Thanks to Eric for this post. He's got an interesting and wide ranging blog which you should check out.

Anyway, he commented on my post from two days ago re:the fallacy of numbers as a gauge for success in the church. He asked me two excellent questions...

1) Should churches or ministries attempt to measure "success"?
2) If so, what do you suggest is a better quantifier?

I promised him an attempt at a coherent answer in today's blog. And here it is. An attempt. Perhaps you should look at it as more of an invitation.

I'm answering w.r.t. churches and the programs they implement. I'm not answering w.r.t. parachurch ministries, but that doesn't mean I don't have strong opinions about those too.

Question the first:
Should churches or ministries attempt to measure success?

You might think that we should define success first. The definition of success varies widely however and is for the most part a function of what is measured. Churches should attempt to gauge success, but not if size (in terms of numbers of participants or dollars) is the exclusive or even primary measure. Now it's not that I have anything against numbers. And truth be told, God is concerned with a number, and that number is 'all.' God is concerned with all people at all times and in all places. The number of people who attend a given church can indeed be one indicator of health. But size of congregation is an indicator of health if and only if (I'm a mathemetician by training, had to throw that in), other more important indicators are present. Why? Because a large church is not necessarily a successful church, and a small church is not necessarily a failure. In fact, it could be and often is just the opposite.

Question the second:
If so, suggest better quantifiers...

Here are a couple to start with... a full answer would require a book, for more information on this book, see my post dated 4/23/2005.

#1. Is the overriding culture of our church centered around a preference for others rather than a preference for self? That is, do people take to heart and act on the many and various scriptures that urge us toward things like "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility consider others better than yourselves", or "love one another as I have loved you." But it's hard to define and quantify such things! So what? Numbers are by definition quantifiable, and obvious as a means for measurement; that doesn't make them accurate. I'm a statisitician and a former advertising research guy. I can make numbers say anything I want. It is harder to quantify the preference for others vs. preference for self in a church. But it is not impossible, and perhaps in the end you'll be able to better qualify it (identify qualities) than quantify (create an index of "other preference").

For example, at my own church people come and visit once and we never see them again. Why? Because our church is not very good at the above. Does that mean we should start measuring repeat visits? Not necessarily. It means we should start helping and encouraging our congregation to grapple with what it means to prefer others to themselves, to give themselves away to others in love. And when we do this some people will leave, you can take that to the bank. But we will be getting healthier as a church despite the shrinkage.

#2. Does our church practice the discipline of forgiveness? Jesus hardly ever sounds as harsh as he does when addressing unforgiveness. "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain them they are retained." and "If you do not forgive others when they sin against you, then your heavenly Father will not forgive you." Uh oh.

Most of the Christians I've ministered to don't know that things like this are even in the scriptures. But there they are. If a church calls itself Christian, it ought to at least make an effort at attending to what Jesus said. And what Jesus was most insistent on was forgiveness. The church is to be a sign of forgiveness to the world. So how well is my church doing in the area of forgiveness? Are we a community that practices saying the hard words: "I forgive you." The faith communities I've been involved in have been better at judgment than forgiveness, and perhaps this is always going to be the case because we are human. But I so rarely see the effort at forgiveness, and that alone would make a difference. Again, hard to quantify this, but we know that all people do and say things every day that require forgiveness. I'm not talking about heinous crimes here, but about run of the mill ickyness: insults, gossip, selfishness, clumsiness, foolishness. Jesus told us to be forgivers. Are we?

Maybe tomorrow I'll suggest a few more measures. But my purspose in the "much-ness and many-ness" post and also in this one is to spur the few who may read this to think of novel ways of gauging church success (I've used the term 'health' interchangable with 'success' in this post on purpose by the way). Ways that don't depend on size of the ministry.

And thanks Eric--for reading, and for the critical thinking.


Eric said...

First, I think you're wise to suggest the use of the term "health" in place of "success" to describe churches and ministries.

Second, in a sense any attempt to measure the impact of spiritual endeavors is ultimately doomed. We might as well try to measure how big God is, or how much He loves us.

Third, despite this futility, our human minds are hardwired (well, maybe not by "nature," but certainly by society) to need to quantify the impact of our efforts, even in spiritual arenas. And, I think there are valid and practical reasons for doing this (planning for space, resources, etc.); the practicality of those reasons doesn't make them less palatable, even in a spiritual discussion.

I'm quite comfortable agreeing that by placing heavy emphasis on numbers, a church is in danger of failing to notice the steadily increasing temperature of the water in which it rests. But that goes for any area where "we" decide to pat ourselves on the back for the excellent job "we're" doing, while failing to recognize just how helpless and ineffective we are absent God's continual empowerment. And any time that "programs" take precendence over "people" (just because it's a cliché doesn't make it untrue), we're in trouble.

Good discussion; like you say, entire volumes can (and have been) written about this topic. I certainly feel inadequate to act as a spokesman for any aspect of the issues!

Jim said...

Thanks Eric. It's nice to have a thoughtful discussion about such things.

And I'll amen everything you said above.

By the way, in typing today's post I almost detoured into discussion of programmatic versus relational thinking in churches.

Some other day maybe.

Appreciate your thoghtful interaction.


Jim said...

...even if I can't spell thoughtful.

Eric said...

I thoght that's what you meant. ;-)

zalm said...

Sorry that I've neglected responding to the two posts you offered, Jim...

This may be bad etiquette as well, but I might double post this here and on your site.

Like your other commenter, Eric, I particularly like your abandonment of the term "success" for the term "health." Actually, I agree wholeheartedly with all of his comments.

I'm not sure that I have any really quantifiable indicator to add to your discussion. But as for qualifiable indicators, I wonder if my most recent comment in my other post explains what I might have to offer.

To restate: I wonder if a set of indicators of the health of a church is the extent to which its members are able to know each other and the full community, love each other (particularly those who are different), resolve conflict in love, hold each other accountable, and radiate that loving connectedness outward to heal the community and creation around it.

Obviously, those aren't terribly practical indicators that you can plot on a chart. And maybe, like Eric says, it would be foolish to try to quantify them, like trying to measure how big God is. But I guess at this point in my journey to understand the church, that's what I have to offer.

You ask great questions, and I've valued your input in my journey. Thanks.