The Measure of a Church’s Soul

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  What a brilliant turn of phrase.  Not where the heart is, the treasure will be, but what we count and pursue and value indicates what matters most to us.  Genius.  So, based on this premise from scripture, what does The United Methodist Church care most about?  Well, what do we count and keep track of?  We certainly spend a lot of time talking about “members” — they must be important.  And attendance at worship.  And dollars given weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, quadrennially.  We talk a lot about launching new churches.  So, if we look at what we treasure it is a straight line to what we value:  MORE.  We want more people, more money, and more property.  This is what we value… at least on the quantitative side.

But there is a whole lot more to the story than that.  Our mission, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” is impossible to evaluate based on members, attendance, dollars, or local congregations.  These things have no qualitative standards by which to judge effectiveness in fulfilling the mission.  There is one, and only one reason, we would continue counting what we do as a measure of discipleship, and that is we don’t know how to measure what really matters.

No, that’s not fair.  We DO know what to measure, but we really don’t want to — because counting what really matters won’t give us what we treasure most: MORE.  We need look no further than scripture to understand what will happen if we get serious about discipleship instead of institutional church — our numbers will go down.  At just about every crossroads in scripture where followers were challenged to step up to discipleship, many went away unhappy.  Church membership might be a hobby, but discipleship is not.  Discipleship is a life-shaping vocation.  It requires sacrifice and commitment that most Christians have no interest in giving.  For this reason, we keep the standards of church membership low so that no one is made uncomfortable enough to leave.  Attend worship once in a while, toss in a $10 bill, buy a ticket to a church supper you probably won’t attend, make a donation at the youth car wash and you’re golden for another year.  Count warm bodies in pews and pretend it is a measure of congregational health.  Increase the financial giving by ten percent and you might just get an article written about you.  Cool, easy, and a clear indication of our deepest values.

Except that a growing number of people — not just outside organized churches, but inside as well — are no longer satisfied with such worldly and crass standards.  They want something more.  They want the metrics of our success to change — to shift from the quantitative to the qualitative, measuring how well we’re doing instead of how big we are.  This group of Christians wants to challenge the notion that bigger is better — replacing it with the simpler “better is better.”

But what would this look like?  That’s the rub.  It is so easy to count heads in a sanctuary or dollars and cents in a collection plate.  Spiritual growth and faith formation are much trickier.  To measure and evaluate spiritual transformation means we actually have to talk to each other.  It means we have to have clear expectations.  It means we have to hold each other accountable. And we have to define clear goals and benchmarks for both personal and congregational improvement.  Whew!  No wonder we count — real measurement is hard!

The congregations in The United Methodist Church that are the healthiest (based on the research in my book Vital Signs) are very intentional in five areas:

  1. expectations and standards for participation
  2. a commitment to lifelong learning
  3. personal and group covenants
  4. fruits-based (outcomes-based) goal-setting
  5. accountable support

Expectations and Standards for Participation — before you can measure and evaluate anything, you need to know what it ought to be like.  In most of our churches, we offer very vague, hazy standards for membership or participation.  I believe we do this intentionally, as a way to hold onto members and not scare them away.  If we ask a person to “uphold the church by prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness,” but do not define more clearly what we mean, then the person can perform in any way he or she wishes, and everything’s fine.  But if we say, “will you promise God and this congregation to pray daily for the ministries of the church and the well-being of the congregation, participate fully in the worship, study, fellowship, and service life this church each and every week, make both a monetary and a physical commitment to support the missional work of the congregation beyond mere maintenance, engage in service to someone outside the congregation every week, and share your faith in an intentional and open way with people you encounter through the week,” we’re asking for trouble.  Oh, sure, we have actually given people something concrete to agree with or to reject, but because what we ask actually means something, more people will probably say no.  These vows are vows of discipleship, not membership, and we all know that discipleship is no good way to grow a church!  But, healthy churches do these very things (and while they might not be huge, they are solid, strong, and growing.  Go figure…)

A Commitment to Lifelong Learning — there is no graduation from discipleship.  There is transformation from a follower to a leader, from a student to a teacher, from an apprentice to a master craftsman, and from disciple to steward — but the function of learning is for all time.  Learning, study, discussion, practice, and exploration are not options for disciples.  They are optional for members, obviously, but healthy churches have virtually no interest in members.  Leaders in healthy churches are focused on equipping Christians to be the body of Christ in the world.  They don’t waste time strategizing ways to keep pewsitters happy and content.  They strategize ways to motivate pewsitters to become priests, pastors, and prophets — and those most interested in active service receive the majority of  the leadership’s time and attention.  From every person from early childhood through extreme old age, healthy churches expect active participation in learning and formation experiences.  Spiritual formation is a higher priority than Sunday morning worship.  Healthy churches awakened to an important fact, worship doesn’t lead to discipleship nearly as well as authentic discipleship results in phenomenal worship.  Worshippers might want to become disciples; disciples absolutely must worship.

