How Do You Measure Church Success?

How do you measure success in the church, especially in the neighborhood congregation? In my denomination we fill out annual parochial reports, which reveal members gained (or lost), worship attendance increase (or decrease), a larger (or smaller) our budget, and so on. Good, measureable numbers. Solid. Up or down. Growth or decline. And—the message becomes readily apparent—success or failure.

We talk about congregations with increasing numbers of people and dollars as models for the rest of the church to follow (the faster the better), and we spend considerable time in print and in attitude trying to figure out the secret to this “kingdom of God” achievement. In contrast, the congregations that maintain similar numbers over the last five years are referred to as “stagnant,” and those whose numbers are more than five percent lower are “in decline.” These are hardly complementary adjectives.

Pastors of churches with increasing numbers often frown on those with decreasing and steady numbers, cluck their tongues, and offer self-righteous advice on how to become more statistically triumphant. These successful clergy can be somewhat sanctimonious toward their neighboring congregations and colleagues. They gather together in victorious cohorts, congratulating each other and sharing success stories.

I know, I was one of them. It was temptingly easy to fall into. Many looked on my ministry with a bit of awe and/or envy because my congregation’s budget increased by a factor of three in a few years and worship attendance was swelling by double digit percentage points annually. I enjoyed being included in the victory circle, a model of success. I accepted the accolades and offered advice. I knew, inwardly, what the declining congregations were doing wrong, and was greatly relieved that I wasn’t still stuck in that “old” model of doing church. I was riding the wave. Surely God was pleased with my statistics!

So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you buy into a business model of success. You know the catchphrases: bigger is better, if you’re not growing you’re dying, stuff like that. But is that all there is to God’s mission? Is the reign of God measured in such detached terms?

Let’s face it; this is the culturally accepted measure of success for pretty much everything. Sales, clients, market shares, bank accounts, properties, listeners, viewers, revenue streams, billable hours, and yes, even church members. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to nestle into Jesus’ life, ministry, or teaching quite as comfortably as I would have liked. Love God, love your neighbor. Sell your property and give the money to the poor. The last shall be first. Humans do not live by bread alone. One’s life does not consist in the wealth of possessions. On and on, you pick the texts. Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the long-awaited reign of God. Those with eyes to see it, will. Those with ears to hear it, will.

And then there’s the whole cross thing: what was accepted by everyone as absolute, utter defeat was the crowing glory in the kingdom.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with growth. We are, of course, to invite people into communities that reveal the kingdom of God. We are to participate in God’s mission in the world, sharing the good news of forgiveness, hope, and life, and bidding others to be part of that mission too. But I’m calling into question the primary (and sometimes the only) standard of being the body of Christ as the number of hash marks in the “new member” column. In what ways can you numerically report love, mercy, compassion, and grace incarnated through relationships in the neighborhood? Where is the column to check the number of times that forgiveness was freely given and relationships restored? How do you measure lives changed by the power of the gospel? How do you categorize the movement of the Holy Spirit?

If our energy is funneled into numerical growth in order to appear successful, it probably isn’t going into joining what God is up to in the neighborhood in order to be truly successful. The neighborhood isn’t put around the church in order to bolster the church’s numbers. Rather, the church is placed in the neighborhood to reveal the reign of God, proclaim it, and join in its activity there. Numerical growth may or may not be related to that; therefore ought not to be the primary measure of success.

Congregational rate of growth has little to do with being equipped to participate in missional relationships in the neighborhood. This is good news for congregations that get beat up on their parochial reports. So-called “stagnant” and “declining” congregations might actually be more successful in God’s mission than the neighborhood’s fast-growing church. The principal question can’t be how many new members have joined the church, but how the church has joined God’s mission of care and reconciliation.

Being clear about who God is and what God is doing (and trying to do) needs to be the standard in missional success, not the number of chairs used in the worship space on an average Sunday.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, medium church, small church | Tags: , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “How Do You Measure Church Success?

  1. Rob, I had to sign up as a fellow-blogger to “like” your post. How’s that for going the extra mile? I’m not sure if I will start my own blog or not. Can’t think of what I’d write about anyway. And I’m a bit preoccupied with my D.Min. research. (You remember those days, don’t you?)

    Anyway, I wanted you to know that I like your post and I might even use it with my church staff.


