church growth

You are Growing or Dying. Shenanigans.

We have all heard this idea that we are either growing or dying. We hear if people are learning a new skill or if they are becoming a “better” person then they are “growing”. We also hear that organizations that rake in profits or create social change are “growing.” If there is a restaurant that has a line out the door then that restaurant is “growing” in their market.

Photo by  Wang Xi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Wang Xi on Unsplash

Conversely, people who are getting older or have stopped learning are thought of as “dying.” Organizations that are not expanding then they are “dying.” Businesses that no longer have that line around the block are “dying.”

Because you are either growing or dying.

The Truth is, nothing is growing OR dying. Everything is growing AND dying at the same time.

Every person, regardless of age or stage, is growing and dying at the same time. The one who is learning a lot may be growing intellectually but they also are experiencing a death of previously understood ideas. The organization that is growing in numbers is also dying to previous ways of doing things. The business that is growing in market share is also dying to the intimacy they had.

Philosophers such as Hannah Arendt describe a “natality.” In addition to how philosophers speak of natalities, we may begin to think of natality as the other side of fatality. Where fatality is about dying, natality is about birth. For every fatality there is a simultaneous natality and for every natality there is a simultaneous fatality.

The question is not are you growing or dying but how are you growing AND dying.

The Church is beginning to embrace the very message that she has proclaimed for 2000 years in that the Church is not dying. It is dying and being born. It is declining and growing. It is contracting and expanding.

Tyranny of Metrics

Jerry Muller's book, The Tyranny of Metrics, examines how fixating on creates a number of problems. The author states:, 

This book is not about the evils of measuring. It is about the unintended negative consequences of trying to substitute standardized measures of performance for personal judgment based on experience. The problem is not measurement, but excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement—not metrics, but metric fixation.

The book reads as a cautionary tale for the Church. The more the Church reads reports that "our numbers are in decline" the tighter we cling to metrics. As the Church faces a legitimacy and relevancy crisis in the culture, there is a temptation to fixate on metrics as a way to show legitimacy and relevancy. 

As the author says, metrics are not evil. It is difficult to diagnose a problem if there are not some measurements we can look at over time to make adjustments. It was once said to me that the numbers we look at in the church are similar to the numbers a doctor looks at when you go in for a check up. These "check up" numbers do not tell you everything about your health, but they are a starting point. If your breathing is consistently slow it could mean you are a super healthy marathoner but it could also mean you are close to death.

It is the fixation on metrics that is creeping into the Church that is a cause for concern. 

So what does metric fixation look like? Muller describes it in this way:

  • The belief that it is possible and desirable to replace judgment, acquired by personal experience and talent, with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardized data (metrics)
  • The belief that making such metrics public (transparent) assures that institutions are actually carrying out their purposes (accountability)
  • The belief that the best way to motivate people within these organizations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance, rewards that are either monetary (pay-for-performance) or reputational (rankings)

Paradoxically using metrics as the means to gain a sense of clarity of a situation and using metrics as the primary measure of success creates misaligned incentives. For instance, the surgeon who wants to have more patients may talk about how many successful surgeries they have preformed. However, what she/he fails to communicate is that the they only take cases that have a high probably of success to begin with. Thus the "successful' surgeon may not who you want for your complicated surgery. This example might be called, "creaming" the numbers. That is the surgeon counts only the "cream of the crop." The patient and the surgeon have misaligned incentives. 

Muller points out a series of reoccurring flaws in using metrics:

  1. Measuring the things that are easy to measure (such as people in worship) 
  2. Measuring inputs (such as money) over outcomes (such as a transformed life)
  3. Creaming (counting only the best)
  4. Lowering standards (calling a gathering a worship, then add those numbers to weekly worship total)
  5. Omitting or distorting data (such as double counting a person who attends more than worship hour on Sunday)
  6. Cheating (such as when the preacher adds to the numbers because "it felt like there were more people there...")

The reality is metric fixation is killing clergy and creating cultures where churches are dominantly assessed through what is easily counted rather than through the Spirit. How we overcome metric fixation is a difficult but not impossible process. Metrics are only a small picture of reality, but because it is a number it weighted heavier. Metrics give the impression of concreteness and accessibility to situations that are ambiguous and complex. There is a desire to simplify the complexities of the world giving us a false sense of control and understanding. 

Fixating on metrics means that when a church provides their "check up" numbers, we forget that sometimes the heartbeat of the church looks good because there is a pacemaker modifying the heartbeat. Just because a church looks strong in the metrics might mean they are "juicing" in subtle (and even purely motivated) ways. Just because a church looks weak in the metrics does not mean that the church is dying or failing. 

And even if it is dying, the Church of Jesus Christ is not dead for too long because Sunday is coming. 

Marketing the Most Undesirable Thing Ever

Just after the table of contents of Richard Rohr's book Everything Belongs, we find this statement/poem entitled Inherent Unmarketability

How do you make attractive that which is not?
How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability and non-success?

How do you talk about descent when everything is about ascent?
How can you possibly market letting-go in a capitalist culture?
How do you present Jesus to a Promethean mind?
How do you talk about dying to a church trying to appear perfect?
This is not going to work
(which might be my first step).

The book is about contemplative prayer and how it is a great gift given to us but often not appreciated in the Western expression of the Church. These questions push against the temptation of the Church (and her leaders) to be more relevant and spectacular and powerful.

"How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability and non-success?" 

You can't. 

The Gospel is not something we sell. It is not something that has a slick marketing campaign and it is not something that comes with guaranteed success, wealth, and/or luxury. It is the very thing that calls us to abandon those idols and leads us to the cross. For it is through the cross, where we die to ourselves, that we place our hope. 

Success in the Church is just different. It looks like broken and contrite spirits. It looks like mercy and not sacrifice. It looks like doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

That sort of life does not get you famous or many followers. It may even be considered unsuccessful. 

But success is not what we are hoping for. We are hoping for resurrection.

Three Temptations of Jesus - Relevancy, Spectacular, Powerful

Henri Nouwen writes in his book In the Name of Jesus there are three temptations Jesus faces in the desert with Satan. He frames them as:

Photo by  Darius Soodmand  on  Unsplash
  • Relevancy - turning stones into bread
  • Spectacular - leaping off the temple
  • Powerful - bowing to satan

Why is being spectacular a temptation? Nouwen writes about "after six years of training and formation, I was considered well equipped to preach, administer the sacraments, counsel, and run a parish. I was made to feel like a man sent on a long, long hike with a huge backpack containing all the things necessary to help the people I would meet on the road."

As he walked on this road, he discovered ht "did not have the power to draw thousands of people" and "could not make many conversations" or "were not as popular with the youth, the young adults or the elderly." Despite these truths, he still felt like he should have been able to do it all and do it successfully.

Many clergy feel that we have to be spectacular in order to grow the church. We are told to preach the best sermons each week, visit every person at home, respond to each crisis with care, speak truth to power, maintain boundaries and uphold a spiritual life while developing vibrant children's ministry and keep those graduating youth involved in the church. And if the church is not growing then we are failing.

So pastors and churches are tempted to do something spectacular that grabs the attention of people for a while. Of course when people respond to the spectacular there is the temptation to keep on doing the spectacular, so we do. One day our spectacular comes to an end and we crash. The pastor and church feel dejected and because numbers drop and people do not show up. When this happens clergy and churches grow in anxiety and fear of death.

The spectacular is tempting because it works to draw people in, but often the spectacular points people to elevate the the pastor or Church and overlook Jesus. The humble pastor and humble church are neither relevant or spectacular but are often called ineffective or bad thus adding pressure to fall into the temptation.