Metrics That Matter: The Missing Element In Assessing Small Church Health

metrics 200Small Church pastors are often told that if our church isn’t growing it’s because we’re not paying enough attention to the numbers.

That’s not true.

Small Church pastors are very aware of the numbers – sometimes painfully so.

I’ll admit that Small Churches don’t use metrics the way bigger churches do. But it‘s not because the numbers don’t matter to us. And it certainly isn’t because we don’t want our churches to grow. It’s because of something no one ever talks about.

Metrics designed by and for megachurches don’t work in Small Churches.

In a big church, an assessment of last weekend’s services might sound something like this: “we were up 13% from this weekend last year, but the percentage of people attending our small groups has dropped by 7.4%. Let’s hear from the small group pastor about what’s being done to address this issue.”

In a Small Church, attendance assessment will sound more like this: “attendance was down a bit this weekend because the Martinez family is on vacation, the Larsons were out of town for Bill’s father’s funeral, and we’re still in the middle of flu season. But we had that new couple join us who just moved into the neighborhood. I took them out to lunch. They say they might be back next week. I’ll follow up with a phone call tomorrow.” 


The Limitations of Traditional Church Metrics

The metrics most churches currently use have two limitations that make them virtually useless for Small Churches:

1. Traditional church metrics are built on numerical increase

Almost every analytical system uses numerical increase, not just as one indicator of health, but the only indicator of health. In fact, I’m not aware of a single exception to this rule.

For example, the best analytical tool I know is Christian Schwarz’s Natural Church Development. It assesses 8 aspects of church life to discover where a church is healthy and where it needs help. But even this better-than-most tool is based on numerical increase.

As it says on its home pageChurches that have done three or more NCD Surveys, have increased their average growth rate by 51% between the first and the third survey.” But I know from personal experience and from a lot of conversations with a lot of Small Church pastors that the smaller the church, the less likely this is to be true.

Small Churches need different metrics. Metrics that measure health without assuming higher congregational attendance numbers as an inevitability.

2. Traditional church metrics are only accurate for larger crowds

In a church of 75 (the US average) the presence or absence of two or three families changes the percentages so drastically that you’d go crazy trying to use those numbers to determine anything of value.

Statisticians know this. That’s why they require a certain number of people for a poll to be considered valid. Crowds tend to behave according to patterns. The larger the crowd, the more accurate and predictive the numbers become.

In larger churches, it might make sense to track growth on a chart, compare numerical percentages and use those metrics as one determiner of how well ministry is being done. But the smaller the sample, the less valuable the statistics are. The smaller the church… well, you can fill in the rest.

Small Churches need different metrics than large churches. The problem is, I don’t know if anyone has designed metrics that assess the unique characteristics of Small Churches.


Different Sizes Need to Use Different Metrics

Keeping track of how many people attend small groups in a church over 1,000 might be an accurate tool in helping to determine the fellowship health of that church. But small group numbers are virtually meaningless in most Small Churches. Many Small Churches are a small group of their own.

Small Church discipleship is different, too. It’s often done through one-on-one mentoring rather than in classes where you can take attendance. Sometimes discipleship is done by a staff member or in a class. But it’s often done by a mature church member without being officially assigned as such by the church leadership – it’s called having friends. What kind of metrics would you use to measure that?

Which brings me back to where this post started. Small Church pastors aren’t ignoring the numbers. But we haven’t been given accurate tools to help us gather and asses the right numbers. Because no one really knows what numbers actually matter in assessing Small Church health.

My friend, Dave Jacobs, proposed a starter idea for measuring Small Church health in a recent post, FINALLY! A Way to Measure Church Health That Makes Sense. His idea? Percentages. I think that’s a great starting point.

But it’s only a starting point. So I end this post with a request.


A Call For Help

We need church leaders and statisticians who are willing to do the research to help us find what’s missing in assessing the health of churches – Small Church metrics that matter.

It’s possible there are valid Small Church metrics in existence that I’m not aware of. If so, I’d love to hear about them. There are a lot of us who could use them.

