How’s It Going? Part 2: We need a scoreboard

Dart in the bullseyeI’m of the opinion that improving in how we evaluate our ministries can help us be better stewards of the resources God has given us, helping us better meet His intended ends. To do that, we need to set up a scoreboard and figure out the score.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe we have the freedom to adjust God’s mission, or what maturity and faithfulness mean. These are fixed by the apostolic witness. But we do need to know how we’re doing in relation to His standards. And we do need to do the hard work of figuring out how we will go about meeting, and preparing others to meet, those standards. We also need to figure out whether our various methods and tactics are bringing us closer to, or leading us further away from, God’s goals for His church. To pull that off, we need to constantly be evaluating. Unless we want to calcify, there must be some form of feedback loop that keeps us reforming how we do things on the ground.

What I’m suggesting is that we can do better than evaluating ministry by sitting around a table with our ministry heads, asking each in turn, “How’s your ministry going?” and then being content with them either pointing to the attendance stats, or giving a subjective rating.

What that requires of us is to

  • clarify what our ideal situation is,
  • figure out what structure best supports that situation,
  • determine the best indicators of whether we are moving towards or away from that desired future state, and
  • choose milestones at which you need to take any actions.

We can then assess where we stand in relation to these indicators, which can be done at a macro level (looking at the whole church) or the micro level (zooming in on one aspect of church life), and adjust our tactics based on that feedback.

Establishing our ideal situation and structures is no small task. They will be informed by the Bible, our context, our moment in time, our tradition, and the collective desires of those whom God has gathered in your local church. Getting clear here is incredibly important, but for another day. We’re going to focus in on indicators.

The indicators (or metrics) are feedback devices that act as co-pilots, guiding us towards our destination. So, the more vivid that destination is, and the more appropriate the indicators, the better placed our group of local church leaders/guardians is to be setting the agenda and faithfully shepherding.

My bet is most of us have some form of what we’d love to see already buried in our heads. And the reality is that, if you do, that is what you are drawing on in your responses to whatever feedback you get. My question to you is this: how confident are you that those you serve alongside share the same mental picture of the future?

Read part 3 (on why external measures are important) here.

How’s It Going? Part 1: An alternative to beating up on numbers

Close of man reviewing a reportSoon after I finished studying at theological college, I was hit with some bad news: my father had fallen terminally ill. He’d invested a lot in me so, when he approached me to help with a succession plan for his company, I was only too willing to help. I got on board and got stuck in. I was unaware of it at the time, but rubbing my theological training up against a business environment flagged a big gap in my formal training: leadership and management. So, when I saw Graham touching on ministry evaluation I got excited.

I’ve noticed the trend Graham points to, of people offering attendance stats when asked about the ministries they’re involved in, but I wanted to offer a different perspective on why they do that. I’m of the opinion that people do this because they don’t have better tools to evaluate their ministries. Don’t get me wrong, I think most people who read this will have a framework for what makes a ministry distinctly Christian, but I haven’t seen many work that out into something that can answer the question, “How’s it going?” So, we default to the situation Graham describes.

We’re ill-equipped here because our formal training wasn’t trying to prepare us to analyse the complex organism that is the local church. A lot of church leadership requires management skills, and management skills aren’t what a theological college is trying to instil. That’s not to say we’re ignorant of the deficiency – quite the contrary! I think this partly explains why we get so excited when someone like Andrew Heard comes along: he offers a deployable package, in the 5Ms, that holds together theological and practical awareness. Even those who want to argue with him usually do so over whether his theological focus is unbalanced or errant, not whether his approach to managing God’s household is useful or correct.

So, over the next few posts, I want to share a few thoughts on ministry evaluation. What do you think would be worth touching on?

Read part 2 (on the need for a scoreboard) here.

Chris Pratt: The Church’s Responsibility to the Next Generation

Generation AwardAppearing repeatedly on my social media feeds this week was Chris Pratt’s speech, after accepting the MTV Generation Award. What has garnered a lot of attention was his ninth rule for living: if we are willing to accept that we are imperfect then we can experience grace. “Grace is a gift, and like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with someone else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.” Putting aside the fact that Pratt accomplished in 15 seconds what Bishop Michael Curry failed to do in 15 minutes at the Royal Wedding, I want to pick up Pratt’s understanding of this particular award and the expectation tied to it. Pratt said, “This being the Generation Award I’m going to cut to the chase and I’m going to speak to you, the next generation. I accept the responsibility as your elder.”

