Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Do numbers matter?
As I mentioned last week, the 2004 Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference took place last week. One of the news bulletins contained this news:

The not-so-good news is that 72% of our churches are either declining in attendance or staying the same; 12% of our churches are declining by more than 25%. In addition there are 11 churches declining or staying the same though they are located in areas that are exploding in population by more than 50%.

My guess is that our church is probably in that 72% and probably in one of those areas with a rapidly growing population. But what does that mean for us? Real Live Preacher has a great story on the subject. Check it out.

I think the underlying question here is what are the measures of success that churches should use? Is it attendance? Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Church are two of the biggest in the United States. Does that mean that they are two of the most successful churches in the country?

Having an excellent graduate education in quantitative analysis and program evaluation I can think of all sorts of ways to measure church success/effectiveness. Attendance, baptisms, giving, etc. are called "output measures" in the program evaluation/performance measurement field. But we could also measure things like spiritual growth/development, average length of membership, congregational involvement in outreach and leadership activities, etc. We'd call those effectiveness measures.

I'm not suggesting we necessarily start measuring these things. As an amateur social scientist, part of me wants to do it just because I'm curious to know what the answers would be. But do any of those things really measure what matters? In program evaluation it is critical to know what an organization is supposed to be doing before you can figure out if it is doing whatever that thing is, right.

My church's mission statement is: A beacon of hope and a community of faith transformed by God's love to be disciples of Christ. And I think we do a pretty good job of trying to be faithful disciples. I struggle, though, with the implication that we're failing simply because we're not growing or not growing quickly enough. We've been adding 2-3 new members every six months or so but we're also losing 2-3 members every six months to death or disability (that prevents them from being an active part of the church).

One of the reasons I struggle with the numbers issue is because of the "Great Commission" found in Matthew 28:19-20.

Here it is in the New Revised Standard Version:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Here is Eugene Peterson's version from The Message:

Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I'll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age."

Jesus has given us a challenging task - making new disciples while we continue to grow in our own discipleship. How do we balance the task of growing in our faith, nurturing our community of faith, and reaching out to the world? Not that it can't be done, but I think we need to judge our success in all of those areas.

I'm not against growing our church. But when we focus primarily on the numbers we can alienate people in our church because they don't feel valued or cared for, and those that we're trying to make disciples can feel used because it seems like we only care about the numbers (and maybe we do). So what makes us successful? I think that if we're active in the community, faithful about helping our members grow in spirituality and discipleship, and live like we're really a "Beacon of hope", we'll grow. What I'm saying is that if we continue to live like a "community of faith transformed by God's love to be disciples of Christ" people will come to us. Our best sales pitch is simply living and acting like we say we want to. In my mind, the best way to make disciples is to be disciples.



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