By Jim Estep
I hate going to the doctor. The first thing they ask me to do is step on the scale. Then, they take all the standard measurements: blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and oxygen level, among others. Finally, they ask, “So why are you here? How are you feeling?” I describe my ailment (while trying not to sound like a whiner). Doctors evaluate a person’s health based on some very objective (quantitative) measures as well as verbal (qualitative) descriptions.
A church’s health should be evaluated the same way. We need to remember the church is an organism, not an organization; it’s the body of Christ (Romans 7:4; 1 Corinthians 10:16; 12:27; Ephesians 4:12). Church health can be measured along a spectrum, from vibrant to plateaued to declining. A common mistake church leaders make is either not bothering to periodically assess the church’s health or to use only a few basic measures—like offering and attendance—that don’t provide a complete picture. It’s like skipping an annual physical until something goes wrong. The most frequent error, however, is asking the qualitative, “How does everyone feel?” and forgetting that the church’s mission is far more than just keeping everyone content, happy, or satisfied with status quo.
What Do We Measure?
Here’s a basic principle: Measure what matters. For this to be most effective, leaders need a dashboard—that is, a slate of figures that indicate the relative health of their congregation. What’s on the dashboard? Here are several items to consider tracking:
- Worship attendance . . . but if you have multiple services, track each one separately along with the total attendance.
- New members, both by baptism and transfer. In other words, where are new people coming from?
- Percentage of members attending more than worship (examples include small groups and other gatherings/activities).
- Outreach: Identify each member’s home address and map them to determine the “distance” of your church’s influence. Are portions of your community unreached?
- Giving . . . not just the total given, but also divided into giving units (such as how many families give, and how much the average family gives).
- Spending: What percentage of the budget goes toward external/evangelistic ministries vs. internal/discipleship ministries? The amount spent on discipleship almost always will be more, but if evangelism is being cut, the church’s health will eventually be impacted.
- Leadership: In terms of congregational leaders, elders, and leader volunteers (i.e., deacons), how long is their average tenure serving in those roles? Also, when were these people added to various leadership team roles? Is the leadership pool being refreshed or has it grown stagnant?
- Community match: A major (but worthwhile) endeavor is to compare the congregation’s demographics with those of the community. How well does the church reflect those within its reach? Perceptgroup.com can provide inexpensive demographic information relevant to the church’s location.
What Questions Should We Ask?
The next step to evaluating the church’s health is to ask the right questions.
Consider gathering a group of informed, involved members of the congregation for a dialogue. Ask the gathered group four basic questions, and without comment or judgment, write their responses on a whiteboard for all to see. The four questions: What’s right? What’s wrong? What’s confusing? What’s missing?
If you’re doing ministry right, keep doing it. If it’s wrong or ineffective, stop! If it’s confusing, clarify it for the congregation. If it’s missing, create it. Addressing these items is the start of a strategic plan toward a healthier future.
How Do We Adopt Healthier Practices?
Our ministry, e2, has a tool called The JumpStart Workbook that canassist in these matters. It focuses on four key elements of church health: evangelism, discipleship, next-generation ministry, and leadership development. It helps gather relevant information and then guides the analysis through the four questions suggested above. From this, church leaders can create a change initiative, a plan for how your church can have a healthier future. Diagnosis without prognosis is worthless. Determining what measures to take for a healthier future is essential for a church’s vitality and survival.
This process begins with leadership collecting and reviewing the data—the figures previously listed—for the past three to five years. As the data is reviewed, leaders may begin to see a pattern or trajectory: growth, plateau, or decline. Gather individuals who are involved and relevant to a particular ministry and share your insights with them. Share with them the challenge of making the church healthier. Pool their collective wisdom and insights. Be prepared to provide resources to facilitate buy-in so the congregation can move forward. Your church’s health is a matter of adopting healthier practices, so start today!
Jim Estep serves as founding dean of Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Institute and as event director with e2: effective elders.