But even if someone creates some really good Small Church metrics, let me warn you – Small Church leaders will be slow to embrace them because we’ve been burned before. We’ve used the can’t-miss metrics only to see them miss, big time. So we’re skeptical. But we’re willing to give it a shot.

So, if you’re a church leader looking for a subject for your next book, or a college student wracking your brain for an original thesis subject, I have a favor to ask. Take a serious look at the issue of Small Church metrics. Not only is it a great book or thesis topic, but your work in this subject could make you a real trailblazer. And it could be a huge blessing to a lot of pastors and churches.

Help us.

We’re not ignoring the numbers. We just need metrics that apply to us.


So what do you think? Do you know of any good Small Church metrics?

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(EKG photo from Juhan Sonin • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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16 thoughts on “Metrics That Matter: The Missing Element In Assessing Small Church Health”

  1. Very, very good! Was speaking to a wonderful friend on staff in a huge Mega Church. We just started averaging over 300 per Sunday. He asked, “So, how will you get to 400?” My reply revolved around the attitude of that’s not our first priority way up here in a smaller community. Rather, how can we get men out of pornography, helping marriages that are failing, getting people to read the Bible, and prioritizing their lives in a biblical manner?

  2. LOL! Don Mingo, where we are 300 IS a megachurch! We consider the people we have in front of us more than the pnes we don’t see. Are the congregants as individuals able to apply what we are sowingi to their lives and therefore overcoming challenges and improving the quAlity of their lives toward Kingdom glory.

  3. Statistics are useful but have little validity anywhere except within the context from which they were generated. We know that a year ago on Sunday AM, we were running 98 on average and this year we’re running 113 for the past 6 weeks. That’s a valid statistic for us. We know last year fewer than half of our congregation was personally involved in a ministry. In the past 6 weeks 65 percent of our people are personally involved in a ministry. Another 15 percent are being encouraged to find a place to plug in, or at least come along side some one else for mentoring. That’s a significant figure in light of what we are trying to accomplish.
    For us “Church” is not a lot about our Sunday morning gathering. (Sunday morning is The Pit Stop in our race to reach our community for Jesus.) “Church” for us, is the ministry accomplished for the Lord, by our little band, on the other 6 days of the week. We measure home visits, lawns mowed, side walks scooped, etc, to the number of people who either found Jesus or renewed their faith in Him because of our involvement. Our children’s program is rejoicing because 44 kids were let out of school an hour early on Wed afternoon to attend Kid’s Klub. That number has grown significantly in the past year. The Lion’s share of those kids will attend another church on Sundays. That’s OK with us, They are learning they can have a personal relationship with Jesus.
    For the most part our stats. are meaningless outside our fellowship, but we measure things so we can see what we are able to accomplish, with what we have, where we are, God giving us the ability.

    1. That’s a great way to put this issue in context, Fred. And it’s a terrific perspective on the value and purpose of the Sunday morning gathering compared to who and what the church really is.

    2. Fred,
      Great post, thanks for sharing. Now finish what you started…What is Kid’s Klub? You can’t leave me hanging like that. What are the demographics of the community around your church.

      1. Our church has a little youth pastor who resonates with a huge desire to reach our town for Jesus. He’s had a hole in the corner of a grocery store warehouse, aptly called THE CAVE where he’s had a hang out for town kids. Little over a year and a half ago the church had a chance to purchase a building, which once housed a farm implement dealership on Main St. At first a good deal of opposition from people who think money first… Then a family put up $25,000 if it could be matched. As you know, money always follows the vision and in less than two months we had $50,000. The building was purchased and we set about renovating it ourselves. I don’t think anyone knows how much money has been invested. Bills have gotten paid anonymously, supplies and materials have just showed up, businesses and banks have donated a plethora of really good stuff. Today we have an amazing youth facility filled with serious games like air hockey, X-Box, and more. There’s an impressive canteen with great equipment that serves good stuff to eat. There’s a huge area with amazing tables and seating, a stage, video projectors, and a sound system. We have a short basketball court, meeting area and ample storage space. Kids Klub was a dream that came out of our “Lets Think Ministry Opportunities” Our youth pastor and the children’s pastor approached the school administration about allowing kids to come last hour of the day for Kids Klub. They would enjoy snacks, memorize scripture, have a Bible lesson and participate in a vigorous running activity. To everyone’s surprise the school said if the kids could get parental permission they would arrange the Wednesday afternoon schedule so that could happen. We go get the kids at 2:30, walk them the block and a half to “The New Cave” and Kids Klub begins. It’s over by 4:00. There are basically 4 events occurring. The kids rotate through on 15 minute cycles. Our people come well prepared to be efficiently effective. In the middle of lots of noise and activity a bunch of great “Gospeling” is accomplished. When it’s over the kids go home the way they ordinarily would on any other day. The upside kids that otherwise never go to church come to Kids Klub. They have so much fun their friends want to come too. There are seriously good incentives to memorize scripture and remember last weeks Bible lessons. They are also welcomed back for our awesome Wednesday night youth events. Some come others don’t. We staff the whole venue with volunteers dedicated to love on kids no matter what. Very briefly that’s Kids Klub It all grew out of our determination to stop being consumers of the goods and services of the church and start being Intentional Gospelers by God’s Power!

