“If it’s okay for a church to be small, how do you suggest we measure a church’s success?”
Since I’ve begin ministering to small churches, I’ve been asked that question more than any other. Maybe more than all other questions combined.
At first I didn’t know how to answer it. Now I believe that the question itself is a problem.
Measuring the Immeasurable
Imagine this scenario. Jesus is meeting with the disciples. He’s been training them for three years. He’s died, risen again and walked with them in resurrection power for almost 40 days. As the day of his ascension draws near, he gathers them together to reiterate The Great Commission.
“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation,” Jesus tells them. Then Peter (it’s always Peter, right?) asks, “Jesus, what metrics should we use to measure the success of this mission?”
If that question is as important as we’re constantly being told it is, how did the disciples not think to ask it of Jesus? What a missed opportunity!
Maybe the disciples didn’t think to ask it because, before the Day of Pentecost they missed a lot of important things. If so, why didn’t Jesus correct their oversight and tell them what metrics we’re supposed to use? He corrected them when they missed other important points, but not this one.
Could it be because the kind of success Jesus had in mind is immeasurable?
How Did the Church Grow Before Metrics?
Metrics aren’t wrong. Measuring our progress can be helpful. But can we all admit that the idea of using statistics to measure a church’s success came from us, not from Jesus? And that measuring our progress numerically has not been considered a vital ingredient in reaching the world for Jesus until really, really recently in church history?
How did the church grow for 1900 years without anyone asking that question or taking rigorous measurements?
As important as measuring our success is supposed to be, the church should thrive in the places and times when we have accurate measurements, and it should be dying in places and times when we don’t. But any accurate study of church history and current revivals shows that the opposite tends to be true.
Years ago I asked the leaders of our church how we should measure success. I wrote about that exchange in The Grasshopper Myth
. Here’s how it went:
If we pay less attention to counting butts in the seats, how do we measure success?
Shortly after having my heart changed about the value of church size, I put that question to the volunteer leaders of our church at our annual vision-casting weekend. The answer was obvious to them. I think they were shocked that I asked it – and maybe disappointed in their fearless leader for not knowing the answer myself.
"I think we should measure success the way Jesus did,” was the immediate and overwhelming response. “One person at a time. Are individual people growing? Is the community being impacted? That’s what matters.”
My wise volunteer church leaders were right then. They’re right now.
– from The Grasshopper Myth (Chapter 11: A New Way to Define Success.)
Metrics Don’t Turn the World Upside-Down
Let’s go back to the disciples’ supposedly missed opportunity.
Is it conceivable that Jesus would have responded to the question “how will we measure success” with anything less than a face-palm and another exasperated cry of “how long shall I put up with you?” (Matt 17:17).
Again, it’s not that measurements don’t matter. There were times in the Gospels and Acts when someone counted the crowds (at least with rough estimates, like 5,000 and 3,000). And there’s ample evidence that the early church kept accurate membership records. But it was nothing like our current metrics obsession.
Yet somehow, without metrics, spreadsheets, quarterly goals or ten year plans a handful of ignorant, argumentative, non-academically-inclined, ex-fishermen, farmers and a tax collector turned the world upside-down.
Metrics don’t turn the world upside-down. Passion does. For Jesus and for people. Not for numbers.
Metrics can measure numbers. But they can’t measure success. At least not in the ministry.
WWJM? (What Would Jesus Measure?)
If the disciples had asked Jesus how to measure success, what might Jesus’ answer have been?
I think he might have said something like this:
“…there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)
“Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” (Luke 14:23)
One by one. Until the job is done. Sounds like success to me.