By Will Thomas
All churches count “noses” and “nickels.” That’s a good thing. Most of the time, attendance and finances provide a helpful barometer of what’s happening. But other factors also matter. Churches count what they do because they can. The harder-to-measure goals may too often remain hidden beneath the surface.
Some churches look beyond the obvious. All churches could. In fact, looking beyond the obvious is probably one of the common characteristics of larger, growing churches. They know numbers for the sake of numbers seldom lead anywhere. Their leaders know a big church needs a big foundation. Churches that have grown large and stayed that way over time have found ways to look deeper and monitor other factors that matter.
Contrary to what some cynics argue, most large churches didn’t get that way by compromising their message or accommodating the latest corporate fad. Nor did most start large. They grew large because they did some things right—important things.
Measuring a church is like going to the doctor. Every visit starts the same way. The nurse takes your weight, height, and blood pressure. But the doctor doesn’t stop there. The doctor listens, probes, and queries. A good exam never stops with the simple weight and blood pressure checks.
Churches of all sizes could benefit from a more comprehensive exam. Church leaders might want to assess a few of the factors that are harder to measure. After checking worship attendance and financial statistics, what else could a serious church consider in order to monitor its true health and vitality?
Here are five markers of a healthy church. No congregation will shine in all five areas, but at least two or three are a must. Progress begins with asking the right questions.
The Harvest Test
How many lost people have come to a personal trust in Christ alone as a result of the church’s efforts? Of course, the transfer of believers from other congregations matters. So does the conversion of members’ younger children. But these internal factors don’t really measure a church’s outreach. To the contrary, such things can create a distorted perception of what’s really happening. Research suggests more than half of the more than 350,000 congregations in the United States fail to win a single convert in any given year. Surely a healthy church will do better—much better!
Once a church begins to think and pray about the “harvest test,” leaders can begin the hard work of developing a strategy for the future.
The Generational Test
How many of the young adults who grew up in the church and were a part of its ministry 10 years ago are still practicing followers of Jesus today, regardless of where they live? This may require some investigation. Needless to say, following up on student ministry “alumni” may not be easy. But imagine what revealing information a few “exit interviews” with former students might provide.
The “generational test” assumes youth ministry aims at outcomes, not just participation. If so, a simple head count at last week’s event could be misleading. No church maintains 100 percent of its young. But if the “fall away” is too high, leaders need to ask some hard questions. A better tomorrow begins with an accurate exam today.
The Leadership Test
How many new ministers, missionaries, Bible teachers, elders, or other significant leaders have been produced by the congregation in the last 10 years? Some congregations produce leaders. Some consume the leaders produced by others. Every minister, minister’s wife, and missionary grew up in somebody’s congregation. Why not yours? Healthy churches produce local and global leaders.
The recruitment and training of leaders may be formal or it could be organic. But it seldom happens by accident. It begins as a prayer, then a goal, and ultimately a plan. But none of that happens until leadership development is part of the measure of a church.
How many individuals in the church are demonstrating significant, observable, positive spiritual growth? This can be a difficult thing to assess. But two measurable areas of growth are worth a close look. How many individuals are newly involved in praying with others? How many tithing now weren’t tithing last year?
There are no doubt other important (perhaps even more important) areas of life change. But any meaningful area of spiritual change should be observable and measurable. Subjective evaluations or claims without accompanying actions seldom reveal any helpful information. These two indicators meet both criteria by providing clear evidence of movement in a believer’s inner spiritual life.
The Multiplication Test
How many other gospel-preaching churches have been launched through the direct, intentional efforts of the congregation in the last 10 years? This might be a solo effort or a result of teamwork with other congregations. The multiplication could be nearby or at a distance. It might be a multisite project, which has become more common in recent years.
One thing is clear: healthy congregations reproduce themselves—on purpose. Analyses demonstrate an indisputable fact—long-term, sustained, cultural-impacting kingdom growth takes place when new congregations are planted and multiplied.
How does your congregation measure up? Remember, few congregations, even the healthiest, do well in all areas all the time. But strong, high-impact, effective congregations should expect to do well in some of these five areas and strive to do well in all.
Celebrate what you are doing well! Then evaluate. Try to discover the keys to the success so that those strengths can be leveraged in other areas.
Knowing the areas to work on is the first step. But knowing the areas of needed improvement is helpful only if that knowledge leads to planned change. Prayer-filled planning and goal setting are the necessary follow-through.
Here’s the process: measure, evaluate, act, and evaluate again—all the time praying. When that takes place, good things happen.
That’s the real measure of any church, large or small.
Will Thomas is a retired teacher and freelance writer living in Darien, Illinois.