In recent months I have visited a number of churches where leaders have apologetically said to me, “Our numbers are down. We always lose them through the summer.” Worship attendance is currently the primary metric for a church’s effectiveness — which is ironic because worship attendance has nothing to do with effectiveness. It measures attendance. This may indicate popularity of a preacher or music program. It may witness to the importance of worship to individual worshipers. It may indicate the success of marketing or personal invitation. But the mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How many people show up on a Sunday morning is not an appropriate evaluative metric of the congregation’s effectiveness at discipleship for transformation. If filling our pews is the point, counting warm bodies is the right measure. Changed lives/changed world? Different metrics apply.
A growing number of our churches have stopped counting those who come through our doors. They are more interested in what happens to people after they leave. I spoke to lay and clergy leaders of two smaller Midwestern congregations this week that both have goals of serving the needs of others outside the church, of equipping people to share their faith and monitor how effectively they do it, and of engaging new people in serious spiritual formation and development. They do qualitative evaluation and assessments rather than “counting.” “Oh, we use numbers,” a lay leader told me. “If we served 65 meals last week, our goal is to serve 70 this week. If we got nine volunteers to help out last week, we strive for ten this week. If we have four people equipped to teach a small group this quarter, we aim to have five next quarter. So, yeah, numbers matter, but not as much as understanding how people’s faith and lives are changing.”
Another pastor shared the congregation’s goal of “everyone in ministry.” “When I arrived here, fifteen people did everything. This is in a church of almost 200 people. We began doing individual and congregational goal setting, and made service to others our priority. All of our planning is to help people be in ministry. Our goal is 100%. We have homebound women who minister by phone and email. We have retired men ministering through home repair. We have people working with children, the poor, the sick, the abused, and the elderly. We stress that everyone can do something. I don’t care how many people come to church on Sunday morning; I only care that they act like Jesus wherever they are, whenever they can.”
“I served big churches for years, and even started a ‘successful’ new church about twenty years ago. Everywhere I served we were very concerned with numbers. We liked being big. Everybody felt like we were a super church whenever we took in new members. We had visitors all the time. We were on TV. We were hot stuff. But when I am honest, these ‘large’ churches were really small, active churches within much larger, much more passive congregations. At my most successful, I worked with about 100 real Christian leaders to lead about 1,000 people perfectly happy to sit and be served. I led big churches, not strong churches.”
Another pastor shared a similar thought. “I came out of retirement to work with a small church. The church I am serving now has about 80 members… maybe 60 active. The last church I served was about 800 members, with about 300 active. I compare the two and scratch my head. My little church of 80 is doing much better, much more effective ministry than my church of 800 ever did. For me, the key difference is discipleship. I am leading a church working seriously on its discipleship today. My last church was more serious about growth, but in numbers not faith.”
A young pastor lamented, “But if you don’t pay attention to numbers, no one thinks you know what you’re doing. I am in a little dying church in the country. The only way I could get more people to come to church would be to go out and dig them up from the graveyard and put them in the pews. My friend from seminary is in a small church, but in a growing suburb. He is seen as a better pastor because more people come to his church. We have more ministries and we’re doing as much good as they are, but he is viewed as more successful because he has taken in twenty members in the same span of time that I have lost five.”
“You can’t make disciples if you don’t get them in the doors. We aren’t just interested in numbers for numbers sake,” shared a pastor of a fast growing congregation. “Our problem is that we can’t really track how each person is doing in their faith. We assign them to small groups, but that’s always a struggle. We only have about 40% of our people attending small groups on a regular basis, but you have to trust that people are growing in their faith. All we can do is make the experiences available to people. It’s not our job to micro-manage each person’s relationship with God.” I do wonder, though, if we are too big to know each other and know how lives are being changed, then maybe we are too big…
Another retired pastor reflected, “In my entire ministry, I can only point to a handful of people that I could say were true disciples. I wasn’t trained to form Christian disciples. I was trained to be a shepherd to a congregation. It wasn’t about helping people become ministers; it was about ministering to people. I had a very ‘successful’ ministry by denominational standards — all but two of my seven churches grew numerically during my tenure. But by the standards of ‘making disciples’? I have no way to answer that.
This tracks with what I found doing research for the General Board of Discipleship. 71% of United Methodists define Christian discipleship as “believing that Jesus Christ is the son of God.” Only 1-in-4 define discipleship more by action than belief. Sixty percent of our congregational leaders — both clergy and laity — use attendance, membership, and financial contributions as the primary measures for successful ministry. This jumps to eighty-five percent when the number of ministries and programs is factored in. Just under 15% describe qualitative metrics alongside quantitative. Twenty percent of the clergy and laity respondents argue that faith can’t be measured, so we do the best with what we’re got. Just over 50% believe that discipleship is a “yes/no” issue — either a person is a disciple or she is not. They maintain that measuring spiritual maturity is too subjective. Three-out-of-four congregational leaders believe the assessment of spiritual maturity is both personal and private — each person needs to determine for himself just how spiritually mature he is. It is also worth noting that almost 40% of congregational leaders argue that our real mission is disciple-making. As one pastor wrote, “Just because something gets voted at General Conference doesn’t make it true. Our mission is to preach, teach, and heal and I think we do that quite effectively. We have no unrealistic expectations that everyone should be a disciple. Jesus didn’t expect it, and neither do we.”
One of the most memorable phone calls I ever received was from a pastor seeking my consultation services. I asked him to describe the congregation’s vision to me. Without hesitation he said, “We want to be the largest church in our annual conference!” I pressed him to explain why the church felt this was important. “It would be our witness to the world,” he answered. I pressed further — prodding for what kind of witness he meant. “The bigger we are the more we can do, the more we can do the bigger we’ll get. Being the biggest church means we will be the best church. Big churches are getting it right, and they witness to the world that the Christian faith is true.”
Size matters, but it doesn’t say anything about whether or not we’re “getting it right.” I have worked with dysfunctional churches of all sizes. The most impressive and inspiring churches I have worked with are almost all under 300 members (though I am impressed by the powerful ministries of many larger churches). In both cases, what it most impressive is that they don’t care how big they are, they’re more interested in how what they do changes lives.