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. No matter what system you use, whether the model proposed by Dan or Taylor, it still comes down to the leadership – pastoral and lay. In every congregation I’ve served, I’ve developed discipleship systems that were producing Christians with a deeper commitment to Christ and an outward view of living the Christian life. If I remained in that pastorate long enough to develop those disciples to a degree they were comfortable leading groups on their own, they continued developing. If a pastor followed me who was just as committed as I to developing disciples as compared to members, their growth continued. But if they were still young in their discipleship growth, or the pastor following me was not committed to developing such a system, it ended.

    Covenant Discipleship groups, Emmaus and the like are wonderful if they are available or there are leaders (pastors and lay) who will drive the need for such groups. If not, as in most of the churches in my experience, even they will not have success at the local level.

    And many of our churches are at a distance from groups that already exist. If we don’t look at the local congregation to develop a discipleship system within that congregation, we won’t have a method for developing discipleship at all. So a :”both-and” approach is great. Use whatever system you can to develop discipleship within the members and community surrounding the congregation of which you are a part. Join with other congregations (even non-UMC) to build a system for your local area when you can. But when non of that is available, you have to turn to the local congregation alone.

    And it all rises or falls on the leadership – local lay, pastor, superintendent and Bishop. Support of pastors and congregations who are working hard to develop systems for discipleship development must occur. I believe it’s beginning to happen in Wisconsin. Through our Circuits and with support of the cabinet for non-traditional models, we are beginning to see some development in some of the churches. But there are others where the pastor nor the lay leadership are concerned and development does not occur. ‘

    I’m in a pretty strong circuit. We have a strong core of leadership which includes laity and pastors. But we have one church served by a retired pastor who is only there for the worship services (nothing against this pastor, just stating a reality) and they are not participating at the same level as the other churches in our circuit.

    So, how do we help pastors and churches make the switch even to develop systems for discipleship – whether we rely on the “outside” groups, or an internal systems development?

    • Jeff, I believe we begin by making it a standard expectation — congregational leaders will make discipleship formation a priority in the local church. Then, when there is resistance, the leadership will be encouraged and supported to focus attention and energy on those who do want to grow in their discipleship, rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator. I think it requires a system-wide overhaul in most local churches — worship grounded in theology rather than style, education grounded in formation rather than information, membership/participation grounded in engagement and performance with accountability instead of signing up and paying dues, service beyond the local congregation as a baseline expectation rather than an exceptional occurrence. Often, when people hear me talk about discipleship and accountability they jump to the conclusion that I think everyone in the church should be perfect and completely mature in their faith. What I mean is that a healthy congregation holds everyone to a standard of growth toward spiritual maturity, and they measure qualitatively as well as quantitatively. People rise or fall to the level of expectations their leaders have for them. As long as we hold to an attitude that you just can’t expect much from people, that is exactly what we will continue to get — not much. But if we pay attention to churches that are doing it well, we learn two things: 1) it isn’t that difficult, and 2) a lot more people want authentic discipleship and spirituality than we think. But as long as we let people off the hook and settle for whatever people are willing to do or give, we will not become the church we need to be.

      • And that’s what I’m talking about…. It’s been interesting to me, as clergy, how many folks in the local church really do want to deepen their spiritual maturity. The messages I’ve preached that have been best received and acted upon are those with strong theological grounding calling people to greater commitment to Christ. And, yes, I have found that raising the bar on spiritual growth in the local congregation and then developing a system to support it isn’t that difficult. I have tons of stories in this regard.

        The biggest issue I’ve had to experience is to not raise the bar too high too fast so that I leave everyone behind. I’ve had to learn to gauge forward progression meeting folks where they are and offering a future picture that is compelling, then moving at a pace they are able to handle. I’ve wanted to rush things at times.

        One congregation on my current charge said “What we’ve been doing isn’t working. Show us a different way.” You bet I jumped on that, but I’ve also moved methodically in helping them make the decisions that fit here. We’re using Mike Slaughter’s “Unlearning Church” to stretch our thinking, supplementing it with material from “Vital Signs” and and other great material to help us consider ways of being the church that is different from what we’ve been. We’re beginning to see folks outside the church not as “outsiders” to be kept out, but folks that God loves and now we’re trying to discover how to connect our lives with their lives in positive ways.

        I was taught the model of focusing on those who are ready rather than catering to the lowest common denominator by Doug Anderson many years after seminary. I hope that seminaries are doing a better job in this regard! This model helps build momentum for the change we need. Catering to the lowest denominator kills it.

        Thanks, Dan

  2. Dan,

    I agree with you completely that there are unhealthy “splinters” that are splinters and I wouldn’t want any congregation to connect people to them.