Personal and Group Covenants — “do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”  This was perhaps the most diabolical and unChristian question humankind ever devised.  It assumes and perpetuates a heinous myth — that religion is personal and private.  It may be, as long as you do not come from the Judeo-Christian traditions.  If you are Christian, you are part of a “people of God,” not a “person of God.”  The “WE” of Christianity always trumps the “ME” of any one individual.  It really doesn’t matter what individuals want or like or need or hope for or decide or expect.  This church of OURS belongs first to God, and it exists to knit us together as the body of Christ.  There is no “I” in “We” (unless you play Nintendo Wii, then there are two “i”s in Wii…).  In our healthiest churches, participants make explicit, clear, and concise promises to each other.  Participants are clear about the things they will do to build up and strengthen the community of faith, the things they will avoid and not tolerate that undermine good relationships in community, and they pledge to practice spiritual disciplines together as an act of solidarity and unity.  The good of the whole exceeds the wants of the individual.  This is very easy to measure: how well are we keeping the promises we make to God and each other?

Fruits-Based Goal Setting — how many of our churches go through the motions?  We meet for worship on Sunday (or Saturday or Wednesday) and we have a couple Bible studies through the week, and we hold a half-dozen meetings, and we have a luncheon or supper, and the world keeps spinning, unchanged and completely unaware of our existence.  And then we measure our success based on getting a few more people to attend worship or Bible study or a meeting or a luncheon.  Jesus wept.  One of the healthiest churches I visited has as its mission statement: “We will make it impossible for anyone in our community not to know who we are and what we do.”  Isn’t that cool?  Their whole vision and purpose is tied to their witness for Jesus Christ.  A church of around 200 people where at least 180 are actively engaged each and every week in ministry in the community.  Part of their Sunday morning worship experience is to “testify” to the places they have witnessed God’s love in the lives they touch.  This is a church that produces visible, tangible fruit that feeds souls and changes lives — and that is what they measure.  Another church stopped counting how many people enter their doors every week, and instead shifted to counting the number of people they serve outside the church each week.  Counting (quantitative, true) but with a completely different intention– success measured by how much we give instead of how much we get!

Accountable Support — want to know the simplest measure of health versus dysfunction?  Use the word “accountability” and see how people react.  If there is health, accountability is something that makes peoples eyes light up.  They understand what without some guidance and support, improvement is almost impossible.  Just like physical fitness, development and improvement is much easier and more effective with a personal trainer (accountability).  In less healthy and dysfunctional churches, the word accountability brings a negative reaction.  People hear accountability as punitive and controlling.  They don’t WANT to be held to their promises and responsibilities.  Unfortunately, the majority of United Methodists fall into the latter category, and so we are pretty poor at accountability in the UMC.  But, if our real treasure is spiritual growth toward authentic discipleship, there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY to attain it without accountability.  Accountability is a clear indicator of where our heart really is.  So, the people in our healthiest churches regularly talk to each other about their faith.  “And how is it with your soul?” “Where have you experienced the grace of God in your life this week?” “Where have you been able to extend the grace of God to others this week?”  “What is God’s will for our community of faith?”  “What is the witness we wish to be making to our community?”  “What difference are we making in the congregation, in our community, in the world?”  These are not occasional conversations — they are the ongoing and never-ending conversations in our healthiest churches.  And there are consequences.  If people fail to pray, to study, to share, to serve, and to give, they are called to account.  They are given whatever support and guidance they need to continue to grow and develop.  Every person’s growth is the responsibility of every other person — no one is on the journey of faith alone.

