How Do We Measure Success?

For 20 years, I have observed church leaders wrestling with how we should measure success in church. I've found many who did not embrace any measurement at all. They find some support in this verse.

1 Corinthians:5-7.What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

Churches that do measure have often fallen into the trap of measuring proxies. Often, it is difficult to measure the things that are important, so we look for things that might indicate we are moving in the right direction. In church, that often comes down to measuring butts and bucks. For years, I watched average worship attendance and giving as the best proxies. While they may be measures of a successful organization, they do not measure any movement of the people towards spiritual maturity. Because of this, many have said, "You can't measure the important things," and until recently, that was true.

Some have begun to move beyond measuring the number of people or dollars coming into the church, and have suggested that instead we should measure the outreach of the church to see a healthier scorecard. To do this, they begin to measure how many are being sent out, creating new outreach teams, new ways to impact the poor in their community, since Jesus charged us with their care. Measuring those sent out also presents some problems.

How might we use deployment as a success measure for more traditional church settings? According to Bill Easum, healthy churches work in this manner:

Changed We come into church are changed by an experience of the living God, our hearts and minds transformed.

Gifted Once we are touched by God and yearn for a deeper walk with Him, the church helps us to discern our spiritual gifts and how they might benefit the community.

Called God has a purpose for each of us. Biblically, gifts are given for service to the community. Our calling from God is rooted in the gifts. He always supplies us what we need to do the work he lays out for us. So, if we have discerned our gifts, and we pray and meditate on the question, “God, what would you call forth from these gifts you have given me?” Then, we may discern our calling.

Equipped Just because we have a certain spiritual gift, doesn’t mean we are equipped to use it. Gifts are like seeds that only come to maturity through learning, discipline and practice. Effective churches help equip people to use their gifts towards their calling.

Sent This step is essential for the church to be the church. Once we are changed, gifted, called and equipped, we are sent out to use our gifts for the benefit of the community, witnessing Christ’s love to all.

My observation of many small and medium-size churches is that few seem to have this healthy system in place. Hence, we have the common situation where 20 percent of the people are doing 80 percent of the work. Many do not seem to move beyond worship and occasional fellowship activity in their spiritual walk. Even in growing church communities, engaging a majority of people in mission and ministry is quite a challenge.

Mike Foss has done great work to help the church see that our call is to be disciples, not members. If we look at the Marks of Discipleship he describes in his book Power Surge, you see this call to sending. The six marks are:

Pray daily
Worship weekly
Read the Bible daily
Serve both in and beyond the church
Build relationships that allow you to share and grow in faith
Give the tithe

Churches on a plateau or in decline (about 80 percent of mainline churches) are almost always inwardly focused, looking at their own needs, and not beyond themselves. Healthy churches always focus on needs beyond their own. This focus is rooted in the transformation that comes from a relationship with the living God. We all come to God and to church focused on our own needs. We experience God’s love. His grace helps us see the many blessings in our lives, and the hurt and broken people all around us. If we remember the verse, “As you do unto the least of these, you do also for me,” we are serving Christ whenever we serve others.

So, for those hoping to move off the plateau or reverse the decline in their local church, I would propose that we not measure success by the “In Drag” method of just counting the number of people at our worship services, but we go much deeper. Here are some questions that get to the heart of the matter.

How many of your leaders have committed to discipleship and a deeper spiritual journey?
How many have completed a discernment process and claimed their gifts?
How many are using their gifts in ministry within the church?
How many are using their gifts in service to the community outside the church?

In a recent Gallup survey, only three percent of churchgoers felt their gifts were being fully utilized in their church. Isn’t that a sad statement? So many times, our churches are unable to use the gifts of the members sitting in the pews, and that great potential for service and satisfaction in life (the two are closely related) is being wasted.

When we expend all our energy meeting the needs of the church and the members within it, we are missing the point of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. We can put it a thousand ways, but Jesus gave us the mission: Be Disciples, Make Disciples, Feed the Sheep. Most church mission statements include much more theological or flowery language, but somehow the message gets watered down, and it rarely compels any action.

If you want to see people’s hearts change, get them in front of those truly in need. One year, our small group took on the task of helping a refugee family get settled. Helping the family with rent, furnishings, finding jobs, learning English and getting a car and driver’s license gave us all a much different perspective on the challenges facing refugees trying to start a new life with nothing.

Another time, we took on a family of illegal immigrants who had been dumped off on our church doorstep with their belongings in a couple of garbage bags. Walking with them as they tried to find housing and jobs and healthcare for an eight-months-pregnant woman with an alcoholic husband and two young children forever changed how I look at the issues raging in our country about services for illegal immigrants. Today, much of this work would be illegal under Georgia law.

Another time, we spent a Saturday with a ministry to the homeless taking meals, blankets and clothing to the homeless living under the interstate bridges in Atlanta. Talk about a different perspective on life.

Frankly, I spent years hearing sermons about helping the needy, and I just wrote a check and felt a twinge of guilt over my affluent lifestyle. Mostly, the messages bounced right off my hard heart. We preach on justice issues and call out for more attention to the poor, the hungry and the homeless. For me, none of this had much of an impact for the first 20 years of my life as a Christian. In that time, no one really asked me to commit to discipleship.

After reading “Power Surge” and taking to heart the call to discipleship, things slowly started changing for me. As I committed myself to a deeper spiritual walk, I joined a small group of others committed to a deeper faith. After many months together, we as a group began to heed the call to take on some mission beyond the church. Those experiences softened and changed my heart more in one day than decades of worship and sermonizing on the subject.

Once you experience these things, there’s no turning back. When we turn the focus of our success measures to those “Sent” instead of those “Gathered,” I think we will be much closer to building the Ancient/Future discipleship communities we yearn for and read about in the book of Acts.

Sadly, many churches have lost focus on the 'main thing,' and have not created a clear pathway into discipleship. Willow Creek, one of the most successful churches in America found this to be true when they began their research into how people become mature Christ-followers. They assumed, along with a lot of the rest of us, that getting people more involved in the activities of the church would help them become mature. Their research found very little correlation between involvement in church activity, and growing maturity. In fact, the only way they found the church could help people mature in faith was to encourage them to foster a deeper personal relationship with Jesus. To the extent that people grow deeper in their prayer life, their study of the Bible, and their outward service towards the poor and marginalized, they grow towards maturity.

Would you like to measure the really important things in your church? Then, consider taking your congregation through the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey. It's the best tool I've found the measure success in a way that is consistent with Biblical teaching. Learn more about the Reveal survey here. Does the Gospel being preached in your church lead to discipleship? Check out this blog post of the same name.

Ephesians 4: 11-16. So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.