Saturday afternoon, after spending a meeting with our God Squad mentors discussing what constitutes success, I came across this post from Jeremy Smith. Jeremy and I attended BU together, and he obviously has some of the same concerns about how success is measured in the church that the mentors and I do.
I am held accountable by the district superintendent and the bishop for numbers. They want to see us baptizing people, receiving new members by profession of faith (not just transfers) and having our average attendance increase. Unfortunately these numbers have not been followed as closely in the past as they probably should have been, and maybe now they are being emphasized too much, but that is one of the key criteria for success for the conference.
They are not the first to push numbers. Although in Jeremy's blog they mention Wesley, from the American perspective that push was done by Asbury, and disregard the comment from someone saying that was the reason why we have annual conference. He doesn't know what he's talking about. While that was a time in which numbers were reported it was not the reason for gathering. But, Asbury did hold his ministers accountable. If numbers did not increase on a circuit you better have a good reason why, and if it continued you would quickly find yourself without an appointment. While the goal was to "spread scriptural holiness across the land" it was measured by numbers.
Not much has changed except that now numbers are declining. But, Dr. David Hempton believes that even the numbers at the time of the Civil War (when the Methodists were the largest church in the country) gave a false sense of growth. Instead of being growth strictly from evangelism, he instead believes they reflected growth simply from new generations being born into the denomination from when the real expansion was going on. The motion of growth kept going long after the initial surge was over until it crested and began a downward trend. (think of Newton's first law)
Since that time, the Methodist and Wesleyan churches have continued to merge together which created another false sense of growth and size. In other words, we are reaping a trend which has been taking place for a long time. We are also now being guided and instructed on what to do by people who never really had to focus on church growth, but who feel the ability and necessity to tell us young clergy how it's done.
But back to the original question, how do we measure success? What I told the mentors was that there were two ways.
One is in bringing people into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. If we are doing that then we are being successful. The problem is that that is nearly impossible to measure in any true way. I can think of ways, such as daily scripture reading, prayer life, participating in worship and education classes, spiritual disciplines, etc., but I don't think that is the only way to measure these things, nor do I think these things necessarily mean a deeper relationship.
The other way to measure success is by numbers. If you have 15 kids showing up that is better than only 5. However, those numbers can be deceiving as well because if all you are doing is playing laser tag or Monopoly with the 15 kids than that is not a success. I have had the same debate with church growth. If we wanted to totally water down our theology and beliefs we could pack this sanctuary, but I don't think that is what we are here for. I think we could still pack this sanctuary at multiple services if we made some other changes that didn't fundamentally change our mission and message, but that is another post. What this means is that while numbers are clearly important they are not the only thing, and they need to be read in context, just like scripture.
I do think that when people are in love with Christ, or, in good Wesleyan language, are on fire, that they cannot contain that and will bring others to Christ and to church which means natural growth. Does that mean that all churches will always grow and grow? No, and I'm not sure that's necessarily healthy either. Cancer grows at amazing rates, but it's not a model I want to follow. Instead we should be looking for sustainable growth, and, that I think is the balance between looking at discipleship making and pure numbers. Just like with most aspects of our theology it is a natural tension and when it gets out of kilter, one way or the other, the system is bound to fail.