Should We Measure Ministry By Numbers?

The two post popular recent posts on this site are the Top 25 United Methodist Annual Conferences and the Top 25 Fastest Growing Large United Methodist Churches. In ministry, we are fascinated by numbers–yet we rebel against them, especially concerning something as qualitative as a “changed life”. It’s easy to measure widgets, but more difficult to measure a changed heart. So is it a good idea or a bad idea to apply specific measurables to ministry?

Many congregational leaders say with some validity that numbers such as average worship attendance, number of confessions of faith, number of baptisms, and so on reflect changing demographics and generational movement more than any modicum of effective ministry, and that ministry by the numbers is misguided, unfair to the long messy work of discipleship and ultimately unfaithful to the mandate to make disciples.

Yet at the same time, healthy churches grow, both in discipleship and in quantifiable markers. In Will Willimon’s new book Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority By The Authority in Question (Abingdon, 2012), which I just finished editing, the author notes that average worship attendance is the most revealing marker of congregational vitality, followed by professions of faith, baptisms, and new members.

In another of the manuscripts given to me when I began my job as at Abingdon Press in January, Back to Zero (Abingdon, 2012) by Gil Rendle, the author notes that as incomplete as it is, measurements are necessary, for a “system gets what it measures”–or, a system that measures nothing gets nothing.

In a declining church where clergy and members are dependent consumers, receiving financial and emotional payoffs for involvement regardless of and sometimes despite decline, measurements are threatening, because measurements demand responsibility through accountability.

Disciples bear fruit. You can count fruit. The difference created through discipleship is tangible. And if this fruit is not appropriately counted, it must at least be described in specific ways. If average worship attendance is not an appropriate marker, then what is? Maybe descriptive categories such as Dan Glover and Claudia Lavy’s six-part discipleship typology in Deepening Your Effectiveness.

Whatever the measurements used, a growing church cannot be afraid of specific, rigorous detail to the transformation of the human heart, whether it is by the numbers or by descriptive categories. Without these categories, we lose the accountability we need to fulfill our purpose as a church.