I just got back from lunch at Haji Baba with some friends.
We’ve been getting together over several months to talk about a series in The Startup Podcast that talks about church planting. It follows the story of a church plant in a lower income neighborhood of Philadelphia, and looks at it from a entrepreneur’s perspective. It’s a 5 part series, and has sparked some great conversation amongst the three of us.
Part of today’s conversation was around measuring success in the church. In the story of the church in the podcast, they were gauging success by whether or not they could get enough people to attend their weekly service and tithe (or “donate” as the startup focused podcast called it) enough to make them self-sustainable within three years.
But is that actually a good measure of success in The Kingdom?
I think what happened is that as the church growth movement hijacked Western church planting practices, we became obsessed with numbers. We business-ified church. In business it’s a good idea to track important numbers, like revenue, customers, expenses, etc… So we began to track what we assumed were important numbers in the church: butts in seats, tithing (revenue), number of weekly services and programs, number of buildings on campus, number of campuses, staff size, operating budget, etc…
But are those helpful or even the right numbers to track? At lunch it was suggested that measuring success is important, and that’s why we track numbers: to know if we’ve been successful or not.
I’m not sure how I feel about that. Here’s a couple thoughts, in particular order, on the topic.
Success in the Kingdom of God
Success in the Kingdom of God is when the glory of God fills the earth like water covers the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). It’s when every tribe, nation, and tongue bow before the throne of Jesus (Revelation 7:9). It’s when there’s a new Heaven and a new Earth, and every tear is wiped away, death is defeated, and mourning, crying, and pain are no more (Revelation 21:1-4).
Or, as Pete Greig puts it, “The vision is JESUS – obsessively, dangerously, undeniably Jesus.”
This is the ultimate measure of success. This is what every follower of Jesus throughout history has been looking for, waiting for, working towards, and living into.
If we’re going to measure anything, it needs to be things that lead to this end.
I suppose an argument could be made that “butts in seats” is a step in the right direction. Here’s the thing, the metrics I listed above aren’t inherently bad. I, of all people, want to see more people participating the local church communities, local churches growing, churches planted in new neighborhoods and parts of the city, and more resources devoted to expanding the Kingdom.
The problem is those metrics have become the vision. They’ve become the destination. Meanwhile, Jesus’ Kingdom is sidelined. In our American capitalistic culture we value growth and bigness as success. In church world, that means large attendance numbers, multiple campuses/services, large budgets, and large staff. Again, none of those things are bad, but if they’re the goal, and our measure of success, they’re majorly missing the mark.
Perhaps, after some healthy deconstruction, conversation, and Biblical reflection in the context of community, we decide we still want to track attendance at our worship gatherings. Then we need to learn to change the way we talk about it. We need to learn to reframe the conversation in light of God’s Kingdom, and articulate our metrics in the same breath as our vision. I don’t know how to do this. Maybe it would sound something like “We’re a community of around 50 disciples seeking to follow Jesus in our city.”
It’s God’s success
I think the idea of knowing whether we’re successful or not indicates a level of ownership over the Church that we simply do not have.
Jesus is the head of the Church. He adopts us into the family, builds the Church, and leads it. Any success is credited to him, not us. And do we really need to measure whether Jesus is being successful with his Church or not? Or isn’t the premise of our faith that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and the work of the devil and will one day return and remake the Heavens and the Earth in a perfected state.
If we actually believe that’s inevitable, that He actually will return and do what he said he’d do, then maybe we ought to have more faith that he’ll do it. If we believe that Jesus is in charge of the Church, and he will be triumphant (successful), then perhaps we can cool it on the micro-managing.
I’m not downplaying the fact that Jesus invites us into a beautiful partnership where we have important roles to play, and important assignments to carry out, because we do.
Obedience > Success
Maybe obedience is the higher value in this equation. If you and I were to focus more on hearing the voice of the Father and being obedient to do what he says to do, we’d do alright.
For one thing, our ability to gather and analyze data sucks. God has the ultimate access to “big data.” We live comparatively short life spans and are limited in geography. That said, we couldn’t possibly accurately measure the effect of one “Kingdom” event. Let’s say a game night for example, since that’s something our community likes to do. We have some friends over for an evening of fun and friendship. We exhibit the love of Jesus, we encourage and challenge, and we experience God’s glory together. Maybe some of them don’t follow Jesus, and we have an opportunity to share what Jesus has done for us. All over Settlers of Catan.
Let’s say we had 4 other people over (since Catan is max 6). We’ve got some data for what the evening did for them and in them just based on their feedback then and there. Maybe we’d get a little more data later that night or the next day in the form of a thank you text. Maybe a week later I get together with one of the guys and he brings it up again that they had a great night, and maybe he even shares that what we said about Jesus has been provoking to them. This is a best case scenario for the amount of data we could get back on a single experience.
Think about all the data we’re not getting. We’re not getting data on every person’s experience. We’re not getting data on what their internal dialogue sounds like, both as an individual and as a couple. We have no idea if there are elements of God’s kingdom they’re experiencing and enjoying that they’ll never be able to articulate as more than a feeling of being loved or at peace or at rest that night. We have no idea how the way Lauren and I related to one another as a married couple impacted and challenged them, or anything else about the evening – our home decor, the way we parent, our neighborhood, the music we had on in the background…
Can you see what I mean? We have such limited data. God sees everything. He is the ultimate big data analyzer. Perhaps we should leave the evaluations of success to him.
Again, just some unsorted thoughts on metrics and success in the Kingdom of God.
Thoughts? Comments? Feel free to tease it out in the comments.