Can Measuring a Church Hurt It?

Measuring heightEarlier this week, I wrote a couple mini-rants in the comment sections of two ministry websites. The authors of the blogs weren’t the targets of my frustration. They actually brought up some good ideas. But the underlying issues got me going, so I jumped in.

Here’s what the blogs posted about, followed by what I wrote:

BLOG #1:

The post was Measuring Success In Your Church. In it, Dave DeVries cited Seth Godin’s concern that we tend to oversimplify the data we use when we’re trying to measure complex systems (false proxy, he calls it). Then the author of the blog asked, correctly, if we do the same thing in church leadership.

Are we measuring the wrong things when we count butts in the seats and bucks in the offering (my terms, not his) to determine a church’s success?

My Comment:

Thank you for this. I think you and Seth Godin are getting at something very important with the idea that we need to use a better set of criteria when we measure church success/failure.

But I’d like to see it taken one step further. Instead of finding better things to measure, I have a question. And it’s a serious one.

Where, exactly, is the biblical mandate that everything needs to be measured?

We need to count the offering and expenses. That’s just good stewardship, with plenty of biblical precedent. But the best things in life (art, beauty, love, salvation) are immeasurable – in both senses of the word.

There’s an old adage in science that you can’t observe or measure something without affecting its outcome. I wonder if we’re actually affecting the intended outcome of worship, evangelism, et al when we try to measure them.

Are we unintentionally devaluing the church when we try to measure the immeasurable?


BLOG #2:

Todd’s post was True or False: If You’re Not Growing, Something’s Wrong. In it, he cited Brian Orme who also questioned whether butts in the seats (again, my term) are the correct way to measure church success.

My Comment:

OK, I’ll weigh in. This hits a sore spot for me, so I’ll try to be nice about it. Blunt, but nice.

First of all, thanks for asking the question.

Second, my answer is “False”. Butts-in-the-seats attendance is neither the only measure or the best measure of a church’s health or growth, any more than height is the only or best measure of a person’s health or growth. But numbers are the only measure we’ve used in the western church for several decades.

As the pastor of a small church, I have to say that the insistence on numerical growth is frustrating, and at times, demoralizing.

80% of us are small. Always have been. Always will be.

Telling us we’re failing because we’re small is like telling 80% of the world’s restaurants that they’re failing because they’re not the size of The Cheesecake Factory. It doesn’t help us get better. It just makes us want to give up.

Instead of telling 80% of us that we’re failing, let’s figure out how to help that 80% be great, healthy, small churches.

It is possible. I know. I pastor one.

My church is healthy, innovative and growing. It’s too complicated to go into the details of how we’re growing in this comment box, but I think we need to start seriously looking at other ways of appreciating health and growth in small churches.

Thanks for the chance to rant. I feel better now.


So, those were my mini-rants. How’d I do?

My comment section is below. Feel free to rant back. Whether you agree or disagree.


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(Height measurement photo University of Iowa Archives • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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4 thoughts on “Can Measuring a Church Hurt It?”

  1. So well said! I’ve spent my life in the church and currently attend the smallest (butts in the seat) church I’ve ever attended. I feel more connected and have experienced personal spiritual growth than ever before. A small church demands my attention and involvement. I can’t show up and leave without anyone noticing. I need to participate to help our body function.
    The argument for growth that living things are always growing is not a valid. Ask anyone who ever joined Weight Watchers. Lean and fit is healthy, whether you’re 4’11” or 6’7″. That is the way to a healthier, more productive life.
    Thanks for your heart for small churches and their leaders.

  2. I agree, but with a slightly different perspective. Asking whether your church is healthy by counting “butts-in-the-seats” is akin to determining the health of your family by asking your youngest son how he’s feeling that day. Just because “Junior” is in good health doesn’t mean the rest of the family isn’t battling the flu. It’s the right question asked of the wrong demographic.

    The Body of Christ is more than one church, it’s thousands and the question I think any church should begin with in assessing their own health is “how are we impacting the Church as a whole?” If they can answer that question positively, then Sunday mornings count may not be as important. BUT, while it’s true that there’s no biblical mandate to measure attendance, the absence of such a mandate does not necessarily mean one should ignore growth data, or dismiss it as not relevant. We were given The Great Commission, so maybe there is some scholarly subjective numerical argument that could be applied. The important thing is to look at the numbers and put them into proper perspective. If Sunday numbers are the only question you’re asking or interested in, then your church is probably not healthy. If you’re not asking any questions at all, there are probably other more significant health issues.

    We can’t ignore that church attendance in the United States is declining (as a percentage of the population). I don’t know the numbers, but if 80% of the churches in the U.S. are small, and that percentage is also a reflection of the faithful population, then maybe we DO need to be telling them they’re failing. How do you fix a problem if you won’t acknowledge you have one? Big churches need to be having the same discussion. Fundamentally, if the Church as a whole is growing, so will every individual church within, including the Sunday morning counts. But, that’s not what’s happening collectively.

    You wrote “80% of us are small. Always have been. Always will be.” Why?

    In the same sense that it might be demoralizing telling a small restaurant they are not successful because they are not the size of The Cheesecake Factory, I feel it could be equally demoralizing to tell them they probably have no chance at ever being the size of the Cheesecake Factory. I’m not sure I agree with you that 80% of all churches will always be small. Partly because I don’t agree that numerically it has to be that way and partly because we may define “small” differently. If your (Pastor Karl’s) church is simply who shows up on Sunday morning, then maybe you’re right, you do pastor a small church. But, I would argue you’re shepherding a larger church.

    So, maybe in addition to finding other ways of appreciating health and growth in small churches, you might also explore changing the definition of what it means to be small.

    1. HI Brian,

      Wow, that’s a LOT. Thanks for the thoughtful response. Much of what you referred to (the entire church needing to grow,numbers not being the only criterion, etc.) I agree with wholeheartedly and I’ll be dealing with in future posts and in my upcoming book. For now I’ll limit my response to your last point about 80% always have been, and always will be small.

      There are many reasons I said that, but I’ll just tackle a couple for now. One reason is the historical precedent. Megachurches are a recent phenomenon. Yes there have been large churches for centuries – look at the cathedrals of Europe. But that’s never been the norm. 80% have always been small.

      Another reason is that the kinds of relationships we’re supposed to have in the church require intimacy. And intimacy requires smallness. Some find that intimacy that in small groups within a big church, but most prefer it in a Small Church.

      As to your concern that saying 80% of churches will always be small can demoralize a church, there are two comments I’ll make. First, that doesn’t mean that 80% of current churches will always be small. I would never tell any church or pastor that because I absolutely don’t believe that. What I meant was that the prevailing percentage will always be 80% (my expectation, not a prediction or prophecy, of course). There will always be new churches starting, old ones dying, small towns where large isn’t possible, ministries where smaller is better, and people who just prefer small instead of big. But I will always insist that if there’s nothing wrong with being small, there’s nothing wrong with saying we’ll always be small. It’s kind of like telling a family they’ll only have three kids. Nothing wrong with that.

      Finally I agree that we need to change the definition of small (and while we’re at it, our understanding of “large”, “successful” and “growing” need to be re-examined as well.) You’re correct to say that the sphere of ministry and influence of the church I pastor is much larger than Sunday butts in the seats. That’s true for a lot of churches – and it’s one of many reasons we need to re-think these issues.

      Even if we end up affirming a lot of what we believe, questioning our presuppositions is always healthy. And conversations like this are hugely important.

      Thanks for participating.

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