Having recently had our first child, the reality of being responsible for the next generation has become both unavoidable and uncomfortable. I confess it is very likely an indication of my own selfishness that no meaningful thought on this task preceded the arrival of my son, which is to sideline the New Testament model that makes older and more mature Christians responsible for the younger. Pratt seems to understand this call in an age when many Christians only invest in their peers and the nuclear family. In 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Tony Reinke argues that one of the imperative responsibilities we have for future generations is the discerning use of pervasive technology. If we fail in this area those follow us will suffer the consequences. But I want to highlight another responsibility we have towards the next generation, specifically in the church.

God's WordIn the Old Testament book of Amos one of the themes that emerges is Israel’s rejection of God’s truth. As God’s covenant people Israel were entrusted with God’s law and expected to live in accordance with it (2:4-5). His law should have governed their lives and given shape to their worship. Yahweh also sent prophets but Israel silenced them (2:12; 3:7), hating those who spoke God’s truth (5:10). Appropriating Paul’s words in Romans 1, Israel exchanged God’s truth for a lie, for idols, and in order to live independently of God’s rule. How did this happen? As Amaziah said to the prophet in Amos 7, God’s words were unpleasant and uninspiring. They were burdensome, ‘Come on Amos, your unhealthy fixation on sin and insistence on God’s judgment simply isn’t what Israel want to hear. You need to adapt your message for the people, for the culture and their felt needs.’ But listen to Amos’ reply: The LORD took me from following the flock and said to me, “Go prophesy to my people” (7:15). The popularity of God’s truth does not alter its significance.

What is the outcome of Israel’s rejection of God’s truth? Look at Amos 8:11, “I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” He goes on in 8:12 to describe people desperately searching for a word from God without finding or hearing it. D. A. Carson comments on these verses, “The point is that people who do not devote themselves to the words of God eventually lose them. The loss is catastrophic.”

What does any of this have to do with Chris Pratt or the next generation? In the next verse we are told that by abandoning by the words of God and God allowing that decision spells death for the generation to come, “the lovely virgins and strong men” (8:13). Israel’s rejection of God’s truth, his life-giving word, would lead to spiritual death and exile. Part of this tragedy we often miss is that those who came next would suffer a similar fate. The next generation will experience God’s silence and judgment because the current one had abandoned God’s truth. This should jolt us from our complacency and impress on us the responsibilities we have for the next generation in the church. The church that undervalues God’s gospel, contained in his inspired and true Word, brings death on the generations that will follow. The church that undervalues the Bible is not relevant, they are robbing the next generation of hearing from God.

Church Growth: A Response

Recently on Rekindle, Graham has reflected on church metrics. What I’m posting here was originally written as a comment on this post, but I’ve decided to move it to a post of its own, because I feel the topic is important enough to (try) keep the conversation going. Here’s what I had to say.

I wonder if Graham isn’t singing in harmony with Carl Trueman and others: there is a big problem with our current desire to be popular and celebrated. Churches are finding themselves in awkward positions, where their use of metrics is driving them to look a pale shade of early church life. We really should be heeding these warnings, and considering where our use of metrics and our ungodly desires are urging us on in increasingly unhelpful directions. This is something Graham’s post makes inroads with.

However, it might be worth separating the issues he raises: on the one hand, we need to discuss the wrong desires that are calling for data-comfort, and on the other, we are reading data wrongly, and so need to be helped to use it properly. His post addresses the first, but I think a Rekindle series on the latter would be helpful (and demanding). Perhaps we should attempt it.

Data is a fantastic feedback tool, and larger churches (especially) should have people who know how to interpret and are listening to all the data they can get their hands on, because of the nature of these institutions and the use data feedback provides as a management tool. If done properly, I think it could even help address the problems of Trueman and co.

I read Natural Church Dynamics by Schwarz a little while back. He locates himself within the church growth movement, but almost completely ignores attendance figures because of their inability to explain their existence. All his measurables revolve around the quality of church life because he sees these as the ‘growth forces’ that result in worthwhile numerical additions. I say this to flag the reduction of metrics to church attendance in Graham’s post, but also to segue into this next point.

What I found interesting while reading was the significant overlap between Heard’s 5Ms and his 8 growth forces: both see health as the crucial factor that influences numbers. Whether that is helpful or right, and if both, the exact way maturity influences conversions are useful conversations that we should be having.