    I also agree that the notion that “paying apportionments” equals “we’ll let this congregation keep the cross and flame on it” is a bad one. It’s bad for discipleship. And it’s bad for the “brand” United Methodist. McDonald’s wouldn’t let a franchise that refuses to carry the entire menu and meet its service standards keep the name. The franchise agreement is not a just a financial agreement. When you display the golden arches, you reflect on the whole brand. Fail to deliver on the brand promise and you are no longer a franchisee. Period. Surely this denomination has more invested in the name United Methodist than to keep allowing our franchises consistently ignore the established menu and massively underserve their customers.

    Jeff, it’s Doug Anderson’s “who’s ready and what’s ready” mantra that completely lies behind what I’m describing. Congregations MUST be held accountable to make sure that those who participate in them are pointed toward discipleship, and especially for those whose eyes light up when accountability and growth come up, engaged in a system somewhere (very likely other than what most of our congregations can or will deliver well at this point) that helps them get where they’re trying to go.

    And I’d say you may be surprised if you asked laity about where they’re finding meaningful support for discipleship. Even in congregations that have discipleship systems (or what they call that), many laity are likely to tell you their actual support for becoming and behaving more like Jesus happens elsewhere. Those who want it are finding it, in all sorts of ways, some better than others. What I’m describing is a process where the congregation takes more responsibility a) to discover those connections and b) partner with them in ways that ensure they really do provide solid support for disciple formation and missional deployment. It’s all about who’s ready and what’s ready. And it’s recognizing that more people may be ready, and more processes may already be in place, than we imagine if we limit our vision of church and disciple making to what congregations can or do deliver well.

    And one more thing, Jeff– what you are describing about your experience of developing discipleship systems within the congregation only to see the next pastor tear them down or ignore them, or that you’re not actually there long enough to help those systems take sufficient root– that’s all the more reason (until we can admit that itineracy worked for societies but not for congregations) to look at building partnerships with others outside the congregation rather than just relying on internal systems. Those outside partners can provide some pressure to keep congregations accountable to their end of the bargain even if the next pastor has far less interest in much more than the least common denominator.

  3. Hmmm. Interesting Taylor.
    Okay, let me flesh out my experience in the congregations I’ve served just a bit more, especially as it regards three areas: 1- members finding their support outside of the congregation, 2 – partnering with other outside groups to provide continuity during pastoral changes, and 3 – availability of groups to location of members.

    1. Most of the folks in the churches I’ve served have averaged over 60 years of age. For the most part, they grew up in the church of which they’re still a member. They claim no outside friendships with others outside the church, although in reality, they have friendships outside of the church, but not outside the community except as their families have moved them out. Most will not consider going outside of “their” church to find faith formation because most have not been encouraged and/or taught that there is something more than church membership to be a Christian. So I again come back to the leadership issue. If a pastor and/or other lay leaders are excited about developing discipleship, many of these can become involved and many of the problems that you’ve identified can be overcome. Without such leadership, they won’t move out of their comfort zone and discipleship systems inside or outside of the congregation won’t occur.

    2. Even with the outside groups, some pastors have torn down some of the groups because of their perceived theology. One person that followed me didn’t like the children of a family being involved in Awana, which also drew the parents in to the family support system of the other, more conservative congregation. He gave them a choice – stay with that group and transfer your membership or stop going. I’ve also had lay leadership look down on folks who were gaining their spiritual growth from groups outside of their congregation. So your point of changing the mindsets is vital and real. But my experience has been that when I’ve gathered the ones who are ready, and worked with them, they didn’t need to go to outside groups for discipleship because they found the means to do it through their small group. And, unlike many small groups, they didn’t close it to others and were intentional about inviting others and then breaking off into two small groups when they averaged above 15 in attendance.

    3 – Many of our churches are away from population centers with groups being available. We either have to help start such groups or we won’t have any to help people get plugged in – so we’re back to the local church as the nucleus for spiritual formation.

    • One of the things I note in both your reflections and Taylor’s responses is another issue that I believe needs addressing: pastoral dependency. If the health and vitality of a congregation depends on the appointed pastoral leader, the congregational system is unstable at best. And, yes, before you say it, I know how rare it is for a church to be healthy enough to withstand the vagaries of the appointive system. And yet, some do it, and they do so collaboratively and congregationally. In these settings, the “congregation” IS the covenant community, acting as a unit — where the WE is more important than the various MEs. A high standard and ideal? Certainly, and those who find it love it (and those who don’t love it, avoid it like the plague). I believe the pastor can play a central role in holding a higher vision, but if that vision does not saturate a critical mass of the community of faith, it cannot sustain the whiplash of significantly different pastoral leadership. This is where I found the light of hope in the United Methodist Church — congregations that took ownership of their communal life and conduct, not making it the responsibility of the appointed and elected leaders. Once it is in a community of faith’s DNA is transforms the congregation (as a whole) into a healthy center for spiritual transformation, and it is possible more places than we are willing to believe.

