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How Should We (or Should We?) Measure Success?

Michael Gatlin

Michael Gatlin

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There’s a well-known business phrase that gets thrown around churches a lot: “What business are we in? How’s business?” The idea is that we should know what the goal of church is, and we should know how well we are doing towards that goal. In particular, in the ’70s and ’80s the church growth movement developed the idea of churches setting goals for Sunday attendance.

Since then, the idea has been sharpened. Perhaps churches shouldn’t measure strictly numerical growth, but rather conversion growth (as opposed to “transfer growth,” which is when people come to one church from another). Various other measurements of success have been devised – percentage of attenders involved in a small group, financial giving per person per week, the number of people involved in service. Demographic measurements have also been the object of goals setting: How does the church reflect the ethnic makeup of its community? What is the age range of the congregation? Is there socioeconomic diversity?

In the last couple decades, in some thinking about churches, there has been a fairly strong reaction against this, from varying quarters. Some groups (emergent, neo-reformed) have argued that this kind of quantitative measurement is a sellout to the consumeristic mentality of the modern West. Others, more extreme, have suggested that numerical success is almost inherently evil, that true faithfulness to the gospel involves a kind of detachment from the potentially corrupting influence of institutionalization more broadly (house church, organic church, new monasticism).

Oddly, I tend to find myself agreeing with every one of these arguments. Yes, we should have a sense of purpose. Yes, we should find a way to measure it and be held accountable. Yes, we must beware the temptations of consumerism. Yes, we must beware of the corrupting influences of institutionalization itself.

I think holding the balance boils down to three important, difficult questions.

First, how do we find ways to assess how things are going in ministry (or other enterprise) without being controlled by the sins of pride and ambition?

Second, if our assessment process indicates we are not doing well, how do we (or do we?) make adjustments towards doing better, without falling prey to mere marketing techniques? (I think this applies outside ministry: If a business enterprise is losing money, merely to adjust marketing seems potentially unethical if the reality is that the business process itself is failing to add value to society.)

Third, how do we value and nourish the aspects of ministry or business that simply aren’t measurable? Say, the depth of people’s worship, the ethical standards of employees, the biblical faithfulness of preaching, or the selfless engagement with the needs of the socially marginalized?

No one said it was easy! Any thoughts?

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