What Do You Measure?


A frequent criticism of the church growth movement is an excessive emphasis on numbers. That may be a valid objection, depending on what is being counted. I use numbers as one of the three or four most useful lines of demarcation to help me understand the internal dynamics of congregational life. I am convinced the congregation averaging 30 to 40 at worship, which is the most common size of congregations in American Protestantism, is a radically different type of worshiping community than the congregation averaging 350 to 400 at worship. The level of complexity and anonymity in the second group is far higher than in the first!

Likewise the congregation that has shrunk in size from an average worship attendance of 650 to 325 in five years clearly is a different ecclesiastical species than the one meeting in a building a mile away that doubled its worship attendance from 325 to 650 during the same five year period. In both cases those numbers provide the basis for asking a series of probing “Why?” and “How come?” questions.

According to one historian, the current emphasis on quantifiable knowledge in the western world dates back to the thirteenth century. The first mechanical clock and the first cannon forced people “to think in terms of quantified time and space.” (Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 19.)

Those who prefer an earlier date can refer to the first chapter of Genesis which measures the progress of creation.

By the sixteenth century, the military textbooks in western Europe included a number of tables that could be used by officers in arranging troop formations. For nearly four hundred years Americans have been addicted to measuring time, space, weight, volume, temperature, length, height, and other quantities. It is not uncommon today, for example, for the announcement of the birth of a baby to include measurements of time, weight, and length.

Numbers have been used to distinguish monotheistic religions from polytheistic religions.

Today all of us use a variety of measurements to help us describe reality. These include the size of our family, our annual income, our weight, our age, the average miles per gallon of gasoline used by our motor vehicle, our tenure in our present position or place of residence, and scores of other measurements. For example, this is the 326th conscutive issue of The Parish Paper.

Three Lessons

In reflecting on this natural desire to describe reality by measuring it, several lessons emerge.

The first is we measure what at that time we believe to be important. When asked how long before you retire, one person may respond, “One year, two months, and eight days.” Another may reply, “I haven’t the faintest idea. I’ve never thought about retirement. After all, I’m only twenty-six years old.”

In several denominations the annual report form for congregations includes a question on “Total Church School (or Sunday School) Enrollment.” Why is that question included, when most users of those data believe average Sunday school attendance is a more useful indicator? It is included because once upon a time that was believed to be a useful number.

In recent years an increasing number of congregations and denominational systems have been measuring the average annual worship attendance. That is widely perceived to be a more sensitive and useful indicator than membership.

The second lesson is that what we measure usually becomes important. If we do not measure it, that suggests it is not important. Many congregations count the number of baptisms every year while other churches have never done that and regard that as an unimportant indicator of ministry.

Today many congregations still carefully track Sunday school attendance because they believe it is an important indicator of health and vitality. In other congregations the total financial contributions are perceived as the most significant indicators of health and vitality.

In one denomination the quarterly newsletter from of the regional judicatory reports on the number of dollars received that year to date from each congregation. In another denomination that newsletter from the office of the regional judicatory reports on the number of new members received that year to date by each congregation. One newsletter suggests that the crucial measurement is the number of dollars sent to headquarters while the other newsletter proclaims that the reception of new members is important.

The third lesson reflects normal, natural, and predictable institutional tendencies. For many decades budget officers have explained, “It is extremely difficult to win acceptance for any new item to the annual expenditure budget. It is even more difficult to remove any item that has been in the annual budget for many years.

The parallel is that it is difficult to remove old and now obsolete categories from the reporting system and even more difficult to add new categories.

What Do You Measure?

Given those three lessons as the context for a measurement system, what should be included in the reporting system for congregations and denominations? The best answer is we measure what we believe to be important. This can be illustrated by five different approaches for using the reporting system.

1. We believe it is important to measure trends. Therefore we ask the identical questions year after year to measure what we consider to be important trends. This produces questions on membership, worship attendance, baptisms, Sunday school attendance, dollar receipts, the number of tithers, member deaths. etc.

(One hundred sixty years ago a famous Methodist presiding elder named Peter Cartwright required the preachers under his supervision to report two numbers — the number of conversions and the number of sanctifications. He believed those were the two crucial measurements of a minister’s effectiveness.)

2. We believe the measuring system can be useful in winning support for new goals. Our regional judicatory is attempting to (a) increase the number of new missions we launch every year and (b) encourage every congregation to become an active partner in that effort.

Therefore we have added two questions to our annual report form to be completed by each congregation. The first is, “How many new missions did you start or help to plant during this past year?” The second is, “How many new missions do you plan to start or help to plant during this coming year?”

We are convinced that questions asked in advance can influence behavior.

3. Our number one goal in our new ministry plan is to reach childless couples and single adults born after 1968. Therefore we have added six questions to our annual self-appraisal reporting system.

a. How many regular participants in worship here come from that slice of the population?

b. How does that number compare with last year?

c. How many members of our governing board come from that slice of the population?

d. How many of the regular participants in our teaching ministries come from that population?

e. What proportion of our new members received each year come from that population?

f How does that compare with the previous year?

4. We believe that it is easier for us to attract newcomers than it is to assimilate them into our fellowship. Therefore once a year we measure the proportion of our ushers, choir members, teachers, governing board members, and ministry task force members who joined this congregation during the past twenty four months.

5. We believe that our people will benefit from more information so every week we allocate a small space in the announcement section of the worship bulletin for relevant information. In one congregation that small box reports the worship attendance on (1) the previous Sunday, (2) a year ago the previous Sunday, and (3) a year ago this Sunday. In a different congregation that three line space reports (1) budgeted expenses to this date, (2) actual expenditures to this date, and (3) total receipts to date. A third congregation counts the number of first time visitors each weekend and that three line box reports (1) the number of first-time visitors three weeks earlier, (2) the number two weeks ago, and (3) the number last week. Another congregation uses that space to report Sunday school attendance for (1) one year ago last Sunday, (2) last Sunday, and (3) one year ago today. A fifth congregation uses that space to report (1) the amount of money allocated to benevolences so far this year, (2) the amount allocated for the same period of time for the previous year, and (3) the dollar goal for the current budget year.

Each of these five congregations measures what it believes is important and reports that every week to the worshipers.

What message is conveyed each week to the first-time visitor in each congregation?

What do you consider to be the most useful measurement to use in evaluating the life and ministry of your congregation? How do you report it?

INFORM is reprinted from The Parish Paper, written by Lyle E. Schaller and published monthly by Yokefellow Institute. Christian Reformed Home Missions, with permission, reprints issues which contain helpful or thought-provoking information about the church. Church leadership profits from the judicious use of this material, and it is therefore provided as a service of Home Missions.