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What church is this?

Reimagining church metrics on another pandemic Christmas.

The sound of carols playing in the shopping malls and coffee shops is a sure sign that Christmas is coming. “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Mary Did You Know?,” and “What Child is This?” are familiar questions that help us ready our hearts and minds for what’s to come. One of the unspoken questions of this second pandemic Christmas (and its preparatory season of Advent) is, what kind of Christmas will it be?

Last Christmas (also a great Christmas song by Wham!) was an unusual experience for many of us. Prevented from seeing our loved ones in person, we gathered online with family and friends near and far to wish each other a Merry Christmas. Congregations adapting to the new reality offered online services and programs as best they could, hoping that by this time next year we would all be in the pews again to see a pageant or light a candle and sing “Silent Night.” But as I have visited churches across Canada and spoken with pastors throughout the fall I hear a familiar refrain: Why haven’t people come back to church? Despite church buildings being open again for public worship, it appears that most congregations are in a rebuilding phase. For example, I recently met a church planter in a hipster coffee shop where he shared his own struggle of coming back to in-person worship. He reflected on how the pre-pandemic momentum of his church had been tempered and now, as they came back together, it was like he was planting a new church all over again. “It’s like we’ve had to adopt the mindset of a small church after trying for so long to be a larger church,” he told me.

The concern regarding how (or if) people come back into our church buildings, or whether they remain online or simply fade away, is real and understandable. Many leaders are saying that the pandemic has accelerated the decline of the church in Canada. And with that sort of worry in the back (or forefront) of our minds, many pastors are wondering what comes next.

(In this pandemic, it is difficult to know what counts as the actual size of the congregation.)

Measurement Methods

The “Donald McGavran school of church growth” mindset is still popular in some church leadership circles (tailoring the Great Commission mandate to meet individual preferences using the principle of ‘like attracts like,’ and drawing on strategies from sociology and the business world), but whether one follows that vision or not, the question of how we measure the impact of our churches is on the heart of most church leaders I encounter. Rather than dismissing the importance of metrics for churches as being too “business-minded,” perhaps our question should be, what kind of metrics should we be using to evaluate the impact of our ministries, and what’s the value of “small” vs “large” anyway?

My colleague Jason Byassee and I set out on a research project (that concluded just before the pandemic) visiting and analyzing missional churches in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. We published that research a year ago in a book entitled Better Than Brunch: Missional Churches in Cascadia. In the book, we dedicated a whole chapter to the question of “Missional Metrics.” We argued that the metrics of Christendom (a time up until the 1960s where the church enjoyed a privileged place in North American society) might be summarized by using the language of “noses, nickels and renown.” In other words, how many people did you have in your church and how much money was coming in through the offering plates? As well, what was your church known for – the choir, the organ, a master “pulpiteer” or perhaps the finest acoustics and best architecture in town? Of course it wasn’t just the number of people in the pews, but what “kind” of people that was important. Did you have the town’s “movers and shakers” sitting in your pews? As a frequent guest preacher in congregations, I still detect this longing for “renown” when someone goes out of their way to point out who the “important people” are in the church that day.

Who’s Who in the Pews

The old metrics of “nickels, noses, and renown” created a church culture that placed a value on bigger churches and encouraged clergy to think in terms of an ecclesiastical corporate ladder. It reminds me of sitting in our family farmhouse in Northern Ireland and chatting with relatives, when someone mentioned that the minister at our local Presbyterian church had announced that he was leaving to take a call to a larger congregation in Belfast. An older relative turned to me as the “minister in the family” and asked, “Tell me Ross, why is it that clergy always tell us that they are following God’s call, but it seems that God only calls ministers to bigger churches in the city?” Ouch. It was a good question. Now, of course, that isn’t exactly the case. Clergy follow God’s call to all kinds of places and moving from a larger church to a smaller one does happen; however, the point was made from a lifetime of observation from the pews. The default value in the church is to want to move from a smaller church to a bigger one.