In my original comment, I posted a quote from Tim Keller’s Center Church. I just dropped it in there, out of nowhere. I included it because I felt it provides useful language and an accessible framework, which holds together both the need to be faithful and the need to reach the lost. For the sake of continuity, here’s the quote:

“As I read, reflected, and taught, I came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness. Jesus, of course, told his disciples that they were to “bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Paul spoke even more specifically. He spoke of conversions as “fruit” when he desired to preach in Rome: “that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles” (Rom 1:13 KJV). Paul also spoke of the “fruit” of godly character that a minister can see growing in Christians under his care. This included the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). Good deeds, such as mercy to the poor, are called “fruit” as well (Rom 15:28).
Paul spoke of the pastoral nurture of congregations as a form of gardening. He told the Corinthian Christians they were “God’s field” in which some ministers planted, some watered, and some reaped (1 Cor 3:9). The gardening metaphor shows that both success and faithfulness by themselves are insufficient criteria for evaluating ministry. Gardeners must be faithful in their work, but they must also be skilful, or the garden will fail. Yet in the end, the degree of the success of the garden (or the ministry) is determined by factors beyond the control of the gardener. The level of fruitfulness varies due to “soil conditions” (that is, some groups of people have a greater hardness of heart than others) and “weather conditions” (that is, the work of God’s sovereign Spirit) as well.
The church growth movement has made many lasting contributions to our practice of ministry. But its overemphasis on technique and results can put too much pressure on ministers because it underemphasizes the importance of godly character and the sovereignty of God. Those who claim that “what is required is faithfulness” are largely right, but this mindset can take too much pressure off church leaders. It does not lead them to ask hard questions when faithful ministries bear little fruit. When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.”

Church Growth: Must We be Passionate about Numerical Growth?

A few weeks back I posted on church attendance and the role numbers might play in evaluating ministry, both positively and negatively. I argued that unqualified numbers indicate little more than trends, can be misleading or even deceiving, and easily become a source of discouragement. One of the catalysts for my own reflection upon the church growth movement and its principles has been Andrew Heard. I have critiqued an aspect of his teaching (here), but in this post I want to interact with his point from Acts that being passionate about numerical growth is a necessary part of the gospel fabric and ministry. When presenting this at a conference, Heard admitted that being passionate about numerical growth leaves us wide open to compromise, providing a sort of tension. However I believe that being passionate for growth also requires careful qualification. I hope to develop that, in part, with this post.

Growth in Acts was a result of the church’s passion for Christ

Church growthBefore we get to some of those qualifications, we must ask if does Acts does show that being passion for numerical growth is necessary for gospel ministry. I have written previously on the purpose of Acts, arguing that by embedding gospel sermons in narrative Luke’s aim was to: (a) call its readers to repentance and faith in Christ while (b) emphasising that the success of the gospel is owed to the Holy Spirit. More simply, we might say that Acts emphasises the word about Christ and the work of the Spirit. There is no denying that Luke records numerical growth throughout (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 11:24; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). But in holding to the aforementioned twofold purpose of Acts, this numerical growth resulted from the faithful proclamation of Christ made effective by the Spirit, which is why we repeatedly read that it was the Lord who added to his church. To risk being accused of splitting hairs, I think we would do better to argue from Acts that the apostles were passionate about Christ and dependant on his Spirit, rather than passionate about growth and dependant on methods. With that in mind, let us consider two qualifications for the statement, ‘Being passionate about growth is a necessary part of gospel fabric.’

Numerical growth must be measured by real conversions to Christ

I mentioned some of the dangers of metrics in ministry in my previous post. One of those is the misuse of numbers; we can, as one commenter said, seek “data-comfort” through metrics. This is not to say that this will always be the case but we must ask both why we are counting on Sundays and what those statistics show. The problem with counting heads on a Sunday is that the number of people who attend services is not an indication of how many Christians belong to your church. Therefore what we can infer from numbers is confidence of growth, perhaps of “seekers” but not an indication of conversions. Commenting on Acts 2, John Stott writes, “Salvation and church membership belonged together; they still do.” All of the numbers in Acts refer to conversions, not adherents or visitors. History tells us that tens of thousands of Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Pentecost and therefore we can safely assume that Peter addressed more than 3000 people. In fact, Acts 2:41 makes it clear that not everyone who heard received the word and baptism. The incredible number in 2:47 was not how many listened to Peter but how many came to Christ.

