Since starting the ministry of New Small Church, I’ve been asked that question more than any other. Maybe more than all other questions combined.
At first I didn’t know how to answer it. Now I answer that question with a question, for one important reason.
I have come to believe that the question itself is a problem.
Imagine this scenario.
Jesus is meeting with the disciples. He’s been training them for three years, he’s died, risen again and walked with them in resurrection power for almost 40 days. As the day of his ascension draws near, he gathers them together to reiterate The Great Commission. “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation,” Jesus tells them.
Then Peter (it’s always Peter, right?) steps out from the crowd and asks, “Jesus, what metrics should we use to measure the success of this mission? What are the numbers that will tell us whether-or-not we’re succeeding?”
If that question is as important as we’re constantly being told it is, how did the disciples not think to ask it of Jesus? What a missed opportunity! Maybe the disciples didn’t think to ask it because, well, before the Day of Pentecost they missed a lot of important things.
Then why didn’t Jesus correct their oversight and tell them what metrics we’re supposed to use? He corrected them when they missed other important points, but not this one.
Which leads me to the question I now use when people ask me how to measure success in the Small Church – or in any church, for that matter. Why didn’t Jesus tell his disciples how to measure success? Maybe because the kind of success Jesus had in mind is immeasurable?
How Did the Church Grow Before QuickBooks?
Metrics aren’t wrong. Measuring our progress can be helpful.
But can we all just admit that the idea of measuring our success in church came from us, not from Jesus? And that measuring our progress numerically has not been considered a vital ingredient in reaching the world for Jesus until really, really recently in church history?
How did the church grow at all in the first 1900 years of its existence without anyone asking that question or taking rigorous measurements?
As important as measuring our success is supposed to be, the church should thrive in the places and times when we have accurate measurements, and it should be dying in places and times when we don’t. But any accurate study of church history and current revivals shows that the opposite tends to be true.
Years ago I asked members of my own congregation the question at the start of this post. I wrote about that exchange in The Grasshopper Myth: Chapter 11 – A New Way to Define Success. Here’s how it went:
If we pay less attention to counting butts in the seats, how do we measure success?
Shortly after having my heart changed about the value of church size, I put that question to the volunteer leaders of our church at our annual vision-casting weekend.
The answer was obvious to them. I think they were shocked that I asked it – and maybe disappointed in their fearless leader for not knowing the answer myself.
“I think we should measure success the way Jesus did,” was the immediate and overwhelming response. “One person at a time. Are individual people growing? Is the community being impacted? That’s what matters.”
My wise volunteer church leaders were right then. They’re right now.
WWJM? (What Would Jesus Measure?)
Let’s go back to the disciples’ supposed missed opportunity.
Can anyone imagine the conversation I just outlined taking place between Jesus and the disciples? And if it had taken place, is it conceivable that Jesus would have responded to the question “how will we measure success?” with anything less than a face-palm and another exasperated cry of “How long shall I put up with you?”
There’s no way Jesus would have talked about church metrics in any manner close to the way we talk about it in church growth circles today. And yet somehow, without metrics, spreadsheets, quarterly goals, ten year plans or mission statements (other than the Great Commandment and The Great Commission) a handful of ignorant, argumentative, non-academically-inclined, ex-fishermen, farmers and a tax collector turned the world upside-down.
If the disciples had asked that question of Jesus, what might Jesus’ answer have been?
I think he might have said something like this:
“…there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)
“Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” (Luke 14:23)
One by one. Until the job is done. Sounds like success to me.
So what do you think? Have you struggled with metrics as a measure of success?
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(Homer D’oh! photo from smtexas)