If you’ve been attending church for six decades like I have, you might remember the attendance boards that once appeared in many sanctuaries.
The wooden fixtures prominently displayed weekly totals for attendance and offerings, comparing them to the previous Sunday and sometimes even recalling such numbers from a year ago. This gave the entire congregation a chance to monitor growth or note concerning trends.
As a teenager, I had the task of sliding the numbers into place each week for my suburban church. Posting this vital information felt like an important job. Decades later, the memories still bring a smile.
Today, those old attendance boards are gone from most of our churches, but we still find ourselves looking to attendance and offerings, the so-called “nickels and noses” measures, to tell a large part of our congregation’s ministry story.
Churches with big numbers seem better resourced and more successful than smaller ones. Leaders in both kinds of churches bristle at the suggestion that ministry is a numbers game, however.
Indeed, the pitfalls of a heavy church growth focus have come to the surface in nearly every generation. So, if our traditional measures are a bit off-target, what should we measure, and how can a local church engage data collection more effectively?
After years of wrestling with the church health benefits and implications of using numbers to evaluate our ministries, I believe there is a better way to use statistics.
Start With Mission
All good assessment must affirm and align with the Church’s primary reasons for being. Fortunately for us, Jesus made our true assignments clear: make disciples, love God and one another, dwell in unity, and take His gospel into all the world.
In light of this, the limitations of traditional measures become apparent. Attendance numbers and offering totals may have some connection to these priorities, but they don’t provide the whole picture. In fact, they miss the biggest parts.
The most helpful metrics would gauge discipleship growth, relationships, and our part in the global expansion of Christ’s kingdom. Yes, qualitative goals are more difficult to measure, but finding ways to do so is worth the effort.
Measuring the wrong things is not only unproductive, but it can also push us toward unhealthy priorities. According to an old adage in the business world, “what gets measured gets done.” It’s true in the local church, too.
For example, if you judge your youth ministry by the number of students showing up each week, don’t be surprised when youth leaders make increasing attendance the primary goal.
Chasing numbers seldom produces depth in discipleship and often works against meaningful relationships, two of the healthier priorities for church ministry. And if the crowds aren’t growing, leaders who have been taught to focus on such things will start seeing themselves and their ministry efforts through that failing lens.
Sadly, measuring the wrong things has discouraged many good pastors, staff members, and volunteers over the years.
Outcomes are usually better than outputs for measuring missional success.
Outputs include things like general attendance and total offerings. By themselves, these don’t clearly indicate levels of engagement or individual growth.
However, outcomes speak more directly to your mission. For example, those who commit to a daily Bible reading program are demonstrating a desire to grow in God’s truth.
Measuring the wrong things is not only unproductive, but it
can also push us toward unhealthy priorities.
Small group participation may not prove relationships are forming and discipleship is occurring, but it does provide stronger evidence than worship service attendance.
Serving regularly creates moments for growth and connection and helps volunteers practice neighborly love.
These are the kinds of outcomes that can help us measure missional progress.
Since we’re already measuring traditional outputs, we can put them to better use by connecting them more clearly to ministry health.
A few years ago, the Acts 2 Journey team developed some metrics to do just that. Rather than just counting how many people attend church, we wanted to see what is happening with those individuals.
Sometimes we simply need to look at data in new ways. For example, comparing attendance with the number of conversions a church reports in a given year can reveal how many people it took to lead someone to Christ.
A congregation of 100 that saw 10 conversions needed 10 people to lead one person to Jesus (100/10). That’s far more effective than a church of 1,000 that reported 50 conversions. The larger church needed 20 people to make each new convert (1,000/50).
Obviously, we celebrate with both churches as together they reported 60 new believers, but the smaller church outpaced the larger one according to this metric.
As another example, we compared conversions with the number of water baptisms. Since water baptism is a significant early step in discipleship, every new believer should be baptized. So if the number of conversions is significantly larger than the number of baptisms, there may be a breakdown in the discipleship process.
As Pentecostals, we believe God wants every Christian to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit. But how do the numbers of those experiencing this empowerment compare to new convert totals? The answer might reveal a need to spend more time preaching and teaching on this topic, as well as providing more opportunities for people to seek Spirit baptism.
These figures shed light on our missional effectiveness as well. After all, there is a clear biblical connection between Spirit baptism and the Great Commission (Acts 1:8).
The point is looking deeper to find the stories behind the numbers. Total offerings don’t say much about discipleship, but identifying an increasing number of givers might.
Since tithing is part of spiritual growth, it can be one of several metrics informing discipleship assessments.
Likewise, larger missions offerings can indicate a growing sense of global focus — especially when the share of people who give to such efforts is increasing.
Measure What Matters
There are many ways statistics can help chart progress toward Christ’s missional assignment.
For example, the percentage of first-time guests returning to a church is a useful statistic. Congregations that do a good job of making people feel welcome generally see at least half of all visitors attending a second time.
Similarly, calculating the share of congregants who are regularly serving helps indicate how well a church is mobilizing people. Knowing most churches report about a quarter of attendees regularly serving provides valuable context.
Since our mission also demands that we raise up Spirit-empowered leaders, we should consider how many called leaders we are sending out from our churches. A church that sends out at least as many ministers as it has on staff demonstrates a commitment to spreading the gospel.
So, how do we use church statistics effectively? Once we bring our assignments clearly into focus, we can find meaningful ways to measure our progress. That’s when numbers become truly helpful.
In fact, tracking such data makes it easier to keep the Church’s mission in front of our people — so we can all keep pursuing the things Jesus commanded us to do.
This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine.
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