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.