I am a numbers guy. I enjoy analyzing and trying to find trends or indicators that point to how well we are doing. I was genuinely excited when invited to look at our church's 2016 numbers with another elder. I had been taught as a kid, “Numbers don’t lie.” My father drilled that concept into my head. In the business world, I spend much of my time calculating what is needed to be purchased to complete open sales orders, timing when I will bring those in (inventory control), and scheduling production to complete the orders. Every week I am looking over our company’s financial reports to make sure there is nothing amiss and ensure our company continues to grow and expand.
But it's different for the church. Well, I guess, some don't see a difference. Oftentimes, people — and as one who struggles with this, I count myself in this lot — measure success in a church by sheer attendance on a Sunday morning. The more people who show up, the healthier a church is though to be.
We can't discount attendance numbers, of course. I believe they do give a good indication on certain aspects of a church. But I don't see attendance numbers as a reliable barometer for church health. I know of (and I am sure you do too) many large churches that are, for all intents and purposes, spiritually dead, and I know of many many small churches that are vibrantly alive in Christ.
So how does one measure health in the church? This has been a question that has plagued me for years. How do we take a step back and take an honest view about where we are at as a church?
The issue comes down to the fact that as church leaders we cannot truly judge the hearts of another. We see the fruit (or lack thereof) in lives and bring up the issue, but only God truly knows the heart.
I tend to think that through 1) baptisms, 2) participation, and 3) membership, one can gauge the health of a church.
Baptism doesn't justify an individual. Yet, there is something significant that takes place in the baptismal waters. Baptism is an outward reflection of an inward heart commitment. When one stands to be baptized, one is declaring their participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Ideally and normally, those participating in baptism are new converts. So when we see individuals being baptized, we should rejoice that the Spirit has softened their hearts and moved them in such a way that they desire to make a public proclamation of faith. Baptisms helps to indicate the health of the church as your church reaches out and proclaims the goodness of God.
How involved are congregants in the life of the church and each other? Are individuals involved in Community Groups where they rub shoulders week to week encouraging and admonishing each other to abandon sin and cling to Christ?
Sunday morning is not necessarily the barometer for the health of the church; what goes on the rest of the week is. If our people begin to live in such a way that Sunday morning is what they see as the highlight of their spiritual formation, then we as leaders have done nothing more than to lead our people to embrace our own idol, Sunday attendance report. It is throughout the rest of the week where faith is being worked out — in Community Groups, Discipleship Groups, Prayer Meetings, and other informal gatherings.
How committed to the local church are our people? This is not merely a tactic to make individuals commit to a church, but membership reveals a heart that is willing to covenant with others to the glory of God. In membership, individuals commit to support each other, love each other, challenge each other, and pray for each other. They give permission to the church to speak into their lives and to highlight blind spots that they are not seeing.
Membership is also a reflection of our love for Christ. As Christ’s body, as Christ’s bride, when individuals refuse to be accountable or to covenant in community, they are also refusing Christ. It would be like having a relationship with out the commitment of marriage. I have long hated the expression “I love Christ but hate the church” because it's basically nonsensical! To hate the church is to hate Christ. Active, participating members in the local church are a great barometer to a church’s health.
How do we measure success in the church? Is it through programs, attendance, or finances? Though we can't truly see another heart, actions reflect where our hearts are at. When we see baptisms taking place, we see individuals coming to know the Lord in such a way as they desire to make a public proclamation of an inward commitment. When individuals participate in the life of the church they show their heart and desire for sanctification, the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit through the word and others. In membership, one commits to each other to always be there for each other.