Measuring the Things That Matter

How do you measure the vitality of a congregation?

Ask almost any denominational body over the past several decades, and they’re bound to say something about the three B’s – bodies, budgets, buildings.

The assumption seems to be that the fuller the pews on Sunday mornings, the more plentiful the pledges, and the more freshly renovated the fellowship hall, the healthier the congregation. I’ve talked to some church leaders who actually have to use these metrics when submitting monthly “vitality reports” to their bishops. Even research firms like Barna and Gallup draw on similar data when they produce colorful graphs that chart the (un)health of churches in North America.

As metrics for church vitality, the three B’s are problematic. For one, they are massively outdated, reflecting patterns of congregational activity that apply more to the church of the 1980s than the 2020s. Second, they are shockingly un-theological. One would be hard pressed to find a place in the Gospels in which anything like numbers, giving, or institutions are reliable indicators of the activity of God’s Spirit. Third, these metrics can force us towards narratives of decline and decay. When tethered to the three B’s as indices of the health of the body of Christ, ministry can end up feeling like palliative care for a terminally ill patient.

What if we dared to imagine different metrics? What if we stopped questioning if the data from Barna is right and instead asked if they (or we) are using the right data? What if we established new metrics that emerged from some of our deepest theological convictions, such as the incarnation, resurrection, kenosis, loving the stranger, shalom, divine pathos, or the fruits of the Spirit?

What if we…

  • Counted the number of times our members showed up in their communities to work for justice?
  • Reported the level of curiosity we saw in our congregations and their willingness to ask difficult questions?
  • Charted instances in which congregants took the risk to live in proximity with those who are different than themselves?
  • Measured how often those in privileged positions stepped aside so that other voices could be heard?
  • Catalogued – and celebrated – the number of ministry experiments that failed, and what was learned as a result?
  • Tallied the number of non-church goers who use our buildings throughout the week for their programming, not ours?
  • Gathered up narratives of people who dared to lament or grieve in our presence?
  • Detailed the number of times we stopped talking in our worship services and instead left space for silence, mystery, and wonder?

Let me be clear: measuring such things would not be straightforward. The data would only ever be partial, and some of it might not be trackable at all. Reporting on these metrics would require us to listen better, to cultivate different narratives, and to rely more on storytelling than Excel sheets. It might even entail different patterns of staffing or new approaches to lay leadership.

Shifting what we measure will not instantly produce a rosy picture of the health of your congregation – nor will render questions about bodies, budgets, or buildings completely irrelevant. But re-evaluating what we should be measuring can unleash creativity and encourage risk and experimentation. And it just might give you a way to reconnect with the very things that got you into ministry in the first place.

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