By Eddie Pipkin

In our recent “no fences” blog series, in which we explored the many ways we can make ministry more accessible to more people, I boldly stated a premise that we needed a new set of metrics to measure progress and success.  As ministry is changing, I argued, the old, familiar measurement tools are failing to keep us relevant.  Although we touched on a few ideas for how to measure new ministry approaches, I had a great question from the comments section: “What are these new metrics?  Can you define them?”  So, this week, let’s do just that!

Let’s begin with a look at the traditional metrics for celebrating success, colloquially known as the three b’s:

  • Butts
  • Budgets
  • Buildings

Not so colloquially, these objectives involve the measurement of attendance, finances, and our ability to invest in establishing sprawling campuses (or in the most modern iteration, a proliferation of satellite campuses).  To be clear, these are still relevant numbers, and we should still measure these things.  But they have issues:

  • A focus on increasing them can lead to misplaced priorities.
  • They are not as helpful for determining the health and vitality of smaller or historically older congregations.
  • In a changing ministry world, they fail to measure new kinds of engagement.

The traditional metrics were great at documenting the growth of mainline, evangelical, institutional Christianity.  However, they struggle to measure the dynamic discipleship of a “no fences” Christianity.

Discipleship is – and always has been – the key word here.  Our mission has always been to raise up disciples to transform the world.  And while the traditional metrics are splendid for measuring our efforts to raise up members to build institutions, they don’t necessarily indicate discipleship growth and community transformation.  In an article called, “Measuring What Matters,” CT sums up the challenge:

Because the desired results (transformed lives, healthy congregations, exercising faith, hope, and love) are extremely difficult to measure, some churches just measure inputs—giving, attendance, spending. They assume that these inputs will indicate progress toward the goal. Of course, every experienced leader knows that things are not that simple.

Putting more money into the youth ministry doesn’t automatically lead to teens with a deeper commitment to Christ. Holding an event with a celebrity speaker may generate a large audience, but it is not guaranteed to raise the spiritual vitality of the congregation. Loaning money to a seamstress in a developing country may not build a successful business that lifts her family out of poverty.

We should be measuring “outputs,” but most of our focus is on measuring “inputs.”  Getting people in the door (attendance) is raw material, as are budgets and facilities.  And raw materials are essential to begin the transformation process.  But raw materials can be used well or poorly, for self-sustainment and enjoyment like any good voluntary association or for soul transformation and meeting the greater needs of the community as Christ proclaimed.

One of the problems we face is that it is really easy to measure the traditional inputs.  We know how to count people.  We know how to create financial spreadsheets.  We know how good it feels to do a building campaign and celebrate the presence of a physical structure.  Even a traditional measure like Baptisms or professions of faith are really measuring inputs: they are the beginning of a process (to be celebrated), a commitment to the god work and growth to come.  We measure the starting point with precision, but the documentation of the continuation of that process is hazy at best.

It’s far more difficult to measure “intangibles” like spiritual growth – we usually do this by telling representative narrative stories (celebrating our witness), which is a good thing to do, but not necessarily the best metric for making strategic decisions.  The classic example of this line of thinking is when a leader says, “Well, if we changed one kid’s life during VBS, it was worth it.”  Sure, in a starfish story reading of the world this is true, but it’s not a useful way to think of employing those raw resources (people, money, and facilities) for healthy growth of your congregation.

Phil Maynard spent a lot of years in his work with congregations on church vitality issues, and he realized there was not a great diagnostic tool for measuring healthy spiritual growth.  So, he built one.

The Real Discipleship Survey is an instrument designed to support the development of maturing disciples at both the personal and congregational levels.  It measures the level of maturity in each of six dimensions of discipleship:

  • A Life of Worship
  • A Life of Hospitality
  • A Life Opening to Jesus
  • A Life Obeying Jesus
  • A Life of Service
  • A Life of Generosity

It breaks discipleship down into these essential areas, and then it asks individuals about attitudes and actions related to each of those areas of discipleship.  Spiritual maturity happens on a continuum.  Once you commit your life to Christ you are a card-carrying disciple, but a beginning disciple’s life looks far different from a mature disciple’s life.  Those two lives are characterized by different attitudes, actions, lifestyle choices, and ways of viewing the world.  A great diagnostic tool understands the continuum (the differences reflected in the lives an immature disciple and a mature disciple) and asks highly detailed questions to paint a realistic portrait of discipleship progress on our journey – as John Wesley described it, our never-ending “always moving on to perfection.”

When a congregation participates in the Real Discipleship Survey, individuals get an analysis of their own discipleship journey, and churches get an overview of the health of their congregation – and this works equally well for large or small congregations.  At the personal level, each participant receives a report indicating the level of maturity for each dimension of discipleship, possible next steps for growth, and suggested resources for personal development.  It is a powerful tool, particularly when used in a discipleship coaching relationship, for supporting the development of growing disciples.  It measures things that matter.  And because it breaks discipleship down into component parts, it realistically identifies the ways we may be more mature in some areas than others.  We might be, for instance, totally plugged into a “life of service,” while resisting a “life of generosity.”  The RDS helps us pinpoint the areas ripe for growth, both for individuals and entire congregations.

The Real Discipleship Survey asks dozens of specific, subtle questions, mixed randomly through the survey.  You can see the difference between two examples below:

  • “I attend worship regularly, but I am growing to realize that I must attend to God every day.”
  • “I attend worship regularly and set aside time daily for personal worship.”

You can see more examples by following the RDS link.  Individuals or entire congregations can participate in the survey and receive detailed reports based on the data generated from their answers.  How do you know when the people in your charge are growing spiritually?  How are their lives being transformed and how are they beginning to transform the lives and communities around them?

And here is a critical corollary:

For those of you concerned about the health and vitality of your congregations – everything we worry about from budgets to attendance figures to participation in ministry to a sense of joy and vision among our members – all of these worries are organically addressed if we are focused on discipleship.  Growing disciples worship more, serve more, give more, and grow exponentially.  Always.

The Real Discipleship Survey is a fantastic tool for measuring outputs, but it’s obviously not the only approach.  The key is to be intentional in what you are measuring and then faithful in gathering the measurements.  In a couple of weeks, we’ll take a closer look at new things to measure in a technology-connected world and new ways to collect those measurements.  Also, I would encourage you to check out some of the excellent discipleship resources we have here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching.  (We’re very proud of them, can you tell?)

How is your congregation measuring vitality?  What specific metrics do you use to evaluate your progress?  Are you stuck with the same old measurements of attendance, finances, etc., or are you setting some different goalposts?

Share your thoughts.  Ask your questions.  Dream your dreams.  See you in the comments section.