    • Thanks, Heidi. That’s quite a lot to go through just to hit a “like” button.
      Actually, I remember the D.Min. research quite well. Lots of it is still spewing out here in this blog three years after finishing. My guess is you’ll become so passionate about your thesis topic that you’ll be blogging about it before too long (or become so sick of it you’ll never discuss it again).

  2. Great post! I agree and feel like church success is based on the financial success, number of seats filled and new members. Often times these same churches hide the numbers of baptisms and conversions because they aren’t nearly as striking as the previously talked about numbers. Also, many of these churches aren’t having much of an impact on their communities because they are too focused on what’s on the inside of their building. Many times its the churches that are too comfortable that grow the most – by that I mean is that they don’t do anything to challenge the believer to grow or share Jesus. It’s such a sad state. Do we really need a mega church where it is easy to hide in the pews and not have to do anything out of their comfort zone. I understand what you are saying of how do you measure the amount of impact a church has on a community. I honestly believe that the measurement itself doesn’t really matter – God knows which churches are true to his mission.

    • Thanks for the comment. Though numbers can reveal some things, when they become the goal instead of a possible indicator, that’s problematic. I think misreading the book of Acts as Luke refers to thousand joining the church in a single day, combined with a corporate/business model of growth, has pointed us in the wrong direction. I concur with you that making people comfortable is a risky mission strategy–usually turning the congregation inward. Good comment, and much appreciated.

  3. Robert Kippley

    Nice post Rob. I too have been on both sides of this issue. The side of growth is far more enjoyable with all the external signs of success and all. It is very hard not to feel like a failure in today’s mainline church environment where numbers are the defining sign of success. There are some very good pastors who have be chewed up and spit out as a result of this focus. I am encouraged by Jesus’ first sermon and his seemingly complete lack of success. I wrote about it on this link:

    • Great post, Bob. Don’t you hate it when God doesn’t meet our expectations? Because don’t we all, at some level, believe that’s God’s job? Surely God “owes” us, being the good, God-fearing, believers we are. I appreciated your newletter article very much. Well written, well stated, and good theology!

  4. Brian

    Very, very good post. I will throw one small curve to the basic focus-overall church growth. What about those church staff who are, at least we think, accomplishing all those hard to measure aspects of the Kingdom of God but probably will never see a dramatic “growth” in their specific ministry? Yeah, you can guarantee that the ONLY measurement that will keep a position is numerical growth. We let a youth pastor go because for that specific reason. (could have been more reasons I am not privy to of course) Even if a church is growing numerically sometimes required ministries just will not grow numerically unless we only chase that goal. For me, that means the absolute lowest common denominator with the inevitable loss of the talented individuals in the ministry. So pastors and church committees, please pass on the same grace you so desire from your system superiors.

    • Thanks for the comment, Brian. Prioritizing the numbers is a systemic issue, and one that is extremely difficult to alter. I once publicly defended a staff member whose numbers weren’t stellar, but whose ministry was firmly grounded in the reign of God. Sometimes there has to be pruning in order to bear kingdom fruit.

  5. Brian

    I appreciate your gracious response and that you have first hand experience in this area. So can I assume the pruning applies to complete congregations as well?

    Actually, I know that answer. Currently serving in a denomination with far more congregations that can’t even pay the salary of one full time pastor, and often several such congregations with a very small geographic region, the reticence to combine or close congregations borders on panic.

    • Not only to whole congregations, but whole denominations. And for that matter, the entire body of Christ. We aren’t (and never should have been) primarily about growth or numbers. We are about living out the reign of God most fully revealed on the cross. We need to keep the main thing the main thing. There’s a lot of un-learning we need to do.

  6. Robert

    Don’t know if you have seen this article from the recent issue of The Christian Century entitled “Loose Connections”. It primarily addresses “Thirtysomethings” and their reluctance to become members of congregations. Interesting. Here is the link:

  7. Thanks so much for writing this!

    I’m part of a tiny (smaller than even a small church) and the questions of numbers and what matters is one that I get a lot. I finally did one short reflection (link below) and am doing some more thinking on it:

    “In what ways can you numerically report love, mercy, compassion, and grace incarnated through relationships in the neighborhood? Where is the column to check the number of times that forgiveness was freely given and relationships restored? How do you measure lives changed by the power of the gospel? How do you categorize the movement of the Holy Spirit?”—-Terrific questions!

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