Blog-buddy John Meunier asked me a question on his blog on a topic that I was in the middle of writing about on my blog. So here is his question as well as my answer. His question, “I wonder if anyone who has studied church vitality and maybe even written a book about it has thoughts about this news. Dan?” related to the news that the denomination is launching another effort to revitalize The United Methodist Church. I am actually kind of honored by the new effort, though I am sure no one intended any nod to me, but the new “movement” is entitled “A Call to Action: Reordering the Life of the Church.” The title of my presentation from 2001-2002 based on the Vital Signs study that I shared with all the General Boards and Agencies over a decade ago was, “Reordering the Life of the Congregation.” Some seeds got planted somewhere.
Anyway, Call to Action has identified six factors of vitality, and John is wondering what I think of them. They are:
- Average worship attendance as percentage of membership;
- Total membership;
- Number of children, youth and young adults attending as percentage of membership;
- Number of professions of faith as percentage of attendance and membership;
- Actual giving per attendee; and
- Finance benevolence giving beyond the local church as a percentage of the church budget.
Let me say briefly that I believe five of the six are not indicators of vitality, but activity (which are not the same thing). Only the last fact — benevolence giving as a percentage of congregation or conference budget — is a true vitality factor. Taking them one by one I will lay out the problem I have with each and suggest an alternative (that probably no one will agree with…)
Average worship attendance as a percentage of membership — this will not tell you anything more than how many people attend worship. True measures of spiritual growth and development must measure how a person is progressing in their relationship with God and Jesus Christ. This requires a set of standards — of which, worship attendance should certainly be one. But this should also include some measurement of prayer, study of scripture, service to others, relationship to the covenant community, etc. “Membership,” as it stands in the current United Methodist Church must be evaluated in relationship to the clear promises we ask people to make. Until we are monitoring, assessing and evaluating how well people are growing in their commitments to “prayer, presence, gifts, service, and witness,” we have not measured anything truly valid or valuable. Survey after survey shows that people attend worship that they “like,” but very few evaluate the impact of worship on the gathered body. The much more compelling “percentage” measurement in vital churches is the percentage of active participants (members and regular “friends”) engaged in some form of ministry each week. The most vital churches I visit no longer count only Sunday morning worship attendance, but participation in Sunday school, Bible studies, church ministries, events, training, etc.
Total Membership — there is no question that vital churches are growing numerically, but numbers can produce “false positives” — indicators that things are good, when they are not. Just as the top grossing box-office movies are rarely great cinema, and #1 best-selling books are seldom great literature, our largest congregations are rarely great churches. They are popular churches, which is something different altogether. Not that popular is bad, per se, but it isn’t a true indicator of vitality. Size, raw numbers, rarely indicate anything helpful about health. The more important factor is a sustainable positive growth trajectory. A church that adds four families a year for a couple decades is doing something right. A church that booms from 400 to 2,000, then drops back to 750 when the pastor leaves and struggles to keep members on the rolls is not doing as well, even though they may be bigger. The most vital churches in The United Methodist Church don’t have the largest membership rolls. More important factors than how many people they have total are: how very few inactive members are on the rolls, how many members and active participants are engaged in ministry and service on a weekly basis, how many people are served and lives are touched outside the boundaries of the congregation, and how well the participants engage with one another in Christian community. We count because counting is easy, not because it tells us what we need to know. We love teaching toddlers to count because they can so easily grasp 1, 2, 3. But it takes a while longer to get them to be able to explain what the numbers actually mean.
Number of children, youth and young adults attending as percentage of membership — this is one of those measures that is helpful in context. A number of United Methodist Churches achieved vitality by recognizing that their gifts and resources were not appropriate for family ministries, and they focused in other areas, such as older adult ministries and community service. As a denomination — a connectional church — we need to keep the priority high on all age levels, and it is imperative that we be in ministry with children, youth, and young adults. Congregation by congregation, this is unrealistic and imposes a one-size-fits-all vision where it doesn’t necessarily fit. And, once again, warm bodies in the building says absolutely nothing about spiritual growth, formation, development and engagement that transforms the world. It is a much better use of our time to count the number of people we serve and the number of lives we touch due to the good news of Jesus Christ.