  4. Having served in big and small churches, I would rather know my people than my statistics. The feedback for SCPs is so much more immediate and personal from the flock and that, for me at least, makes growth metrics seem almost inconsequential.

    1. I completely agree, Rich. But we all have the capacity to develop tunnel vision and fail to see things we need to pay attention to. Supplementing personal care with accurate numbers can alert us to issues we may not see otherwise. I’ll take all the info I can get.

  5. I’m a church planter working with a team that’s NOT aiming for mega-status; hoping to reach unchurched or dechurched (or overchurched) Millennials with micro groups for growing actual relationships; beautiful worship where we tell the truth about the challenges of faith; important work among our local neighbors, etc. We’re interested in counting “hours” rather than people because we have intense gatherings that are tiny if you’re counting heads, but huge if you’re counting connections. What if someone comes to late-night Bible & Beer on Tuesday, a dinner/prayer meeting on Thursday, can’t make it to 5 p.m. worship Sunday but gets off work in time to join us for supper and conversation after? How do I count their attendance (and report it satisfactorily to my funders, middle judicatory, etc.)? But if I count hours… well, I’d put up my tiny church numbers against the Sunday morning in-n-out attendance at much bigger congregations. Not that we’re competing, though, right? [smile]

    1. Points well made, Katie. Butts-in-seats attendance figures, whether for Sunday or mid-week, may be one of the least reliable ways to determine a church’s health. But most church metrics use that as their centerpiece. Thus, the challenge.

  6. Great words. I’m preparing to go on a mission trip and they had us read a book about missionary tradecraft. Good book, but the metrics involeved large cities, large numbers, large churches.

    Numbers are a good metric for many things, but not for what ulitmately matters. Good stuff all around.

  7. I have a background in organizational assessment and improvement in secular fields before entering pastoral ministry. W.Edwards Deming, a guru of stastical process control, rather famously said that some things are unknown and unknowable. He also wrote that one of the seven deadly sins of management is “Management by use only of visible figures, with little or no consideration of figures that are unknown or unknowable”. I think that has great applicability in the local church, whether it is a mega-church in the suburbs, or a small country church. For instance, Sunday morning attendance is easily measured, but does that metric really adddress the deeper issue of spiritual growth of individuals, overall spiritual climate of the community etc. However, Deming never suggested that businesses should stop trying to measure excellence. And I think that has great applicability for the church as well. As a previous reply indicated, metrics only make sense in the context in which they were created. Nine years ago, when we planted our congregation in a village of about 1100 people, I began measuring week to week attendance. Now I tend to compare attendance averages from one year to two or three years ago. That’s the easy metric. The tougher one, and one I can’t put a real number to, is are we more involved in ministry than we were one year ago? To count “programs” would be a mistake because sometimes great ministry doesn’t take place in a program and many programs are very good ministry

    1. I think you’ve outlined the issue and the challenge very well. To measure what we can, while realizing that so many of the most important things are immeasurable. In a Small Church especially, as you’ve outlined, being in a program and doing good ministry aren’t always the same thing. We’ll never have a fully satisfactory answer to it, but we should never stop trying to do it better.

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