Finding What We Look For

Scott Kline, a professional driver, managed to wreck a million-dollar prototype hybrid car when it was first being tested.  When asked to explain what happened, Kline reported,

I got so engrossed looking at all the dials and gauges and screens on the dashboard that I forgot to look where I was going.

There is an important cautionary word in this for our church — as “dashboards” to count and measure and track become the new toy we get all excited about in the church, we need to remember that collecting data and monitoring statistics has virtually nothing to do with making disciples of Jesus Christ.  You cannot evaluate quality by focusing on quantity.

Our new “Vital Congregations” emphasis has all the marks of steering us in the wrong direction.  While its leaders talk about “goal setting” and “missional objectives,” the underlying message is that numbers are the ultimate indicator of health and vitality.  Having high blood pressure, myself, I can attest to the fact that large numbers are not always to be desired.  Having MORE people, small groups, projects, pastors, ministries, and money seems, on the surface, to be a good thing.  However, there is an implicit given that must be taken into consideration, and that is a presumed quality.  The presumption that our future growth will all be high quality denies our current reality: if we’re not doing very well with what we already have, it is highly unlikely we will do better with more.  A few examples:

Professions of Faith — it has long been assumed that we are doing our evangelical job if we can get non-Christians to drop the “non-” and become Christians.  Good as far as it goes, but when I did my study of congregational vitality last decade, I found that the number of professions of faith is conditional on “sticking-power.”  Four churches from the south-central jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church reported these numbers for a three-year period.  Church A: 45 professions of faith; Church B: 49; Church C: 7; Church D: 9.  By our current standards, Church B is doing the best job — and, by golly, they were featured in magazines and on websites.  However, at the end of the three-year period, how many of the professions were still fully engaged and active in their congregation?  Church A: 9 (20%); Church B: 7 (14%); Church C: 7 (100%); Church D: 8 (89%).  If we focus on engagement and retention rate, then C is doing the best job with D dogging its heels.  Integrity topples size.  The number of professions is not as good an indicator as integration and staying power.

Number of Small Groups — once again, simply having lots of groups and staying busy is a poor indicator of health.  Some of the most toxic congregations in our denomination have some very strong small groups — that act independently and subversively and do more damage than good.  Also, the structure and focus of the groups is incredibly important.  One large church I visited had an active small group ministry, and in the few days I was there I went out to dinner with one group, went a movie with another, had “pizza and prayer” with a third, and sat and bitched about politics with a fourth.  The fellowship was fine at each, but spiritual formation and focus?  Not so much.  Yet, books have been written about this church’s approach to small group ministry.  In Oklahoma, I attended a very small church that only had about half its members in small groups.  However, each group met once a week for prayer, Bible study, “to discuss ‘and how is it with your soul,’ and to engage together in one act of missional service beyond the congregation.  Which church has the strongest small group ministry?

Worship Attendance — visiting a campus ministry, I was deeply impressed by the number of students engaged in leading worship.  Perhaps seventy people attended the worship service — and over fifty were involved in leading or participating in some part of it.  The level of engagement was spectacular.  It was obviously a meaningful experience for everyone involved.  There was nothing passive about the service, and no one came as a “consumer.”  Worship was treated as a verb, not a noun.  The “worshipping community” is not the same as those who “attend worship.”  Worship isn’t about the spectators, but the players; not about the audience but the performers.  To engage in worship is a very different phenomenon than merely observing it.  Getting more people to sit in the pews at a service is as healthy as gaining weight — it does little to promote health, and over time can cause more harm than good.  When passive worship becomes the norm, moving people to any kind of action becomes more difficult.  Christian worship is more than just showing up.

More Money for Mission — this one is a “yes, but…”  When I did my vital congregations study, I was struck by the number of churches that commit one-third to one-half of their total budget to missions.  In our day of difficult economic times and exorbitant infrastructure costs, it takes a huge commitment to give so much to missions.  Churches that give a lot do so because missions and service are a deep core value — where the treasure is, there the heart is found, also.  Too many of our churches struggle to give to missions because missions are defined as something to “give to,” rather than to “engage in.”  No church I found that gave sacrificially to missions did so without a significant portion of the congregation involved in “hands-on” mission.  Many of our churches that pride themselves on missions have a small handful of people doing mission work on behalf of the larger congregation.  Then, another segment throws money into the plate in support of the small group doing mission work, and the whole church takes pride in how “involved” it is.  Mission giving must be multivalent — measured not just in terms of money, but time, energy, presence, skills, and knowledge.

