For decades now the primary metrics that churches have used to measure their success have been attendance and giving. And that was fine when churches were the center of the culture. But, as we’ve seen, institutional churches have declined in both attendance and giving. And the institutional church is not the center of the culture anymore. In many cases, the church hasn’t changed, but the culture has and it has determined that it no longer needs the church anymore. Yet the church has struggled to adapt and change to this new reality.
So the church continues to measure attendance and giving as the primary metrics of success. But are these useful measurements anymore? Or are we even looking at them the right way? A decline in attendance and/or giving is useful information, but I wonder if we are stuck interpreting it in a way that is no longer valid or useful anymore.
Too often the church is measuring these things in order to see how we are doing against a past that was out of the ordinary – large attendance numbers and lots of money in the coffers. Taken against the historical trends of centuries, the church of the 20th century was an anomaly. Maybe we should re-examine these metrics and what they are measured against. Instead of determining if a church is successful because there are lots of butts in the seats for worship, maybe we should be measuring how many people’s lives are transformed, or how much service is happening in the community, how many meals were served, or how many people are opening Scripture or praying – or at least struggling with these things. Maybe we should be measuring other things.
Because if we buy into the notion that a successful church is a large church (in terms of attendance at worship, or money given), then I think we’re going to continue to feel pretty depressed about the state of the church. Yet, I know for a fact, that in many ways, the church is more alive and healthy than it ever was when all the pews were filled. That’s because when our focus is on discipleship and service, we are focused on the right things. We’re like Peter being called out on the water. As long as we are keeping our eyes on Jesus, we stay up, but as soon as we turn our focus to other things, we start to sink.
Here’s the recipe for having a large attendance and giving – Don’t preach anything controversial. Don’t preach anything that could possibly be slammed with a label of being political. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t touch any injustice that occurs in the world. Don’t talk about the status quo of society. Don’t talk about poverty in real terms. Don’t touch violence and the means of violence that we rely on for our so-called peace and order. Don’t talk about money or greed. Don’t talk about loving your enemies. Don’t talk about systems that people are trapped in.
Instead, focus on personal piety as the means to salvation – just try harder. Talk about things that will have no impact on anyone or anything. Preach a generalized gospel that is forgettable and doesn’t touch our sins. All of these things are just messages about how good we can be and that God sees how good we are and rewards us for being and doing good in our own personal lives.
With that kind of message, there’s no need for grace. No need for forgiveness. Peace is a mythical destination. There’s no need for transformation of people, or communities, or the world. There’s no need to actually see the Image of God in strangers or enemies, or even neighbors for that matter. When we preach these messages, we lack imagination and we don’t expect anything from God or anyone else. This isn’t the Good News. It’s the underwhelming gossip column – fun to play with, but has no real value.
You can have a large church if what you offer up as the Kingdom of Heaven looks awfully similar to what already exists and requires little to no imagination of a possible future that is transformed. That message costs nothing. It says that everything is just fine.
Remember, Jesus ticked off the religious community enough to make them work with an exploitive government to show how Jesus was a threat to the established power structure of that religious institution and government. That’s why he was killed. He threatened the status quo of unjust power systems in religion and government – those things that control people. He challenged allegiances. If we take the filter off of nice, middle class, white, American, English speaking, perfect hair and hands Jesus to hear the real Jesus, then I wonder how many Christians would still be following him?
Is the goal of a church to have large attendance in worship and lots of money in the bank? I don’t remember seeing that in Scripture. So why are these the primary measurements for the church?
Worship is important. In many ways, it is the center of our spiritual life. At at the same time, worship is not a spectator event. It should stir us to live out what we hear in worship, and live the way of the one we encounter in worship.
It’s time to start measuring other things beyond attendance and money. It’s time to start measuring discipleship. That will look different in each context. There aren’t nice universal measurements for this. That’s because God is at work differently in different churches and communities. It’s time to use our imagination. It’s time to start expecting Jesus to show up. It’s time to expect big things from God. It’s time to expect transformation. It’s time to expect life, death, and resurrection. It’s time to see the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s time.