But now in this period of pandemic, it is increasingly difficult to know what counts as the actual size of the congregation. Is it the number of people gathered physically in the church building on a Sunday? Or is it the number of people who join online, perhaps even those who access the service recording midweek? Could it be time that the old metrics of noses, nickels and renown are in need of updating? From our research, Jason Byassee and I believe it to be so, and make concrete suggestions in Better Than Brunch. In our site visits, interviews and study of missional congregations across the Pacific Northwest there were significant clues regarding how Christian communities were evaluating their own faithfulness to the gospel. It’s important to note, however, that new missional metrics does not necessarily mean rejecting outright the former metrics of Christendom. In fact, missional metrics can take the traditional measures of “effectiveness” and transform them from noses, nickels, and renown to incarnational, investment and intentionality.

Evaluating Effectiveness

First, incarnational engagement. Yes, people matter. You could even go so far as to say that numbers matter. After all, behind every number is a person that Jesus died to save and enlist in God’s reconciling mission for the healing of the nations. Like Gideon needing to reduce the number of warriors to properly give God the credit, however, smaller can sometimes be better. A missional incarnational metric acknowledges that people matter – all people in the neighbourhood – and not just those in the pews. The value shift from “bums in pews” to the Christian community’s engagement and care for all the people who inhabit the shared space of the local parish is key. After all, in Eugene Peterson’s famous translation of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood,” not the church.

Second, just as the Christendom metric of people is still important if interpreted through a missional lens (humanity as a source of God’s on-going revelation and participation in reconciliation), so too can the question of finance be re-interpreted. The “Nickels of Christendom” becomes instead community investment. In other words, the effectiveness of churches is not measured by how much money they have in the bank, or if they’ve managed to meet budget for another year, but how they steward their resources for the betterment of the community around them. There are so many amazing examples of how smaller churches are blessing and changing their neighbourhoods through the building of affordable housing, the provision of programs for all ages that build faith and well-being, and the demonstration of concrete acts of justice and righteousness regarding the challenges of racism, climate change and poverty.

Third, a shift is needed where what we’re “renowned” for is not so much the professional performance or programs of a large church, but rather the vibrant community of discipleship that the gospel calls us to show as a witness to a waiting, watching world. The missional metric of intentionality finds resonance in the imperatives of 1 Peter 2:11 that call on Christians who find themselves as “strangers and exiles” to “walk worthily” in the world. This call to right conduct in the world as witness is not all tipped towards human agency, since the “strangers and aliens” are living as part of Christ’s resurrected life and body in the world. In that sense, missiologist David Fitch connects our walking worthily as Christians to our attention to Christ’s presence not only in worship (where Christ is host and we are recipients), or in our homes (where we are both hosts and recipients of hospitality), but also in the wider community and neighbourhood where we go open-handed, without power, as guests seeking Christ’s presence. Intentional Christian community forms and shapes us to attend to the presence of Christ in the church, home and wider world.

Practising Presence

This is not easy, however, as Fitch reminds us in Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission: “God’s presence is not always obvious. He requires witnesses. God comes humbly in Christ. He so loves us, he never imposes himself on us. Instead he comes to us, to be with us, and in that presence he reveals himself. In his presence there is forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, transformation, patience, and, best of all, love. In his presence he renews all things. Presence is how God works. But he requires a people tending to his presence to make his presence visible for all to see.” Placing this sacred role of “tending to God’s presence” at the centre of our common life together switches the Christendom metric of renown (“look at our important church!”) to the formation of an intentional people marked by baptismal waters and fed by the Lord’s supper in the world.

There is no doubt that as we approach this second Christmas in a global pandemic, church leaders are questioning how their congregations are doing and where it’s all going. In this season of discernment, we trust that our sovereign God is at work in the risen Christ, blessing, healing and calling us to participate in the ongoing Kingdom work of reconciliation and proclamation. As we gather in person or online this Christmas to sing the old familiar carols, in churches large or small, we trust that once more the measurement that matters is not what we do, but in what has already been accomplished in the empty cradle, cross and tomb of the One for whom we sing our praise.


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