There is an old adage that the best way to measure church growth is by assessing the “Three Big Bs”: butts-in-pews, budgets, and buildings. According to Kevin Ezell of the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board, this adage is antiquated and may have to change.
In a board meeting last month, Ezell explained, “Success [of a church] cannot be defined based on how many people a church keeps [or attracts]…We must help [churches] redefine success based on how many people a church sends” (“NAMB calls for new definition of church success,” by Joe Westbury, The Christian Index 20 February 2014).
John Buchanon, editor of The Christian Century, echoed Ezell’s sentiment when he recently encouraged readers to “call a moratorium on counting [church] members” (“Being Christ’s Body,” The Christian Century 5 March 2014).
It’s about time too: Nearly four years ago, our church stopped keeping attendance, and we were instantly liberated from all of the anxiety that results from “managing” church as if it is a for-profit business.
At the time, we started focusing on other factors to measure growth.
One factor included measuring spiritual growth instead. I was doing a dissertation on spiritual formation at the time, and I realized just how extremely difficult it was to determine whether people were growing spiritually.
Questions were raised: Do you count how many hours people pray and read their Bibles? Do you count how many people worship, attend a discipleship group, and participate in missions per month?
Do you quantify how many times people experience God in some form or fashion per quarter? And how do you define an “experience with God” anyway?
All of those questions were good ones, but they still included the notion of counting numbers as a valid way to measure progress.
After several years of hard work, we finally discovered that there are more effective ways of measuring spiritual growth in a church: We began to listen (now that we weren’t so anxious!) to how people talked about and reflected upon their faith.
We asked whether people could think critically about faith formation, make connections between the Bible and their life, and intuit how the Holy Spirit shaped their worldview. We asked if people understood that their life circumstances had spiritual significance and communicated something about their relationship with God.
Instead of punching numbers, we began listening more closely to the personal “narratives” people told about themselves; and, when they had trouble expressing that narrative, we provided a specific “spiritual grammar” that promoted the study of scripture, a life of worship, and Spirit-driven life all couched in God’s very welcome and embrace.
A second factor we used to measure church growth was by doing exactly what President Ezell recommended: We determined how “missional” the church was in the local and global community. This began, not by counting how many programs the church ran, but by assessing how people engaged in ministry on their own terms.
This required the congregation to redefine itself as a “teaching church” that helped regular folks in the pews (not just the hired help) see themselves as active participants and ministers of the Gospel of Christ. We encouraged people to see that they were “priests” too, and that no opportunity to do ministry should go unnoticed.
We encouraged people in every age group to see that there is nothing that a Christian does in life that escapes the scrutiny of God’s sacred call.
Even the children are learning the language of ministry, not just the ability to give the “right answers” to Sunday School lessons. (Hint: The answer is “Jesus” every time anyway.)
This type of philosophy of ministry does not lend itself to “organized” missions or quantifiable church growth, but it does advocate for a healthy congregation bent on meeting God beyond the walls of the church rather than navel-gazing and running around trying to figure out what’s wrong.
Take Ezell’s advice: Ditch the numbers. Instead, ask if churchgoers are engaging in spiritual practices that bolster their relationship with God while committing to social practices that connect people with wherever God is moving in the world today.