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The measure of success


Among those of us who spend our lives wrestling with this thing that is the institutional church, there is much discussion about how we measure ‘success.’  Much is printed, published, and blogged about the concept of “church growth,”  There are fancy and expensive programs to help congregations with church growth.  There was/is even some nebulous thing called a church growth movement – the underlying assumption being that if a church is growing, then it (and by extension the pastor) are considered successful.  Typically, when someone talks about church growth they are referring to growth in numbers – the more people who are members or more critically in worship on SUnday, then the more successful the church and its pastor.

In recent years, even many mega-churches have recognized that numbers do not tell the whole story.  Willow Creek, in particular, was confronted with its own limitations when defining growth from merely a numerical standpoint.  Leading the pack, Willow Creek began to re-evaluate its purpose and take seriously the biblical mandate to “make disciples.”  Discipleship became the new movement.  Many congregations are finding themselves re-examining how we define growth in the church.  I think this a good, healthy, and incredibly faithful thing.  It does, however. bring with it a small catch.  If growth is defined spiritually as well as numerically, then how do we measure if/when we are successful?

One of the first things that I think we need to consider is letting go of the concept of success when we are talking about church.  Success is not something to which we have been called.   So if we are not called to achieve success in terms of numerical growth, then how do we determine whether we are actually about the work of disciple-making?  I think we start with considering whether or not we are being faithful to what it means to be the church.  Determining whether or not we are being faithful as the church requires a different model for being church.

For years, we have used what could be described as an “attraction model” for being church.  Worship styles, programs, ministries – all were designed to attract new members to a congregation.  The congregation was successful when these efforts attracted new members and worship numbers increased.  The model for this approach to being church considers the congregation as the gathering place and the direction of the ‘flow’ of people is inward.  When we start considering a disciple-making approach to being church, the attraction model is not nearly as helpful.  The natural offshoot of  a disciple-making congregation is fruit.  A congregation that bears fruit engages its context in ways the participate in God’s work outside the walls of the building.  The current catch-phrase for this faithfulness and fruit-bearing is to being missional.  A missional model of being church has a little different look to it.  The congregation is more of a hub from which multiple spokes emanate. The flow of people is outward in this model.   Congregational ministries in the community are  solid, load-bearing spokes.  In a disciple-making congregation, there are also individual spokes which emanate out.  The different ways in which disciples engage in mission through their personal lives – volunteering and serving out of their baptismal vocations apart from structured and organized congregational ministries.

The “hub model” gives us a means for evaluating our faithfulness as congregations.  It does not become necessary to numerically measure success, but rather evaluate the ‘flow’ from the hub.  If there is an outward flow into the community in terms of mission and ministry, then one can reasonably ascertain a faithfulness of the congregation.  Numbers no longer tell the entire story.  Ironically, when the flow out of the hub begins to engage the surrounding community/neighborhood relationships begin to form and there is always the potential for a reciprocal inward flow toward the hub.  It is from the relationships with disciples outside the walls of the building that others begin to enter into the faith community.  The reality of being church in the 21st century is that worship is rarely the entry point for new members of the faith community.  Therefore, using an attraction model for being church and measuring worship attendance is counter-productive.  The advantage of the hub model is that it provides a snapshot of an embodied faith, both congregationally and individually, and the evaluation point is also the entry point for potential new members to the community.

The bottom line is that just as we must re-discover our calling to make disciples, we must re-envision both how we do so and how we evaluate our faithfulness.  It is not a cure-all.  Nor is it without limits and flaws, but I think that the concept of the congregation as a hub with spokes emanating outward into the neighborhood and community to engage in relationships of caring and mission is a good starting spot.

Here’s to disciple-making, faithfulness, and bearing fruit – the true measure of success.




One Comment leave one →
  1. 4November2011 11:42

    Excellent stuff, Katie. Thank you! ~ David

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