These few factors are signficantly different ways of measuring and evaluating our life together as the church.  Most UMs don’t want to get this serious about it, but a growing number do.  While the majority of UM leaders look at the numbers, a faithful remnant are more concerned with discipleship.  Shifting focus is hard.  Many of our pastors are trapped between wanting to measure qualitatively — evaluating the spiritual growth and development of their communities of faith — while being required by “the system” to measure quantitatively — being judged “failures” if they don’t “grow the church” and make sure apportionments are paid in full.  It takes real courage and conviction to actually take our mission of disciple-making seriously in a system that punishes those who do so.  But the system will never change until enough people say “enough!”  I believe we are at a critical juncture.  The number of leaders who are deeply committed to institutional preservation as their main “treasure” are on the wane.  Those who treasure discipleship and global transformation are on the rise — the challenge is to not lose heart.

61 replies

  1. I just found your stuff… about a week too late. I left the Methodist church after a meeting on February 10 where we discussed our plans for the future. I have never been so disappointed or ashamed in my life. We don’t want to do anything for anyone but ourselves. We received a substantial gift of money and it immediately started a fight among our members. One woman actually said out loud that she didn’t want to see us waste our money on poor people who won’t appreciate it anyway. She wants to remodel our church kitchen instead. I tried to say that I thought we should use the money to reach new people, especially younger people, and to really focus in on living our faith as Christian disciples. Two people actually laughed at me. It was explained that it wouldn’t make any difference if we had a ministry for young people because they would just leave after a few months anyway (because young people are shallow and selfish). So the long and the short of it is that we are remodeling the kitchen, getting new carpet and a sound system for the sanctuary, are redoing the bathrooms in the parsonage, and paving our parking lot — all through the generosity of a woman who left money to the church to be used “for the glory of God.”

    I’m not just picking on this church. I was raised United Methodist, went to a Methodist church in college, and have been in three United Methodist churches as an adult (I’m now 27). I have yet to find one with any kind of heart for mission and outreach, and I have about given up. Your blog gives me hope that at least there are other people who believe in discipleship and that congregations should be a place where disciples are formed. I no longer have much confidence, and I doubt I’ll be back to church for a long time.

    • Please don’t give up, Christopher. There are solid UM congregations that desperately need you and will value your commitment and participation.

  2. This and your Feb 12 post about the absence of young adults in our churches are very thought provoking. I immodestly recommend a recent post of mine relevant thereto: “Why ‘Spirituality’ Instead of Religion?

    There has been a lot of posting and commenting on Methodists’ blogs about Wesleyan renewal. Over and again I have read that pastors are the ones who have to make it happen. Well, pastors are necessary but insufficient, but the open insistence of their necessity is also tacit admission that the rest of the polity is not going to do it.

    Michael Slaughter wrote in his recent book, Change the World – Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus (temporarily a free Kindle download), that most Methodist churches consist of spectators, not disciples.

    Wesleyan renewal led by pastors may have occasional successes here and there, but will never revitalize our denomination. It is resisted too strongly by congregations and is not supported by the hierarchy, who frankly seem as wedded to the status quo as any lay person.

    Pessimistic? Yes, I know. Wish I had a solution….

    • Donald,
      I share your sense that we need something more than a pastor led renewal. I also am getting tired of the “Wesleyan” renewal rhetoric. Those who read and study Wesley know he is a mixed bag (there are three very different phases of Wesley’s own spiritual evolution, and interestingly when we refer to “Wesleyan” spirituality we rarely mean the mature Wesley, but we cherry-pick things we like from the early and middle years — ignoring the “escape the wrath to come” language so prevalent in the less mature writing). What we really need is a relevant modern theology that draws from the best of Wesley’s thinking (as well as Albright’s, Boehme’s, and Otterbein’s??) but is also refelcting the wealth of learning and development we have experienced in the past 250 years or so. What I envision is much more a grass-roots, congregational renewal supported by a connectional system. It is happening, but only in small, isolated pockets. It isn’t valued as much as the high profile, pop-success growth stories that dominate our denomination (even though they are as rare, but offer much less lasting value…)

  3. I agree with Dan’s description of a discipleship system as well.

    Where we seem to be in different places is that I find that that discipleship system actually functions better (and actually functions at all in many cases) when the discipleship system, as a system, is a network between congregations and other partners whose own systems are designed to deliver on some of these things far better than congregations acting alone are.

    • We don’t even disagree there. I have long been a champion of moving beyond the current constraints of how we define church, and regularly point out how much more effectively faith is being formed on the fringes. In fact, it is the message that keeps getting me in trouble — the institutional church doesn’t like seeing what it says it exists to do being done better elsewhere.

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