  4. Pastoral dependency is very much an issue – that’s what we pay him/her for. And helping congregations move beyond that to a self-sustaining discipleship process is a key focus, in my opinion. The groups I’ve referred to that ended up being the healthiest were the ones that were quickly weaned from dependency upon me, as pastor, to leadership within the group itself. — so we end up with “which came first, the chicken or the egg” syndrome. For most congregations, the pastor must raise the higher vision and work with developing that group of lay members to achieve that saturation necessary to sustain momentum forward. In practice, I’ve started raising a higher vision the moment I arrive at a new congregation, then I look for those who’s eyes brighten at the thought of something more (spiritually rather than numbers) and deeper, I invite them into the conversation on the vision and ask them to help develop that vision, model living it with them, and then set them free to develop it with all the support I can give while not keeping them dependent upon me.

    This past summer I received a note from one such church member who’s congregation is now experiencing growth they haven’t seen in years. It took them 8 years to get to this point. Her comment to me was, “Jeff, you were here planting the seeds of the growth we’re now experiencing! Thanks!” That made all the heartache and negative comments against me worth it.

  5. Jeff,

    I commend your leadership and your wisdom not to keep folks attached personally to you.

    You’re right that established groups you can (or should) trust aren’t always available. Where they aren’t you do need, as pastor, to create them.

    Going back to the Wesleys, you can see in the journals that there were essentially three ways a Methodist society would form. Some were existing societies (though usually for other purposes) that were attached to particular congregations. Others were existing societies that included people of multiple congregations– more “community based” than parish-attached. Still others were new ones the Wesleys or other leaders started from scratch. What I learn from this (and what I think we can learn from this) is that we don’t necessarily have to “create the wheel” if it already exists and we can trust it to function well for accountable discipleship formation and deployment. With those, we can covenant and collaborate– not unlike non-profits do in creating memoranda of understanding so that one organization delivers some services and the other delivers other in the collaborative.

    Yes, this is about leadership– leadership by the pastor, leadership by those who lead groups (inside or outside the congregation), and continuous enough leadership over time that what is started can take root. And it does involve leadership by the pastor (and other leaders in the congregation– this shouldn’t be pastor alone if at all possible! this is part of what lay speakers are for!) as well to find who’s ready and what’s ready, and where nothing is actually ready, create the next right thing.

    My point is creating it ourselves isn’t the only option, and if it does already exist out there and is reliable, maybe not even the best option.

    As a United Methodist pastor you should be held accountable to see that discipleship happens for those who are ready to start, and deepens for those who have already begun that journey.

    And you are doing that by consistent leadership inside a congregation. My point is there are other viable options as well, and that most people who’ve experienced significant formation as disciples, not just powerful spiritual experiences, have done so OUTSIDE congregations– Dan and I have both made that point.

    I think Dan may see that finding as primarily a problem and a failing of congregations and the denominational system. I agree congregations and the denomination fail in lots of ways, including failing to do all they reasonably CAN do to support the environment where discipleship can begin and never stop progressing. I just see that finding– confirmed again and again wherever I go– as a major opportunity as well– especially (though not only!) for congregations where doing it “inside” is, for all sorts of reasons, a suboptimal option.

  6. I’m reading terms like “discipleship system” over and over in these exchanges.

    Can someone explain what a discipleship system looks like? Can you sketch a portrait of one in action or describe the way a person experiences it?

    I’m not sure I understand what we mean by the term – or that we all mean the same thing.

    • Basically, since 1996, our Book of Discipline describes the simple framework for a discipleship system: reach out to people, engage them in spiritual community, relate people to God and Christ, nurture and strengthen people in their faith, equipping them to use their gifts in ministry to others in the world as the body of Christ. The process — referred to as our primary task — is prediated on three theological assumptions — that Christianity requires constant improvement and development spiritually for both individuals and the community of faith, that church is incarnational — the Spirit of God empowers the church to BE Christ for the world, and that there must be an inward and outward balance (we are formed in the Spirit to serve as the Christ). All quite Wesleyan (and Albrightian and Boehmian and Otterbinian…) and redefining the church as being about God and God’s purposes and not about US. A discipleship system aligns all spiritual processes and practices toward the end for which the system is designed: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. (Except for all the people who think this is too much to expect…)

  7. John,

    Thanks for the question. Here’s a way of talking about that.

    A discipleship system delivers apprenticeship with ongoing practice that leads to mastery and ultimately “perfection in love in this life” in following Jesus, bearing witness to and participating in God’s reign in our actual lives in this world.

    Or… if we’ve captured in our current ritual language what the baptismal covenant is supposed to be, another way to talk about it (perhaps more concretely) is a process that helps people gain progressive expertise in living out the baptismal covenant wherever they are.

    For the Wesleyan heritage, the General Rules identify the core practices (both to do and not do) that embody what that covenant points toward.

    Whatever you have in place or can help connect or create that delivers on people first gaining mastery and then constantly getting better in living the covenant, practicing those practices, that is, constantly getting better at following Jesus and serving and acting in his name– moving from being willing but inexperienced students to being like the teacher– that’s a discipleship system.

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