“If you can’t count what is important, you count what you can count.”
It was a moment of spoken revelation for me during a recent PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. They said we were winning; but were we? They pointed out indicators of success, but were they counting the right things?
Though the work of building churches is an inexact parallel to war (though some might debate that based on their experiences), it caused me to ask as a leader: “Are we counting the right things as indicators of success? Are we counting what we can count, instead of what really matters?”
Perhaps the easiest thing to count is attendance. It’s measurable. It’s visible. It gives ministers security when we can say, “The house was full today.” And while I believe numbers have some value – the book of Acts tells us about the number of people coming to Christ – are numbers the best measure of success when it comes to leading people toward a lifestyle of following Jesus? On the other hand, is it possible for someone to attend every Sunday for years and not be growing as a disciple of Jesus?
Contrast that with a conversation I had with a young man this week. Though he is probably a little over 50/50 in attendance, he called to tell me about a Bible reading app with which he is connected. He said, “I love it. I read my Bible every day, and I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t stay in the Word. I read the Bible in the morning, I do the devotional each night with my wife and daughter, and since I have made the commitment to be directed by God’s Word each day, I have found my walk with Jesus more constant and faithful.” I asked myself, “Is this a good measure of spiritual success?”
Through the years I have heard a good number of sermons on church attendance, and at times I have seen Hebrews 10:25 used as a hammer over the head. (In fact, I distinctly remember a godly minister, Paul Rogers, saying at a preacher’s workshop that you can use a hammer to kill a man, or you can use it to build a bird house). Upon reflection, I am pretty sure that the passage that was used to promote attendance was misused and misapplied at times.
As I have watched people grow spiritually, however, I have come to see that success in ministry is not so much about numbers, but more about leading people toward faithfulness to Jesus in the everydayness of life–faithfulness in prayer, faithfulness in reflecting upon Scripture, faithfulness in being connected to the family of God (which is so much more than attending a service). Robby Gallaty writes, “Jesus never attempted to draw large crowds for the sake of counting heads . . . . Jesus was not interested in growing a mile wide and an inch deep. Rather, He focused on developing mature, faithful disciples who would go out and make more disciples” (Growing Up, 22). The two churches that received the highest praise in the book of Revelation were Smyrna and Philadelphia, both small churches. My guess is, they were measuring the things that mattered, not just the attendance.
The work of making disciples is slow, sometimes difficult, and less noticeable than a big crowd on Sunday. But in the end, it’s the careful and thoughtful work of disciplemaking that I believe is making the greatest difference for the Kingdom. Paul instructed Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). If every Christian could lead just one to be a follower of Jesus each year, we would change the world like the early Christians did. How are you gauging ministry success? (Our team is having conversations with ministers and church leaders weekly about disciplemaking. Contact us for a practical conversation on leading your congregation to a more productive future in fulfilling the Great Commission).
“In times of changes, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Eric Hoffer
Our team has been working with congregations who tell us they are stuck. Literally. Their biggest challenge? Creating a compelling and unified vision for the future. Most are lacking what we call alignment, a sign of congregational health where leaders and members are on the same page allowing energy to flow forward and outward to the community. When a congregation is aligned, there is passion and enthusiasm. There is “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Through a proven process, we work hard to discover the story of the congregation through meaningful conversation to help bring members into alignment by creating a shared vision. We believe there are 4 questions every church must ask:
Where are we? It’s interesting how many church leaders don’t know their own story. Part of this is that we live in a culture that doesn’t do a great job interpreting and identifying our stories. But here’s what happens: when you don’t know your story and you haven’t properly interpreted it, the story rules you. Therefore, we need to understand it and call it what it is. (In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had authority over the Garden by naming the animals. When leaders name the story accurately, it stops ruling the congregation. Now you have mastery over the past versus the other way around. You now begin to have breakthroughs instead of gridlock). It takes openness and honesty to arrive at a point of mastery.
Where do you want to go? You must first know where you are before you know where to go. This was true of the Israelites down in Egypt who first had to recognize their need for deliverance. Once we have an accurate understanding of where we are – our weaknesses, strengths, perhaps our need for confession about the past – we can begin creating a shared vision going forward. This is where the Spirit of God begins to bring freshness to our thoughts, dreams and ideas.
How will you get there? This is the planning stage, the time when we create reachable and measurable goals. We have found that a church needs to identify 3-4 things they can do, and that means focusing on what you have. You may remember that Moses objected to the call of God to speak to Pharaoh. The Lord responded, “What is that in your hand?” It was a staff. Leaders must focus on what they have, not what they don’t have. Even in churches with limited resources, we have found that when there is fervent prayer and a desire to reach others, God helps leaders work with what they have. God is in the business of taking weak things and making them strong.
How do we know we’ve gotten there? These are the checkpoints along the way so that we don’t forget our vision. This is the stage when we often must redirect our resources. You may remember watching Star Trek when you were young. Whenever the Klingons attacked and put the ship and crew in peril, Scotty would say to the captain from below deck, “We have to divert the power to the engine so we can move, Captain.” Some churches are like a ship in trouble, damaged and falling apart. Through honest conversation, we can again find the engine and discover where the power is.
WE WANT TO HELP! Is your congregation stuck? Are you worried about your future? Let our team members help you answer the Four Big Questions. We received the following letter from our most recent Church Vision Weekend: “Recently, we decided to have David Baker and Mark Massey come to Pensacola to conduct a Vision Weekend for our congregation. We discussed our situation and needs and David and Mark drew up a plan to capture congregational data through surveys and focus groups. Their weekend plan incorporated an afternoon presentation with the elders where they offered their findings, suggestions, and resources to help us move forward. What a blessing to have these two brothers! David brings a unique perspective from the standpoint of a Gospel Minister and Mark offers years of experience as an elder. This weekend was of great help to the congregation and to the eldership as we move forward in His service.”