July 6, 2007
The Measure of a Ministry
Everyone knows church attendance slides in the summer, but should we care?
This week Americans are celebrating their independence by watching parades, enjoying backyard barbeques, and by not going to church. If your congregation is anything like mine you know that during the summer worship attendance slips noticeably, and the week of July 4th is typically the low point. Family vacations and parties draw people away for some valuable R and R. I'm not pointing a self-righteous finger at church slackers. Last Sunday my family and I were not seen in church either, we were away camping.
But the "summer slide" raises a question. Why is Sunday morning attendance the one measurement we cannot escape? Why is Sunday morning attendance the make-or-break number; the figure we proudly display or secretly despair? Like a corporation's stock price, worship attendance seems to encapsulate a church's entire mission and health in one simple, if volatile, number. A number we watch carefully week to week praying for its increase.
At my church I am aware of a number of families and individuals who won't be attending Sunday worship very frequently this summer, and I'm thrilled about it. These people won't be in worship because they'll be overseas helping missionaries, or taking inner city kids to a camp in rural Michigan, or they'll be making meaningful connections as families on vacations- something valuable in a culture where families are struggling. Don't misread me, I think gathering regularly as a community for corporate worship, confession, and learning is both good and important. I just don't think it's so important that it should be the singular measure of missional impact, or even the primary one.
It has become very popular to talk about "life transformation" as the purpose of the church, and numerous studies have shown that worship attendance alone does not seem to impact people's behavior or values. (Ron Sider's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience comes to mind .) However, people who connect in meaningful and transparent relationships, the kind possible in small groups or with a mentor, do show more evidence of life change. Wouldn't this be a much better and more helpful number for church leaders to measure? Do you know how many people in your church connected relationally with another brother or sister in Christ last week? Probably not, but I bet you know how many sang songs and passively listened to a sermon.
Granted, Sunday worship attendance is easier to measure than small group attendance or relational connections but I don't think that's why we do it. Dallas Willard has said that most churches are designed to grow their ABCs (attendance, buildings, and cash) not disciples. The ABCs form an unholy trinity; a cycle that cannot be escaped easily. Sunday attendance is vital and meticulously measured because that is what funds the church - people give money on Sunday. The money is necessary to pay for institutional needs such as buildings, staff, and programs. And, of course, these tangibles are needed to attract more religious consumers to pay for more buildings, staff, and programs.
If our primary measurements are the ministry ABCs one must ask if the mission of the church is really life transformation or institutional expansion? I believe the first step toward breaking this cycle is to change what we measure. Rather than making Sunday worship attendance the most important statistic we need to emphasize something else. Relational or small group connections is one option but there are many others.
I know one church that measures how many people spend at least 30 minutes reading scripture three times a week. Another congregation measures the number of troubled marriages rescued. And another records how many members have invited neighbors to their home for a meal. This summer, rather than determining how many people are skipping worship services I'm much more interested in how many from my congregation are participating in short-term missions projects, serving in local compassion ministries, and spending meaningful time together as families. I believe what we measure indicates what we value, and what we value is what we should celebrate.