In changing times standard measures of a congregation’s health may not tell the whole story. Naomi Annandale suggests a need to expand and adjust our ways of thinking about effectiveness and offers suggestions on how to measure what is truly important.
We’ve added new Sunday school classes to help people build a stronger foundation for faith. Is it working? How do we know? We’ve developed new outreach to our community. Is it working? How do we know? “Is it working?” and “How do we know?” can be tough questions for churches. We want to help disciples grow, but it’s difficult to know if we are.
Regular attendance was once considered a standard measure of a congregation’s health and commitment to discipleship. But in these changing times, worship attendance may decline while participation increases in small groups, outreach ministries, or even giving. If we want to make sure we are making a difference, we need to expand and adjust our ways of thinking about numbers and effectiveness. Here are a few ways to do so.
1. Focus on outcomes.
Outcomes are the changes we are trying to accomplish in our own lives, in our churches, and in our communities. To figure out if a ministry effort is working, first we need to know what “working” looks like. In other words, what is the outcome or change we are trying to achieve?
By simply naming and describing where we want our discipleship system to lead, we already have a picture of where we want to go, and we probably have some sense of how close or far away that is. Clearly defined outcomes are critical for several reasons:
- They make our work purposeful. When we can name and describe the change we feel called to make in our churches, our people, and our communities, we gain a sense of purpose, identity, and meaning.
- They force us to confront the danger of “busyness” that may not get us anywhere.
- They invite us to ask what needs to happen to move us from our present reality to the change we are seeking to make.
2. Focus more on measuring that counting.
Simple numbers cannot always reliably evaluate discipleship. Counting tells us “how many” — how many worshipers, how many children, how many dollars. Measuring is about change. It tells us “how far” — the distance between where we started and the end that we are reaching toward. Both counting and measuring are important but in different ways and for different reasons. Certainly, we needed to know “how many” to have an accurate picture of the life of the church. Remember: Jesus cared a lot about the one sheep that was out of the fold, as well as those inside it. But it also is important to know “how far” we have come toward our goal of change in the direction of meaningful discipleship.
So, it’s best to keep in mind the distinction between counting and measuring, and try, whenever possible, to focus on measuring. For instance:
- Generosity: Focus less on the number of dollars given in a particular year, and more on change over time. Is giving to missions, for example, increasing from year to year?
- Membership and presence: Focus less on the number of members, and more on the trend in professions of faith. Are professions of faith increasing over time? What about other forms of presence? Is engagement in small groups, for example, increasing as a proportion of total membership?
- Worship attendance: Focus less on the number and more on the trend.
- Invitations: Ask people to inform the church when they invite others to worship; track invitations that lead to baptisms and professions of faith.
- Community engagement: Track relationships built as a result of community engagement.
3. Measure what truly matters.
To measure what matters, we begin by acknowledging that the church is the means to an end — world-changing discipleship — not the end itself. It’s the vehicle for transformation. And we must do two more things:
- First, ask good questions. What are the marks of a disciple? If the end for us is authentic discipleship and world transformation, what might that look like in our corner of the world? How will we know that we are bearing witness to the world-changing love of Jesus Christ? Transformation doesn’t often happen quickly. What might be some early indicators (or markers) for transformation?
- Have meaningful conversations within and outside the church. Who outside the church should be noticing the impact you have named? For instance, are principals, teachers, judges, public health professionals, police officers, social workers, or others in the community seeing evidence of your congregation’s impact? Does it reflect authentic discipleship? And if the signs are not evident, ask yourselves why not.
4. Attend to those things that really can’t be counted.
Some things are difficult to count or measure but matter a lot. This is where stories, especially stories of transformation, can be valuable. Collecting and sharing stories of transformation can help others understand more deeply what change is like. Stories can, for example, convey the richness of an outreach ministry’s interactions with families in need, the human impact of a recovery ministry’s engagement in faith formation, or the joy of growing into more faithful giving and what experiencing that joy has felt like for an individual or a family. Stories can be remarkably effective at clarifying detail, nuance and meaning, and helping a listener or reader gain empathy for another’s experience. Collecting and sharing stories of transformation will help leaders to better understand the people they serve, the needs they face, and the possibilities for impact.
It’s important that we evaluate our work, not so that we can feel badly when we are not where we want to be, but so that we learn from our work what is good, bad, and neutral. Susan Weber puts it like this: “At the heart of the word ‘evaluation’ is ‘value’ — to find the value of. At its most effective, evaluation is an activity of valuing and learning from one’s work, not a judgment.” May these values guide all that you do, so that your faithful discipleship will lead others to Christ.
This article is adapted from Measuring Discipleship @ 2020 Discipleship Ministries. Used by permission. This booklet can be downloaded for free at seeallthepeople.org/develop-a-discipleship-system.
- Why Attendance and Revenue Figures Don’t Tell the Whole Story by Rich Birch
- So That: Two Powerful Words for Mission Results by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Measuring What Matters: A Conversation about Metrics and Mission by Ken Carter