“It’s not about numbers,” some well meaning soul will say when talking about how to measure church health. Persons who usually say this are persons who lead declining churches. Their churches may or may not be declining because of their leadership but for some reason they are declining and they are feeling insecure and so they blurt out “It’s not about the numbers!”
As we look throughout the scripture though it does seem the biblical writers had some interest “in the numbers.” After all, we have a whole book in the Old Testament called “Numbers!” We also see specific numbers being mentioned whether it is 12 or 72 disciples or 500 who witnessed the resurrection or the persons who were added to the believers in the Book of Acts. Counting is biblical.
It has correctly been pointed out by “numbers” defenders that numbers are just numbers but they can represent lives, spiritual growth, baptisms, healthy giving habits and more.
And yet, there is such a backlash against numberology these days. Admittedly, some have gone to extremes and have become infatuated with just the numbers. Of course a church’s health cannot be measured by numbers alone. As a sign of our infatuation with numbers spend some time at any meeting of clergy be it a monthly clergy meeting or conference and you will usually hear after a few pleasantries are exchanged between two clergy the question asked “How is it going?” This is clergy speak for “How many people are you worshiping?” The honest clergy will quickly get to the question at hand and after pleasantries ask “How many are you worshiping?” because this has become for some the measure of clergy effectiveness.
In the end, I believe numbers alone can never tell the full story. However, to the extent that numbers represent changed lives and can serve as vital signs for the body of Christ they will always be useful. Numbers are means, not ends. They are means to taking the temperature to determine the health of a church body. Numbers can serve as one of many diagnostic tools.
Is it or is it not about numbers?
We love to measure in the United Methodist Church. We have been measuring for years. We measure and report at Charge Conference time, then a little while later we produce year end statistical tables that focus on much of the same information. More recently, as part of the Vital Congregations Initiative, churches have been asked to measure and report weekly. Someone has called us the “Measuring Methodists.” And, there is some truth to this.
I for one appreciate and believe in the principle that what gets measured gets done which says that what we pay attention to (i.e. measure) becomes a focus. The question I have is whether we are measuring the right things or do we need a new scorecard? As I see it now the things we measure (mostly nickels and noses) are inward focused and about us and preserving the institution. How could we change the metrics to better measure ministry that is not about us or about institutional preservation but is instead about ministry outside the four walls of the church building?
I recently came across a blog post by Vince Antonnuci who suggested a different set of metrics. Vince suggested we might measure…
- The number of hours the church served in the community.
- The number of struggling people counseled that week.
- The number of formerly lonely people now connected in community because of the church.
Reggie McNeal in his book The Present Future also suggested a different set of metrics for the church. Here is what Reggie suggested measuring…
- The number of new initiatives we are starting on the street.
- The number of conversations members and friends of the church are having with pre-Christian friends.
- The number of volunteers serving in local, state and global missions. (This is one item being measured by the Vital Congregations initiative).
- The number of community groups using the church facility (for free or low cost).
- The number of church activities designed to target people not already present at the church.
Measuring is tricky business. I would imagine the reason why we don’t measure some of the above is because those things are messy and don’t fit into charts and Excel spreadsheets.
What do you think is a good measurement of church vitality?