Conversions have little to do with us

Church growthAnswering the question, “Who grows the church?” in The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells strongly expounds the sovereignty of God. He writes, “Nothing…is more absurd than the panic that now grips the evangelical church. It is terrorized by the specter of postmodernity. Reading today’s “how-to” literature, one has to draw the conclusion that the church’s days are numbered unless we rush in to prop it up with our own know-how. God, you see, has more on his hands than he can possibly handle.” Wells concludes that section of his book with an appeal for us to let God be God over his church, for this will liberate us from feeling or thinking we must do what we are incapable of doing: “We cannot impart new life.” Believing numerical growth can be unlocked by a better strategy comes close to unbelief. Wells continues, “We turn to structures and programs, appearances and management, advertising and marketing. Our preoccupation is with what we do and therefore with what we control.” Strategies, structures, and ministry models do not deny the sovereignty of God but the confidence we put in them to grow God’s church might.

My hope in writing this post is not to promote theological knit picking and it certainly is not to discourage being passionate about growing God’s church. But, working backwards through my points: we must remember the place of human effort and planning within the sovereignty of God. The most God-glorifying expression of our passion for growth will be seen in impassioned prayers for conversions. Finally, if we are truly passionate about growth we will preach Christ and him crucified, in the power of his Spirit. Nothing less will do. Nothing less will grow the church.

Church Growth: The Place of Metrics in Evaluating Ministry

Attending a conference, denominational synod, or church planting seminar, you do not have to wait long before you are discussing numbers and attendance. It’s not even that people specifically ask how big your church is. It is more that the question: “How’s it going?” either has the implied meaning of ‘how many people are attending your church?’ or we instinctively answer with statistics. I do not yet know what to make of this instinct in myself or that when I ask about your ministry all I am really interested in is how many people are coming. But I know it is not healthy, and I am fairly certain it is not biblical. Paul does not mention the size of a church once in his epistles, apart from celebrating their growth. And in Christ’s seven letters to the churches in Revelation it is the unimpressive and beleaguered churches that are commended (Smyrna and Philadelphia), while the influential and powerful churches are rebuked (Sardis and Laodicea).

Church metricsDiscussing the place of numbers in evaluating our churches and ministries, Marshall and Payne write, “Numbers can be a blunt instrument for evaluation. On their own, they don’t tell the whole story. Good numbers can be a sign of spiritual health, or they can indicate that you are running a non-demanding, people-pleasing ministry that lots of people like” (The Vine Project). Numbers do not tell the whole story, yet the way we speak and evaluate each other’s ministries I wonder if we actually believe that. After all, it is far more impressive to say your average Sunday attendance is closing in on 1000 than to admit that you are seeing little maturity in your church. Read that quote from The Vine Project again: numbers alone indicate nothing. Let’s not forget that Joel Osteen pastors the biggest church in America. So in this short post I hope to outline a few of my thoughts on and concerns regarding numbers.

They can be misleading

I wrote a post a couple of years ago asking if Satan can grow the church. I was not referring to pastors selling their souls or children to the devil in order to have bigger churches—though I reckon some might be willing to do that. In the post I looked at Jesus’ parable about the wheats and the weeds in Matthew 13. The conclusion I drew was that Satan is able to mislead God’s people by giving them what they desire most, so long as it draws them away from finding satisfaction and significance in Christ. I concluded that post by writing, “[Satan] revels in a church where attendance is the mark of faith and its leaders worship growth.” We must remember that we may grow a large ministry only to have most of it ripped up and burnt. The warning for everyone here is to pursue genuine gospel growth, and if you read the other ‘kingdom parables’ in Matthew 13 you will learn that that is often slow.

They make a cruel master

Church metricsWhen the first question regarding an event or service is, “How many people came?” you are setting yourself up for discouragement, or perhaps false confidence. On paper alone attendance is powerful, both to puff up and to pull down. Forgetting for a second the trap mentioned in my first point, let us consider a second trap, one that Satan I am sure also sets: discouragement. Consider the statement, “Only 20 people attended the prayer meeting.” Sure, that might be disappointing when you consider what percentage of your church 20 people represents, but 20 Christians did gather to pray. They surrendered their time and submitted their requests to our Father in heaven, and surely that cannot be an absolute discouragement. But when numbers are the primary measure of our ministries we will be crushed by disappointment and grow discouraged, often in spite of the work of God before our eyes.

They indicate trends not transformation

This is an important point that brings us back to Marshall and Payne’s above. Numbers can indicate if the church is growing, on a plateau, or in decline, but little more. When attendance is dropping we must ask some hard questions about that ministry or event. If the numbers have stayed exactly the same we need consider change and innovation. And if there is a growing trend we should ask if we are merely filling seats. However, in all three cases the numbers reveal trends and not conversions or Christian maturity. Therefore, in closing, I agree that numbers can play a useful role in helping us evaluate our ministries, through the force of undeniable statistics. But we cannot let numbers deceive us with false growth, nor can we allow numbers to rule over and discourage us.