Number of Disciples Engaged in Ministry — this comes from the language of the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops.  Once more, I would say that it is less about numbers and more about percentages (and I simply don’t think we have enough “disciples” to measure at the moment…)  Time after time, I visited churches of varying sizes where the larger was viewed as healthier than the smaller, yet the smaller congregations had a much larger percentage engaged in “hands-on” ministry.  In one town, a church of about 500 had 70 people engaged in active ministry on a weekly/daily basis (14%).  A few streets over, a church of approximately 40 had 35 members engaged in ministry seven days a week (88%).  The focus on numbers hides the fact that the smaller congregation is doing ministry together while the larger congregations enjoys a handful of people doing ministry in their name — a very different thing.

Tracking numbers is a way of doing something when you don’t know what else to do.  It allows you input to foster behavior modification, but not transformation.  Vision and relationships have the power to transform, not dashboards.  Selling our soul to statistics is futile at best, deeply sad at worst.  Being church is made secondary to being bigger.  Indeed, goal setting and planning are important to our vitality, but our objectives and plans should be developed to do the discerned will of God, not just get more people in our doors.  Through our best efforts, I believe we can get more people.  The questions I still have, however, is do we care what kind of people we will get, and do we have a clue what to do with them?

54 replies

  1. The Planning Guide on the Vital Congregation website does attempt to balance the goal of making disciples and the goal to track numbers. This revision suggests that the UM leadership has heard the criticism and is trying to adapt. The website provides resources on using data; to achieve a balanced approach it should also provide disciple-making strategies for various age-groups and constituencies.

  2. At a recent meeting of South Central Jurisdiction Congregational Developers, some of us struggled with this very question. We concluded numbers are helpful, but not the whole story. What we finally decided is that the stories, once called “testimonies”, of those whose lives had been transformed in some way by the gospel, are a better indicator of “successful” ministry. That is, testimonies give insight into the power of the Holy Spirit, through the grace of Jesus Christ, to put people on a path to the new life promised in Christ. That’s what “making disciples” is really about. Those testimonies also inspire in others a desire for the same kind of joyful transformation and new life in ways numbers cannot.

  3. Good flow of comments. As a DS I agree we can not simply focus on numbers on the dashboard. But what I’m not seeing in these blogs are alternative visions of how to measure vital, disciple making churches in a spirit of mutual accountability. And how do me measure signs that our church cultures and pastors ministry priorities are moving from a membership paradigm to a discipleship paradigm That’s something I am struggling with as I work with various levels of motivated and unmotivated pastors and congregations. I belive the days of making the nebulous fuzzy statement that we are only called to be faithful has had limited effectiveness and may be over if we are truly concerned about becoming a movement again! So how do we build this bridge while walking on it regarding accountability and more importantly measuring our fruitfulness as disciples as we seek to be in step with what God’s Spirit is doing?

  4. I had the opportunity to hear Bishop Warner Brown (CA-NV Conf) speak this June, concerning church growth. One of the data sources used was compiled by a consulting group, leading me to wonder why we use business based, business derived, business proven methods in an organization that is most emphatically not a business?

  5. Having a background in performance improvement, I know that statistics can be manipulated to say pretty much anything. At a recent church dinner, someone asked our pastor how many new members we had added over the past several months. His reply was “a few, but more importantly we have grown so much spiritually”. I think he hit the bulls eye. It is the individual inner spiritual life of communion with God, reading His Word, praying to Him and waiting silently before Him that creates transformation, conforming us into the image of Jesus Christ. A congregation, however small, filled with committed Spirit filled believers is a mighty force to further His kingdom in the earth. .

  6. Good comments. As a pastor with many peers now on the “dark side”…..what we yearn for as sr. pastors is: consistency and fairness in reading what the dashboards say. Of course my AC does not post the dashboards…….yet.

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