By Patrick Scriven | Director of Communications & Young People’s Ministry
Humor me for a minute. What if we rethink metrics?
Before I start let’s name metrics for what it is. Metrics is a dirty word in the church. Why do I say this? For some, it is an object of lust; the thing we crave when we should know better. After all, Texas isn’t the only party guilty of suggesting that bigger is always better. And for others among us, metrics is a word that instills fear and shame. We worry that we’ll be judged by this one convenient measure and discount that accountability is impossible without some way to measure the fruit of our ministry.
Why is this so? I suspect it is because you, like me, have been guilty on one or more occasions of unfairly judging someone else with an oversimplified set of numbers. And if you are truly like me, you’ve turned this judgment upon yourself as well. It’s natural then to worry and assume that others are evaluating your work just as you are evaluating theirs. After all, we are the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” people, right?
So are we to be forever stuck in this quandary allowing suspicion to dominate even as we recognize, and continue to permit, simple numbers to paralyze our ministry? I don’t believe this needs to be our fate. Metrics are a critical tool and an unavoidable reality but they need a proper narrative box so they can help and not harm.
Let me tell a story.
A young woman was walking on a treadmill during Jericho, the TV show. Her husband has just suggested, in a less than gentle way, that she weighs too much. She hates the way she looks and she believes that it is all her fault. She knows that if she can lose 20 pounds everything will be okay and she will secure the love of this perfect man.”
Of course we all see what is wrong with this story. The love that the woman pursues is elusive and inauthentic. The goal of losing 20 pounds, even if it is met, is unlikely to achieve the results she is looking for. It’s the plot of countless romantic comedies driving viewers to scream at the screen in hope she’ll hear and find the better man.
Let’s consider instead a second story.
A young woman is walking on a treadmill during Jericho, the TV show. Her husband is on the treadmill next to her watching the show as well. A few months ago they had a great conversation about their health and their hopes for the future; for travel during retirement and grandchildren that can be sent home at night. Together they worked out a reasonable plan to improve the quality of the meals they consume and to increase the physical activity in their daily lives. Their employer even gave them pedometers to help mark their progress. The weeks ahead will be filled with moments of success and times of backsliding. But through it they hold one another accountable; in failure and success they remain united in love.”
The differences between our two stories are obvious. In the first, insecurity and the pursuit of conditional love motivate; in the second unconditional love is assumed and is foundational for the action that is taken together. The motivating factor in this second story is shared hope and and holistic vision of health broadly defined in contrast to the narrow, metric-based definition of the first.
I would like to suggest that this is a perfect analogy from which we might discuss, and best understand, the proper role of metrics and the two basic strategies our annual conference is investing in; discipleship-making systems and mission field engagement. Permit me, again, to expand upon the point.
[quote_box_right]If we were to think of the church as a body, not a new idea by the way, we would be drawn to define improved health (not just lower weight) as a primary goal.[/quote_box_right]If we were to think of the church as a body, not a new idea by the way, we would be drawn to define improved health as a primary goal. For many, the metric by which health is measured, is weight. A loss of weight is often interpreted as an improvement of health even when we are perfectly aware that it might, under certain circumstances, signify something else entirely.
Sound familiar? Just as we are quick to assume that a loss of weight equals an increase in health, we assume the opposite in ministry with higher numbers equaling success.
But we know better. We know that weight is an inadequate, if not inconsequential, indicator of our health. The missional goals of our Annual Conference express this as well. By emphasizing that we focus on discipleship-making systems and mission field engagement, our church is pushing forward the idea that worship attendance, as an isolated number, is a wholly insufficient measure of congregational health or vitality.
If we establish health as our goal in our daily lives, we know that most health plans call for two basic components even as they are lived out in a multitude of ways; proper diet and sufficient physical activity. We are simply suggesting that the heathy church also has two essential components without which vitality remains elusive. We are not healthy when we lack the regular practice of calling, equipping and empowering disciples who go out and live their faith in service within the communities in which they live.
Research tells us that most people struggle to achieve a balanced diet. Eating the requisite number of fruits and vegetables is akin to the work of intentional discipleship-making activity in the local church. Just as the sugary foods are easier to consume, we are often guilty of failing in the task of calling people toward deeper levels of discipleship. Instead we find it easier to focus our efforts on attracting people with the latest worship trend or communication platform. Of those we manage to attract, we ask too little because it is easier and we are fearful of how they might respond. Do they really like us?
We also know that our physical bodies need regular exercise to maintain optimal health. Unfortunately, just as it is easier to watch other people’s athletic exploits from the living room sofa, our congregations too often live vicariously through their clergy people, missionaries and by recounting the tales of the saints of old; failing to remember that God has purpose enough for all of us today. Mission field engagement is equivalent to regular exercise in the life of a congregation. While this exercise can take many different forms it is through its practice that we learn what we are capable of together as the body of Christ. It is also through this group practice that we rediscover the world around us, finding meaning and renewed purpose in service with the rest of God’s beloved creation.
Let’s draw this analogy to it’s natural conclusion then. Each of us is a unique and beautiful child of God and our bodies respond to and benefit from proper diet and exercise in different ways at different stages of our lives. As we age, we discover that we need to become more disciplined lest bad habits take hold. And while our weight is never an adequate indicator of our physical health when considered in isolation; there are times where it is clearly a sign that we haven’t maintained the requisite discipline.
The statistical decline in the metrics of membership and worship attendance (among others) so prevalent in many of our faith communities has rightly drawn our collective attention to the question of congregation health and vitality. For some it seems that the path forward is to simply to count more and more things.
Our annual conference offers instead that a path forward might be better won through striving together to close the fitness gap rather than allowing fear and anxiety to drive us from one fad diet to the next. We would call churches back toward the example of Jesus who called forth disciples and tasked them with the job of transforming the world and expanding the kin(g)dom. The work of the church is hard but it is also very simply.
We do this work best when we do it together, not in competition or by withholding love, but from a shared vision of hope and with many plans for the future. For surely we know that God has plans for us, plans for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope.