On Sailing Sinking Ships, pt. III of III

Previously on On Sailing Sinking Ships: 

Part I. The median age of Catholics and Mainline Protestants (including the Episcopal Church) is much older than that of the US population generally. That's not great. 

Part II. The common thread holding together the few US Christian traditions that are nearly as young, or younger, than the median age of the US generally, is that they all have really, really involved members. This is likely due to church cultures that have high expectations of members. Trying to get closer to the median age of the US population generally is a good thing, so I propose we should try expecting more from our members. 

So now we come to part III. 

As we conclude this three-part post, hopefully you'll agree with me it's has been a lot like the original Star Wars trilogy: written by someone with a good idea, but not always the best execution; the second one was the best; and the whole point of the Ewoks in the third one is to increase merchandise revenue.

Or maybe it's better to say that the last one has the most action, but is still something of a letdown compared to the second. Because of Ewoks. 

Anyway, in the first installment I said I would come back and address the legitimate objections to an appeal for unduly weighting quantitative factors as measures of congregational/denomination health. I plan to do that here.

Up front I'll clarify that I unequivocally do not believe that vitality can be measured with only quantitative metrics. Looking only at ASA (average Sunday attendance to the uninitiated), giving, or even baptisms and professions of faith can in no way give a true picture of church health. 

If you're wondering why, I do think that a fairly simply, straightforward answer will suffice: if these were the only measures needed for vitality, then Joel Osteen has an incredibly healthy church, as does the NBA for that matter. My point is that I can think of plenty of ways to get a bunch of people to gather zealously together that need not resemble the Beloved Community anticipating the Kingdom of God that Christ calls the Church to be. And just slapping on some "church" brand, or making the Bible the source of your slogans, or using some version of "Jesus" for your mascot in no way, shape, or form guarantees that you're a healthy part of the Body of Christ. 

But I'll tell you now: If you were hoping I've give a lot of circumstances where I think vitality can be measured without recourse to quantitative (and here I really mean primarily people counting) measures, then you're not in for a satisfying read. Although here's to hoping I can convince you otherwise. 

Maybe I can at least convince you that I'm coming from a relatively sound theological standpoint. I believe that God created human beings to love God above all else and to love the rest of creation because of that love of God; that through the mystery of Original Sin all human beings are in and of themselves unable to properly love God or creation, and that by sharing in the life, death, and resurrection of the Jesus Christ we can be brought back into those right relationships. I cannot rule out the possibility of many ways of sharing in Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection of that go well beyond the institutions and conscious self-identification of the visible Church. At the same time, I stand firm in my belief that all human beings need salvation and that the content of this salvation is growing in the love and likeness of the human individual Jesus Christ, the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. This means that the Christian hope include relationship with the individual Jesus Christ — not mere intellectual assent to some set of facts about Jesus, not acceptance of some abstract "Christ power," not even simple subordination to a far-off heavenly King and Lord — but a real relationship with the concrete, particular, human Jesus of Nazareth whom God has also greatly exalted and given all power and authority in heaven and on earth as the firstborn of the new creation, the vanguard of resurrected, glorified humanity.

Because of this belief, I take the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) very seriously. A significant responsibility and privilege as a Christ follower is desiring that others can also have a real relationship with him so they too can live into the purpose for which God has created us. This means constantly striving to invite those who do not know Jesus Christ into this transformative relationship with him.

So do I think that this theological position lead me believe that we should almost always use numerical growth of previously unchurched people as an (but not the) essential metric for church vitality?

Absolutely. Why? Because there are people outside of our churches (and probably quite a few in them as well) who have not experienced the transformation of a relationship with Jesus Christ. Churches are healthy when they exist as a community actively helping deepen people's relationships with Christ. Churches are truly healthy when they know that this includes welcoming people into this relationship.

With this theological background in place, I think I can answer what I see as the principle critique of this emphasis on quantitative measures of vitality that I raised in the first part of this post.

“But Chris, isn’t it possible to grow in ways other than numbers?”

My answer depends on what's motivating this question.

If you're asking whether measuring congregation vitality is about more than measuring numbers, than my answer is an unequivocal "yes!" Numerical growth may be pretty close to a necessary part of evaluating church health, but it unequivocally cannot be a sufficient measure. I'll reiterate that you can gather large numbers of people around plenty of messages other than the proclamation of the Gospel, and looking at numbers alone can't determine why people are flocking to or engaging with a community. You can only get at why people are participating by combing quantitative measures with qualitative ones.

A side-note here: I've implied several times that health should be related to growth. I do stand by that claim, but what exactly I mean by growth needs to be nuanced. I don't just mean absolute numerical increase; rather, I mean a numerical increase relative to your local demographic trends. In some cases, losing members could even be considered growth, at least if you're in a community that is decreasing in size at a swifter rate than your congregation is (as could be the case in many rural areas). Conversely, posting quantitative gains could still be considered a kind of decline if you're gaining new members at a rate slower than the growth in your larger community.

It's also possible that the question here is whether we can move away from the traditional means of numerical analysis traditionally used in the Episcopal Church: ASA and congregational giving. This would be a concern I share. In my first post I alluded to one quantitative measure that would likely be much more helpful: adult baptisms and professions of faith. Beyond that, more helpful numerical measures of congregational health would be median giving considered as a percentage of incomes and AREA (Average Regular Event Attendance).

However, if what's being suggested is that we can judge congregation health with no regard whatsoever for quantitative growth, I'll admit I'm extremely skeptical. This is the suggestion implied in statements like "We haven't grown in numbers, but we have grown in faith" or "vitality isn't something that can be measured with numbers; its something you know when you experience it." I towed this line for a long time, but then I started attending a lot more congregations as a visitor. I know that this is subjective, but my experience has been that there is a strong inverse relationship between how much a congregation insists that vitality is a matter of "feeling" instead of "objective measures" and how vital that congregation actually feels. Furthermore, I would put this question to such communities: how is it that you, as a healthy Christian community, are forming disciples of Christ who are not actively and vigorously seeking to invite others to experience the transformative love of Christ?

Thanks for reading the third part of my first blog post. 

I know I didn't thoroughly walk through my responses to every objection to my approach, so I really hope this can be the beginning of a conversation. Make sure to leave your comments about how any of this three-part post strikes you. Let's keep the dialogue going.

I'm not sure what I'll be talking about next, but hopefully I've piqued your interest  Stay tuned for what I hope will be my weekly musings. 

And Happy Easter. Here's a creepy picture of Jesus with the Easter Bunny for your time. 


  1. Chris, I appreciate this very well thought out and written third part. I believe that when a church has a healthy discipleship process then the measurable benchmarks of church vitality like average worship attendance, participation, giving, etc. can't help but increase as a natural outgrowth of vital relationships with God and growth as disciples. By the way, I like your kinda creepy Jesus with the Easter Bunny.

  2. So, as I tweeted you, I'd love to have a conversation about AREA as a metric. It's obvious to me that while ASA was useful a decade plus ago when "regular" Sunday attendance (say 3/4) was actually fairly common among people who considered themselves active members, using ASA now grossly misrepresents the population involved in a parish when "active" often means 2/4 or even 1/4 Sunday mornings. And yet so many of our mainline tools depend on it (the Parochial Report, and the family-pastoral-program paradigm -- tho don't get me started on the "programs" assumption there, either.) I've seen suggestions that we should simply report other things (e.g. adult baptisms). But I think some metric that measures "engagement" would be better. Have you thought through how you'd measure AREA?

    1. Beth, thanks for bringing this up: I'll preface for everyone else reading out there that AREA (Average Regular Event Attendance) was my own creation and as far as I know is out in the world only on this blog and for people engaging with it. I agree that ASA is no longer the most helpful metric for measuring the actual engagement of a congregation based on changing forms of congregational engagement in society at large. At the same time, I'm wary of trends toward replacing ASA with something like "missional impact." Rather than focusing on the actual changes in churchgoing for active churchgoers, shifting to a more episodic measure in lieu of a measure of regular attendance seems to be a way to keep numbers high rather than take a hard look at how effectively congregations are developing disciples. That's a long way of saying: we must recognize that people don't necessarily come to Sunday worship as frequently, but we need a metric that helps us take a hard look at whether that shift is because people are engaging in different ways, but still active in church, or if people just aren't involved in congregational life as much.
      So how would AREA actually work in practice? A congregation would need to identify what "regularly" offered events it has. Standards would need to be developed for what constitute acceptable and unacceptable offerings. Ideally you would want "regular" events to still center significantly on worship, Christian education/fellowship and be events that happen at least monthly. I'm still enough of a Wesleyan (and this isn't in any way exclusively Wesleyan) to believe that forming disciples means regular self- and corporate spiritual discipline and participation. At the same time, AREA would allow for difference in how that regular participation plays out (do you have huge numbers of people coming for regular bible study, house groups, weekday prayer/healing/Taize services, etc.) depending on the local context.
      Some people I'm sure will be disappointed that I don't think "missional impact" type metrics should replace regular attendance ones. I am not, however, advocating that congregations should not be involved in missional outreach or social justice work. To the contrary, I think that congregation that does not engage in such work is failing in its discipleship. And, if the primary purpose of the Church were to offer social services, then this would be a fine metric. However, the primary purpose of the Church is to invite people into relationship with Jesus Christ and then help them become better disciple. Works of mercy and social justice are no doubt part of that discipleship, but they are not the whole of it.
      The solution, I believe is to move beyond an either/or approach to measures of vitality to a more holistic, multi-faceted, integrated one. This is especially true if the point of evaluation, as it always should be, is to help point out and where a community is doing well in its mission and where it may need to shore up some weaknesses. So I would say that you need at least four equally weighted independent measures: adult baptisms and professions of faith (how many new people are invited into the Christian life), AREA (how well are you doing at retention and time investment), median giving as a percentage of income (how much are people invested with their material resources), and missional impact (how much are people committed to living out their faith in the world on behalf of the Church).
      This is still a thought in progress, though, so let's keep workshoping it. I want measures that don't get us off the hook for failing in our outreach and evangelistic endeavors, but I also don't want measures that fail to notice the shifting social patterns of how people regularly engage with institutions.

    2. Yes, it's tricky. (I wrote a piece for Covenant awhile back hoping to open a dialogue on similar stuff [not my title!] -- https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/03/07/welcoming-involving-newcomers-church-contact-expectations/

      Thanks for this conversation! I think just from my experience in a parish in a university town that is seeing a lot of people under 35 engage in various ways that don't always center on Sunday, and in another sense from my experience dealing with the institutional church over a couple decades, I'd want to argue for an AREA a bit wider than yours. I actually agree strongly with what you say about worship and formation as key to who we are, and think the 4 things you talk about measuring (AREA, adult baptisms, giving%, and missional impact) are a terrific way to measure how we're really doing at growing disciples.

      That is an important thing to measure, and we're just going to have to learn to do it and measure it in TEC. Still, I think there are also reasons to have a benchmark available that reflects the fact that a culture of discipleship is still extremely new in most mainline settings, and gives us a way to measure our actuality (without losing the vision of growing into a church that takes more seriously the fact that we are confronted by a post-Christian culture).

      So this is the institutional in-house piece: ASA was based on the assumption that the baseline beginning way most people expressed commitment to a church was to be there on Sunday morning, and only a smaller nucleus of more committed folks engaged weekdays -- so if we counted anything but Sunday morning, we'd be "double counting" people. This is just dead wrong now - both because some people's weekly service is Wed night or Tue morning, and others are away most weekends but *regularly* serve in a weekly outreach ministry. ASA has become useless not just as a measure of "how are we doing spiritually" (which it was never that great at) but also for its prior in-house function, answering questions like "What kind of church is this? How many clergy does it need and what should it be able to pay them? What should its ministry model be?" Not a true faith-commitment benchmark, though we fooled ourselves that it was. I think at least for the next 20-25 years, we will still need this kind of in-house benchmark institutionally, and for AREA to be that, it would need to include all Regular Events, not just disciplemaking ones.

      Just completely shooting from the hip, if AREA were to be involvement in church-sponsored outreach, worship, study, or fellowship (minimum monthly, but on any day of the week), I think my 126-ASA church would be maybe 180 monthly AREA. So in our current "society no longer sends us Sunday-Christians automatically, but we haven't learned to be disciplemakers yet either" situation, ASA grossly **under**measures real existing involvement, while probably also grossly **over**measuring formational/missional effectiveness in people's lives.

    3. Sorry to take a little longer to respond on this one. Let me preface this by saying that I fully agree with the idea that ASA has become useless as a measure of where we actually are. I would also say that you're right on to that that it "grossly **under**measures real existing involvement, while probably also grossly **over**measuring formational/missional effectiveness in people's lives," or at least in many cases it does. My experience has been that there exist communities that I would say are far from the model of health where primary involvement is still Sunday morning worship: no outreach to speak of on a regular basis, no Christian ed, maybe fellowship as an extension of worship time and space. Recognizing the existence of these places is certainly no apology for ASA; to the contrary, I think these represent places where both existing involvement (if "involvement" means more than keeping a seat warm) is at best accurately reported and possibly over-measured AND "formation/missional effectiveness" is still unquestionably over-measured.
      I think we probably agree on about 98% of this concept. So my question here really is not meant to be a significant rejection of your proposal but just gaining clarity on my end and putting forward some potential concerns (but again not disqualifying ones). I'm not inherently opposed to the notion of including the in-house institutional measure considered as distinguishable from the discipleship metrics. I would just want to make sure that however this is considered, it is understood as a kind of intentional transitional measure that will give us a cushion institutionally to adjust to a largely discipleship-based measure of health. I would want a measure that incentivize attempts to move toward better discipleship practices and dis-incentivize practice that put up quantitative growth without a holistic view of discipleship. I say this piece about "holistic discipleship" only because I know that some would push-back and say that people's involvement in outreach ministries is discipleship. This is true—if it's a PART of a discipleship program. Anyway, I think there are certainly ways that this metric could both address the current need for institutional measures that you rightly point out while also facilitating a movement toward primarily discipleship oriented metrics. I'm interested to hear your thoughts here.

  3. I think the most striking assessment from the 3 part blog is the apparent correlation between expectation of a particular standard of participation and involvement in the life of the faith community and growth and retention of people in that community. I have believed this for a long time; the church is failing at having and clearly defining what is expected of people who wish to be part of the faith community and it is bad about challenging and holding people (particularly leaders in the church) accountable to those expectations.


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