Number of professions of faith as percentage of attendance and membership — this could be a good one… if the church has standards of evaluation and accountability for people when they join the church. Getting people to say yes to Jesus for the very first time is fantastic — it is one of the reasons why we’re here, but unfortunately The United Methodist Church doesn’t do any better with first timers than it does with those they plunder from other denominations and faith traditions. The percentage of inactive members who join by profession of faith is as high as those who come from another faith background. “More” simply is not what we need to measure. We need to define what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, then assist people in living toward this vision.
Actual giving per attendee — and this tells us what, exactly? Is our expectation that all of a person’s charitable giving should be through the church? Are we looking at percentage of income (net, gross?), actual dollar amounts, an artificial “target” like 10%. Are we talking “giving unit,” (household, individual?), including children, treating couples as individual givers? Per attendee — does this mean we only count when people show up? Vital churches find ways to monitor not just cash in the plate, but the value of people’s time, energy, effort, gifts, knowledge, experience, and the impact it makes on the congregation’s ability to do God’s work.
Giving is a spiritual discipline as much as an institutional imperative. There is no competition to be top giver, and there is no single standard that applies across the board. We have some “deep pocket” givers in our denomination that have given sizable gifts, with little or no sacrifice. We have people who are deeply generous and give sacrificially on a regular basis who might give an entire lifetime and never equal the amount given by the favored few. This is a slippery-slope measure — certainly important that we have money, but true stewardship can’t be counted in dollars and cents. An important measurement? Without a doubt. A measurement of vitality? Hardly.
Finance benevolence giving beyond the local church as a percentage of the church budget — In our vital churches, the majority of the money spent is spent outside the church — plain and simple. When we are spending most of our money on our pastors and staff, building and property, insurance and overhead, equipment, resources and supplies — we are making it clear to the world what our core values really are. Get mad and defensive all you want — when a church spends more money on windows, landscaping and statues than it does on mission work, the world notices. Once again, this isn’t a “pure” measure — but a trajectory over time speaks volumes. If the percentage of the budget dedicated to benevolences is on the rise, it is a very strong sign of vitality and vision.
As I said in the Vital Signs study, this isn’t really “either/or.” Quantitative metrics provide us with one type of data — a type that is helpful and valuable and that can “indicate” that things are going well or poorly. But quantitative measures alone are inadequate. Only when we include qualitative metrics can we fully understand how well we are doing what we do.
In the April 2010 Harvard Business Review, two quotes caught my eye that sum up what I found during my research into congregational vitality:
In a provocative post, (Roger) Martin, the dean of the Rotman School, challenged business’s reliance on quantitative analysis. “We have a deep-seated desire to quantify the world around us so that we can understand it and control it. But the world isn’t behaving,” he wrote. “We must…consider the possibility that if we can’t measure something, it might be the very most important aspect of the problem.”
In response, Charles H. Green, CEO Trusted Advisor Associates, wrote,
“The notion that “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count” is flatly false. You can manage through fear and intimidation, role-modeling, love, random eccentricities, or mantras. None of those require measurement. We’re so in love with quantitative ideology that we’ve quite forgotten what it was supposed to measure in the first place… Education, especially in business schools, has gotten itself tied up in metrics knots. We have lost sight of the language of emotion, motivation, and meaning.”
Vitality is all around us, but we are going to continue to miss it if we continue counting what we have been counting through the past four decades of decline. Doing more of what we have already been doing that hasn’t been working seems like poor stewardship to me. We know what we should be measuring, but we don’t do it because it is more difficult. But until we suck it up and do the difficult work, nothing much is going to change. We have got to start looking at ourselves in a new light. What actually is changing in the church due to our best efforts? How much more “open” are we after a decade of “open hearts, open minds, open doors?” How much church has been “rethought” to date and what difference did it make? On April 24 & 25 we’re going to “change the world.” How will we begin the hard work on April 26 of analyzing and evaluating just how well we did? These are the things we should be measuring, and not just in terms of how many churches participated and how many people visited our churches because of them, but in terms of how well people have been equipped to live their faith in the world, and how our world is being transformed.