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.
Categories: Christian discipleship, Church growth, Evaluation and Assessment
To Jay in #4 above…
I agree with your assessment that the Christian communities forming in Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts, were “contagious.”
What I don’t agree with is the notion that those communities looked or functioned much like current congregations. Everything we know about early Christianity indicates they didn’t.
What was compelling wasn’t their worship, for example, because, frankly, it couldn’t have been. Early on, because their worship was very little different from mainstream Jewish worship, which they continued to practice, except for what appears to be their “distinctive” practices of baptism and breaking bread/Eucharist. Baptism would be only for converts. Eucharist, from everything we see, was celebrated in homes, probably in upper rooms (which had a bit more floor space to accomodate more of the people from several houses) or courtyards. The point– unless you were already “in” these weren’t things you were likely to see. Ever.
No… these Christians were compelling visibly to others for how they lived their lives both with their immediate communities (often literally sharing living quarters) and how they began to treat others, and by whatever their public or at least interpersonal witness to Jesus was. The congregations (such as they were– kind of rag-tag meetings of house groups) informed that, to be sure– but the proof wasn’t in worship attendance, but in daily life.
So… if you want to talk about Christianity growing, it wasn’t because of or even IN congregations. It was in CHRISTIANS growing and spreading their faith and way of life with each other virally.
No disagreement from me that the growth of the early church was based in the witness of the day to day lives of the participants in these early Christian communities, for as I said, numbers were being added based on their ability to be faithful disciples (both individually and communally). Embodied love and mutuality is, I believe, an attractive thing, and these early disciples from what we can tell took seriously the call to faith and began to embody it in every part of their lives.
My point is not that numbers reflect the quality of discipleship (for as Bill Hybels pointed out in regards to his congregation, that may not be the case) but that quality discipleship, helping folks to live out authentic and deep relationships with Christ embodied in a community of faith which moves from the individualistic narrative of our society toward a recognition of the mutual interdependence of all may be (at least according to the scriptures) something that leads to growth numerically. The problem that we face in this, however, is that when we attempt to adapt this understanding as a growth strategy rather than as a way of life then we generally miss the boat and fall into seeking after numbers rather than working to bring forth changed lives.
In the research I have done, there are four basic results:
1. a focus on quantity of people results in more people in about ten percent of our cases
2. a focus on quantity of people results in no basic change because the focus in unrelated to ability to deliver
3. no focus on quantity of people results in no numeric increase excpet in rare, exceptional cases
4. focus on quality of people’s relationship with God as Christian disciples results in short term numeric decline followed by healthy, sustainable growth
Bottom line, you get what you focus on: focus on numbers and number will go up or down, but they will drive virtually all your planning and thinking. Focus on quality of relationships between people and God/people and people and over time as people grow in their faith and commitment to be the body of Christ, numbers will go up
Dear Jay, this exercise to allocate resources by parts of the core process may be similar to zero base budgeting used in the 1970’s. Staff salaries and those other expenses you mentioned along side the salaries would have to be allocated amongst the parts of the process. It is a laborious process but one could see indicated the relative importance of each part of the process against the others. If one saw a very small % of the total resources allocated to the part of the process indicating a response to people who are suffering or to the part about teaching, then this might cause some discussion about what to do next. Using the zero base budgeting process, each of the parts of the process would have to be ranked. Are there 5 major parts listed for our core process? Were they to be ranked equally, then I suppose 20% of the total resources allocated to each might be an indicator of health. This is just one gauge and is a guide only. To me the numbers game can be like flying a plane and focusing on the gauge that indicates direction and paying little attention to other gauges like the one indicating fuel level. Cuidate mucho. Peace,larry
Another great post. As a volunteer and former numbers guy, the numbers I would like to see most (and on an on-going basis) are those which reflect the proportion of resources dedicated to each of the major themes or parts of our core process. And I would like to hear/see the discussion around how those resources are allocated to each theme or part. Peace,larry
What you said here seemed odd to me at first, but it makes a lot of sense. Resource allocation may very well be the best indicator of Church health, those numbers don’t really lie.
I serve full time on a staff at a fairly large UM Church, worship of 500+ a week, and only 15% of our budget funds ministry directly. The rest funds staff salaries, mortgage, utilities, and such. Is that healthy? It is pretty typical of churches our size.
Of course you do not know who is giving directly to ministries in the community and not the collection plate… nonetheless we are bloated and 85% of our collection goes to serve ourselves… if not more.
That was a very good comment Larry, definitely has me thinking.
Dan, I hear you and agree with you completely. At the same time, one can’t completely ignore quantitative measurement for those numbers may indeed reflect qualitative issues as well. At the risk of misusing the scriptures, part of the witness of the early church in the book of Acts was that folks were being added to their numbers because of the quality of their communal life together, and the quality of their discipleship making. It is a bit of a cliche, but there is some truth in the belief that congregations who are doing discipleship well may well experience an increase in numbers/attendance due to their witness in the world. The problem is when we think that numbers are the sole marker of how a church is functioning in the world.
But, let’s be totally honest here. Yes, I believe that numbers aren’t the only marker or are reflective of the depth of the congregation’s relationship with God, but I am an American male, socialized to think that keeping score is a measure of my worth as an individual. In all honesty, these numerical statistics are simply another way that we keep score, and evaluations are made on a pastor’s effectiveness according to whether we have won or lost in the game of attendance, membership, or whatever the latest metric is. Our culture is one that says that winning at all costs is important, and that the underlying statistics don’t mean much if one can’t “win” in the end. And even though I know all that and attempt to stand against it, I find myself disheartened when I look out and there are fewer people this Sunday than were there last Sunday.
Numbers are with us to stay I think. The question, as you so rightly ask, is whether we are using them to keep score or to discern where God might be leading us next.
Thanks! We just had a visioning weekend, and I am glad to say that the group process led from ‘having more spiritual development activities offered by the church” (code for pastor organizing more classes which often the same people attend!) to “increasing participation (%) in available spiritual development activities and in new groups and classes.” I think the shift moves in the direction you are suggesting.
This is a very good post.
I think of the great commission to go and make disciples and baptize them in the name… It seems that biblical discipleship happens in the context of ‘go’ which is difficult to measure in attendance. The invitation to church or be part of the congregation should be secondary to discipleship outside the walls of the church.
the insights of the pastors you cite are very valuable. I suppose we ought to be careful on the flip side to not use the truths of this posting to justify our decline.
What are the best tools/methods you’ve seen to help people self-assesss and monitor their own growth in discipleship?
I’ve been trying to think up ways to help people self-regulate their growth in discipleship.
Self-assessment is tricky because self-deception is so easy. The absolute best assessment, monitoring, evaluation, and personal development planning happens in small groups of three to five people who meet regularly, hold each other accountable, and stay focused. I’ve seen it happen well in pairs, too, but not as well as in the small, intimate “pods” of spiritual focus. In my experience, women do this better than men, and (this is just an observation not an instruction) they seem to work best when gender-segregated. It seems that men and women do engage in the world differently. What do you know? The healthiest examples I have seen are people who interact two or three times a week — to pray, talk over faith-related issues, maybe discuss a passage of scripture or a book, and many of them covenant to fast, pray, meditate, etc. The basic value is threefold: focus, support, commitment. The small group helps each person stay focused/get focused, there is support and a natural accountability in knowing other people are watching, and the rhythm builds faith practice into a habit. One of the things the group then does is provides feedback to each member about ways their personal growth is perceived.