you don’t know what else to do.  It allows you input to foster behavior modification, but not transformation.  Vision and relationships have the power to transform, not dashboards.  Selling our soul to statistics is futile at best, deeply sad at worst.  Being church is made secondary to being bigger.  Indeed, goal setting and planning are important to our vitality, but our objectives and plans should be developed to do the discerned will of God, not just get more people in our doors.  Through our best efforts, I believe we can get more people.  The questions I still have, however, is do we care what kind of people we will get, and do we have a clue what to do with them?

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54 replies

    • By all means. I am interested in the comments in defense of “intentions.” I have never said we should not track quantitative metrics, but that they are inadequate and that we should not pretend they measure something they do not. We have always had the freedom to interpret and analyze the copious data we collect, but that doesn’t mean we have done it in the past or that we are likely to do better as we move forward. Sadly, this is another instance of doing something the same way we have done it in the past and expecting different results (just look at last decades Natural Church Development fad…).

  1. Gosh, trying new things and looking at vital church life from new perspectives raises lots of anxiety. Those of us serving small to mid-size congregations, in small towns and villages often wonder if the leadership of the UMC is willing to consider the challenges of serving in the “less than prime” settings. I’m wiling to gather the data. As for how it can or will be used, I’m less confident it will help us in our disciple making. But I’m willing to stay engaged in the conversation.

  2. Rev Dick, this article is insightful and on target for me. Here is a question. We have a small church – 50-60 on typical Sunday. Our apportionments are ten percent of our budget and other than a preschool we run, our largest mission. How do we pay apportionments as a mission and comply with the need to have hands on mission? We all literally “throw money in the plate ” to pay UMM apportionments.
    Our preschool tuition helps us meet our budget, so in effect we pay a preschool staff (not members of our church) from money they bring in to our church from student tuition, and use any income that is higher than costs to pay the light bills, and IF there is any left over, we pay apportionments and support local missions ( local missions are less than 2% of our budget).
    Some members actually consider apportionments a bill because the results of how it is uses are not visible and not hands-on.
    How do we transform ourselves into an active mission oriented church?

    • A couple thoughts — one that comes from my own experience. I served a church where local, hand’s on mission work was a high value and denominational support much lower. My approach was threefold: 1) I got as much information as I could from denomination and conference on ways UM money is spent on the things my people cared most about. As an older congregation, children’s needs, elder care, and disaster response were very important. I found ways to tell the UM story how we address these things locally, throughout the conference, throughout the U.S. and around the world. 2) I broke down the per member/per week cost of our apportionment funds. It came to approximately $1.77 per member per week. I challenged my folks to find a way to save $2 per week. We highlighted 74 ministries of the UMC, so we were able to promote that our giving was a little less than 3 cents per week to 74 important ministries — ministries that saved lives, improved quality, built community, strengthened God’s kingdom and transformed the world. It took less than a year to get our small church proud and excited about the money we gave to the general church. 3) we promoted a $100 challenge — asking every individual or family, and every group in the church (Sunday school, UMW, UMM, UMYF, board/committee/council, etc.) to commit to giving/raising and additional $100 over the course of the year to give to apportionments. In a three year period, my church of 60 (mostly older on fixed incomes) went from paying 37% of our apportionments to paying 212%. The whole key was to break it down to the simplest terms: $2 per week to support 74 ministries that people cared deeply about to change lives and to do good in the world. Even our children’s Sunday school was able to do a fundraiser to add their $100 over the courase of a year; our adult Sunday school class raised it in one week just by passing the plate. Too often we get stuck behind the big number/percentage and it feels oppressive and unreasonable. Add to that the fact that many people have no idea where the money goes and it is no wonder we stuggle to pay disciplinary obligations. UM people are not stingy — they just want to know that their money is supporting a worthwhile cause.

      • What great suggestions. I feel good that we can present this and begin transforming our church. Thank you so much, Dan. Please keep talking to us, you are a gifted leader!

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