By Doyle Sager
Last month, I wrote in this column about the limitations of the old metrics for tracking congregational vitality: attendance and budgets (or, if you prefer, nickels and noses). These numbers record some things, but perhaps not the most important things.
Consider an analogy. An automobile dashboard measures how well the car is running (comparable to our old metrics of internal monitoring: attendance, offerings, etc.). But the dashboard does not measure where the car goes. Is the vehicle used to do good (deliver meals to shut-ins?) or bad (the getaway car in a bank heist)? We need new metrics to measure where the church is going after it counts its Sunday attendance.
In his book Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics, Gil Rendle distinguishes between counting and measuring. We count resources; we measure outcomes. So perhaps the choice is not between counting and measuring. Maybe the path forward is a different way of counting that leads to more informative measuring.
First, the counting: Counting resources might mean checking to see what percent of the church’s total budget is dedicated to things outside the congregation. While you’re at it, do an audit of the past six months’ church bulletins or newsletters. How much print is used to announce internal activities versus space given to promote those things that truly impact the community and/or the unchurched?
Other ways of counting include keeping track of how many have gone outside your church walls to serve — either on mission trips or community projects. How many hours has your church volunteered in service to others? How many hours has your church building been used to host non-church events, opening itself to neighbors? How many people have you trained to lead small groups or to disciple another person?
I heard of one church that researched the number of divorces in their county and said they were going to work at building successful marriages, seeking to decrease the number of broken families over the next few years. Another congregation announced a goal to decrease the number of school children on free and reduced lunches in the public school district. In other words, they made a commitment to reduce poverty and food insecurity in their locale. But they did so in a way which could be measured and which held them accountable. Similar projects could be launched regarding homelessness or literacy.
Such nuanced “counting” will inevitably lead to more helpful measuring. Pastors could conduct a survey, asking one simple question: How well do our church activities and worship services align with our church’s stated mission? Tabulate the responses and establish a baseline. After 12 or 18 months of intentional work at aligning mission and action, administer the survey again and see if the needle has moved.
Of course, such a survey is built on two assumptions: 1) Your church has a clear mission statement; 2) Your people know what that statement is!
Measuring will likely require more open-ended questions, more anecdotes than numbers. And during the process, the congregation will discover what it really values. Gil Rendle writes that too many congregations are asking maintenance questions (questions about rules, policies and traditions). Still others are spending too much time on preferential questions (our favorite worship style, how the church could meet my needs, what we think would attract others). To truly move into fruitfulness, says Grendle, we must begin asking missional questions which invite us into the future, to discuss what is not yet but could be. Once the missional questions take priority, we will find ways to measure what is important to us.
I once pastored a church that rallied around a young couple when their newborn son, Andy, was born with Down syndrome. On their first Sunday back at church, the couple came forward during the response time and shared with our church family the joy they felt in being chosen to be Andy’s parents. God had entrusted them with a very special young man from whom they would learn much about life and love. Something like revival broke out that morning.
Later that year, as we filled out our annual church profile report, I realized something. There were boxes to report baptisms, average Sunday school attendance, annual offerings and much more. But there was no box to record the way our congregation had grown in Christ the day Andy became a part of our lives. There were no numbers to indicate the way the Holy Spirit fell on us that morning when his parents came to the altar and committed Andy and his entire family into God’s hands. But the Kingdom grew that day, and God smiled.