Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gauging a church's sucess not as Easy As ABC (An Initial Reflection)

Being involved in a church planting exercise that is being supported financially for a period of three years and has one year to run on that and also being involved in a mainline church that is having to ask questions about what is and isn’t a viable parish/church/congregation has lead me to do some reflection on what would constitute a successful or vibrant church. There has been much talk recently in our denomination (Presbyterian church Aotearoa New Zealand) about the numbers needed to keep something going, but as Leonard Sweet says in his book ‘So Beautiful: the divine design for life’ working out the success and vitality of a church is not as simple as ABC. The metrics of Attendance, Buildings and Cash. I have to admit I do feel the pressure of such metrics as I have to think through how ‘Studentsoul’ is going, and in a way that Sweet thinks is not that helpful for gauging church life I have to ask questions about ROI return on Investment.

In an attempt to move away from such economic indicators the PCANZ (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand has come up with a list of indicators to help parishes assess where they are at which is called healthy congregations. It is a list of eight indicators of congregational health which i do find rather helpful and challenging.

An outward focus among leaders and attenders in their concern for evangelism and wider community care. There is a readiness to discuss matters of faith with others, to act with Christ where there is a need and to invite others to church. The congregation behaves as a good steward of creation (the created and built worlds) and works with others for justice and peace, being with those with whom Jesus identifies.

Healthy relationships with the wider church - locally, nationally and beyond. The congregation will participate in mission and share activity at these


A sense of direction. Attenders perceive their congregation as having a definite sense of direction and purpose.

Worship that is true to God, enhancing of life, promotes growth in faith, is relevant to the cultures/contexts in which we live, and is inviting to people unfamiliar with church.

A lively faith. Healthy congregations tend to have higher levels of at tenders growing in their faith or experiencing moments of conversion or faith commitment. Among attenders there are high levels of devotional activity such as prayer and Bible reading.

A strong sense of community among attenders embracing all generations, different cultures and diverse ways of being human - creating a sense of belonging, managing conflict, and working towards reconciliation, healing, and renewal. High levels of involvement in small congregational groups will be evident but will not exclude participation in activities in other communities and settings.

An involving leadership. Leadership has a strong sense of vision for the mission of the congregation to which attenders are committed. Leadership is inspiring and purposeful yet puts a priority on listening to attenders' ideas and encouraging them to discover their gifts and use them. Those with roles receive adequate levels of support.

Newcomers and numerical growth. Healthy congregations are more likely to be attracting and holding newcomers, retaining young adults and growing numerically. For congregations whose mission is in the many places/contexts in which its members live through most of the week the

indicators of health include the outcomes of their activities and the ways the local congregation provides support.

They invite churches to look beyond numbers to nurture, beyond fiscal measures to missional movement, just keeping the door open to what are we doing beyond our own doors, just doing what we have to keep going, doing what God calls us to keep growing (In love with God, love for one another and expressing love to the world around them). Even with a small congregation like we have at StudentSoul I can see these health indicators in starting to develop in what is just a seedling.

Sweet however brings things down to a more pragmatic level and a more measureable way when he invites churches to thing in terms of other metrics.

Stories, and not just the “Old, Old story”, but how the old, old story of God’s grace is made new and brings new life through us. Often Churches will look back to a idealised past. They will to use the words a U2 song be ‘stuck in a moment’ and the stories they tell will go back to that time. Be it the Billy Graham Crusade in the 1960’s, the charismatic movement of the 1980’s (where they sing one line of majesty and it’s like they are having an acid flash back) or a time when the church was full and had an important place in the community or city. But what are the stories of change and transformation that God is doing through the church now. Where is the new life now?

If you want to count definite says sweet count the number of cigarette butts in the car park. I guess thats not that we are to encourage smoking and look for tobacco sponsorship to keep things going, rather its an indicator of whose there, whose about. As I work at a secular university I find more and more the people I sense God calling me towards are not the religious and churched. This could get messy. Sweet also says we often forget that Jesus talks about sowing seeds in good ground and maybe the most fertile good ground is in those who are poor and in need of grace and very much like the people who flocked to Jesus in his earthly ministry, we look to become (forgive me here) more like the people who were suspicious of Jesus and mocked him with a title I really value ‘the friend of sinners’.

Sweet wonders if we don’t look at our ability to meet our tight cut down budget, but rather the width of our compassion budget. Counted in money given hours of service by congregational members, the way in which it can be said that no one had a need. Not judging us by our services but by our service and our serving.

There are other indicators, the depth of our relationships with each other, the elasticity of that relationship, how can they be stretched to welcome and embrace new people.

Sweet also suggests like healthy congregations that we need to look at our worship and ask the question how local is our voice. Do we speak the language, are we indigenous to our context and able to speak the Gospel into that.

All these are helpful when asking the question is what we are doing successful. I know so many people will dislike that word, I do, but I am aware that there is a need to do evaluation and reflection. It’s an ongoing challenge in an ongoing world where the church is in decline and in some cases in denial but also when you are off on a limb trying something new.


  1. Howard, great stuff. I'm taking an online course from Sweet right now and will be reading his book "Beautiful" next week. For the opposite end of the spectrum, check out what Bishop Will Willimon has instituted in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church - http://www.northalabamaumc.org/weeklyreport.asp

    A conference dashboard - ABC run amok!

  2. thanks for the encouragement Don from way up north in Alaska. Hope your course with Len Sweet is a rich source of blessing. Went and looked at the link you suggested and you are right it does seem to be ABC to the extreme. Good to see a bit of a missisonal focus with measuring people invovled in volunteer work in the community and people contacted and helped beyond the congregation.