It’s tougher to know these days if your church is doing well. It used to be easier to evaluate. Numbers were the key: members and dollars. And in a setting where going or belonging to a church was a cultural expectation, many of us could say we were doing fine. But we don’t live in that world anymore, and even in the age of the mega-church, growing numbers are harder and harder to find.
Some suggest in the face of this that it is more important to be “faithful than successful,” as if success could be measured in some way other than faithfulness. Too often, this is a way of saying “we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing regardless of what is happening in the world around us.” Don’t count me in that group. There’s no particular merit in becoming increasingly irrelevant.
But there is still something obviously wrong with making numbers the measure of a congregation’s life. My friend, Jeff Childers, had a great analogy this past week at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. He compared a numbers metric to the obsession with test scores in our current educational landscape. Nothing wrong with scoring well on tests, but when those scores become the goal of learning-when we teach to the test–then things get out of whack. It’s the same with evaluating our congregation by the numbers. We hope that our churches are growing, but when that becomes our primary criteria for evaluating our church, things are out of whack.
That got me to thinking about how to evaluate your congregation. This is especially important to me as I coach congregations away from a more “attractional model,” and toward something “missional.” The standard of evaluation for a missional church has to be related to a tangible, even measurable, sense that a congregation is participating in the life and mission of God.
Participating in the life and mission of God is not always easy to evaluate. I’m often asked what a missional church “looks like.” Too often I respond in unhelpful ways. I’ll say, “It depends. Every church will look different depending on its context.” And it while it does depend (this is not a one-size-fits-all notion of church), I shouldn’t blame church members when they think to themselves, “He doesn’t know. This missional thing isn’t real. It’s like nailing jello to the wall.”
So, I want to take a stab at being more helpful. If nothing more, I want to offer some signs that your congregation is growing in their participation in the life and mission of God. In my next few posts, I’ll try some on. I offer them in no particular order.
1. Does your congregation do a good job of welcoming and involving a diverse range of individuals? You are participating in the new creation of God if you are living into Paul’s exhortation, “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.” The key here is “as Christ has welcomed you.” The welcome of Christ creates a community where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.
Homogeneous congregations should be suspicious that they haven’t learned to welcome others in the way of Christ. This may indicate that the congregation is more about honoring their own cultural values than participating in the broad welcome of God’s life. And it very well may be the case that homogenous congregations grow faster than diverse groups. This is what the church growth people have been telling us for decades. The decision to be a community that functions as a sign of the coming Kingdom of God will prioritize diversity over numbers.
This goes to more than just greeting persons. The welcome of Christ will create a sense of belonging and involvement. Do poorer members belong in the same way as those who are more well-off? Are the less educated as meaningfully involved as others? These matters of belonging and involvement don’t just happen. Pathways have to be created and values articulated and ritualized for this kind of deep welcome to be possible.
Here’s my hunch. If you learn to do these well, you will be a growing congregation. You will be a church, through the struggles of learning to welcome a diverse group, that has some compelling stories to tell. You are not likely, however, to become a mega-church. Can you live with that?