Apples and Oranges?
For some time now a conversation has been floating at the edge of denominational and church consulting circles. What should we be measuring?
There is a fairly strong agreement that we are measuring the wrong things in ministry – primarily income, attendance, salvation, and baptisms. However, when the conversation naturally moves to suggesting solutions, few are offered. Additional measures of the number of church plants, a number of people in a church planting process, or the percentage of network growth are usually offered instead.
There are two difficulties with these assorted measures of ‘success’. First, if we are honest with ourselves regarding the data from these measures, they mostly serve to deepen existing pastoral angst and often serve as a reflection of our institutional ‘failure’ rather than our ‘success’. Second, from a purely analytical point of view, the outcomes of salvations, attendance, income, and church plants are so disconnected from the inputs that produced these outcomes that the data gives very little insight as to what is and isn’t working. In short, it is useless data with which to review ourselves.
Moreover, there is an issue of underlying assumptions. Most of our measures and subsequent coaching for church vitality comes from large church leaders. As is natural, they bring their lens and paradigm to the conversation. That lens sometimes can feel like “bigger is better” to smaller church pastors. Though they represent the 1% (or less) in representative size, other churches listen to them because we implicitly assume that their church size demonstrates they know something we don’t or have favor from God we don’t—and therefore can help us.
But it is folly to correlate Kingdom impact to church size.[i]
It would be inappropriate to have Jeff Bezos determine what it means to be a successful small business owner and provide the solutions to get there. Likewise, it is inappropriate for large church leaders in urban areas to coach and set the measures of success for a small church in a rural town of 30,000. It is apples to oranges.
A fellow pastor friend of mine put it this way:
“What I notice, being the pastor of a small church but understanding the large church context, is that they still bring an assumption of critical mass populations to their evaluations. Those assumptions then don’t apply to 80% of the churches that have less than 100 attendees. COVID has leveled the playing field and shows us that attendance and budget are not the correct matrix…”
But there is one significant key underlying assumption that has kept us chasing our tales and fighting significant shame. This is the assumption that we should be measuring outcomes. Outcomes are what you measure in finances, education, and production. This assumption has been adopted unquestioningly from the world, but the Bible has more than a little to say about such a tactic.
God is direct in Scripture that one is not to measure the heavens or his unending faithfulness. Job was verbally chastized by God for it. David was punished for it (1 Chronicle 21), as was the entire nation of Israel. Paul chastised the church at Corinth for it. During Jesus’ third temptation he reminded Satan of it. Growth and increase are God’s part (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). That means when we measure fruit, we are measuring God’s part. That is literally the definition of putting God to the test. The things we are measuring in ministry do not belong to us–they belong to God.
In the Old Testament, the Jews were told not to harvest the field to the edges or pick up what they dropped (Leviticus 23:22) If this was your practice, you could never accurately measure the crop. You wouldn’t even think to try. Instead, you would have a feast or festival and celebrate the harvest—giving thanks to God and praising him for his faithfulness (for example, the Festival of Tabernacles). There are other places where things were counted in the Bible, such as how many people were converted in the book of Acts, how many were fed in the Gospels, or how many tribes faithfully crossed the Jordan. Yet these, like the celebration of the harvest, were rough estimates rather than exact measurements and were expressed as a celebration rather than a “return on investment”.
According to the Bible, we are not to measure what is God’s job and God’s gift. Let me be clear–I believe the way we currently measure our ministries is inappropriate. We seek to measure ‘our’ fruitfulness, but in doing so we measure the fruit that does not belong to us and we have no right to count it.
Instead of looking at the results, we are asked to count the cost of our inputs. (Luke 14:28)
The people in Paul’s day would understand, agriculturally speaking, that they could not make it rain, make a crop grow, or make a vine produce fruit. These were all dependent upon the will of God. Likewise, it would serve us well to humbly admit that as ministers we cannot change someone’s heart, make them come to an event, read their bible, have good biblical reading comprehension, love their neighbor, fear God, love themselves, behave justly, or choose righteousness.
Scripture reminds us of what we can do to partner with God: sow, water, invite, invest, facilitate a divine-human encounter so people have to talk to God (or choose not to), love well, lay down our lives and stay out of God’s way. Additionally, the Holy Spirit takes responsibility to produce the “fruit” of the Spirit and Scripture tells us specifically (not just generally) how to partner in that good work.
There are some sectors of society that measure inputs and not outcomes. They include research centers, scholarship or sponsorship programs, and often philanthropic organizations working on large complex issues. There are places we can look to and learn from.
The right measures would not be contingent upon the size of the church or the size of the community in which the church is located. Rather, the right measures would render that context irrelevant because it would be the expression of missional faithfulness to the task as a function of group size.
The key here is that we should only count what we can control.
We don’t count fruit, we celebrate it. We don’t count the harvest, but we do count how many days we work (6), or we count how many people we are each discipling (3-5). To celebrate we hold seasonal parties, tell stories, share testimonies, and see people anew as they grow. We hear, remember, sing praises and give thanks to God as the giver of all good things.
To come back in alignment with God, we need to measure inputs, not outcomes. Instead of attendance and tithe, we should measure how we are investing our God-given resources of time, people, and finances.
- How much money we put into things we say are important (Investment dollars as a percentage)
- What percentage are we investing in short-term or current ministry that we want to see an impact in 0-3 years (i.e. community partnerships, staff development, current discipleship, potential multi-site)
- What percentage are we investing in long-term ministry or Kingdom work that we want to see an impact in 5-25 years (missionaries, children and youth, training and development of future leaders, independent church plants)
- How many people each person in leadership is investing in real, relational discipleship (i.e. 1-5)
- What percentage of the people who are part of the group as also intentionally investing in others as a disciple-maker
- The ratio of those who are living missionally vs not
- What percentage of the group is investing in some kind of ministry or missional living outside of the corporate gatherings
- How many missional endeavors (501c3) are the people working with (expressed per person)
- What percentage of people see their vocation as a missionary endeavor (i.e. “I am a missionary to my workplace”)
- How many other organizations or churches are we networking with and what did that investment look like
- How much time are we investing in the various aspects of ministry (time audit and then alignment to what God is asking us to do)
- How much are we going to others versus requiring them to come to us (ratio)
- How much are we resting and being unproductive (goal: 1/7)
What we measure changes us.
We are created to be goal-oriented in our behavior – it is our most foundational motivation. Determining what we measure shifts our priorities and compels us in ways intuitive and non-conscious. Goals direct our hearts. My desire is to support and equip pastors towards a vision where each member of their community is ‘on-mission’ in the life they already live. I know many churches that have that heart as well. We need to align our values with God’s and count what He counts. Just think about it for a moment–what if each congregation member was encouraged to embrace their unique design and passion to make a disciple (or 5) in their sphere? If 50% of a congregation did that, a church of 60-80 could change their community!
There is a space of grace. I believe we can find it.
[i] Additionally, many of the Millennials and Gen Zers I know who want to be disciples of Jesus are choosing small congregations where they can know and be known by others.