By Matt Merold
In every hospital room, sitting right by the patient’s bed, is an electronic vital signs monitor. Most of these monitors display the four main vital signs that are regularly checked by medical professionals.
A vital signs monitor is a quick and simple way to assess the patient’s current health. Body temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure, respiration rate—if all four of these are in the normal range, the patient is assumed to be stable and healthy.
Based mostly on vital signs, a physician will describe the patient’s condition with just one word: good, fair, serious, critical, or dead.
Every church leadership should have a quick and simple way to assess the congregation’s health at any moment. However, most do not.
If you were asked, “How is your church doing?” how would you describe its present condition? Good, fair, serious, critical, or, sadly, dead?
I’ve discovered most churchgoers don’t know the true state of their congregation.
Count and Compare
In some ways, it’s understandable that the average churchgoer doesn’t really know the condition of their congregation. But it’s reckless for a church leader not to know. I think most church leaders need an unbiased assessment of their congregation’s health, but from my observation, most are not keeping track of metrics that matter.
Keeping track of quantitative and qualitative data can help you accurately assess the health of the church you serve. To be fair, most leaders know if attendance is up or down, but they don’t know by how much, how little, or whether a trend is forming. It’s just a Sunday-to-Sunday thing, and sometimes it’s just a feeling . . . like the preacher who says, “The auditorium felt full.”
As church leaders, it’s important to have a vital signs monitor—a set of metrics that can simply and quickly give you the condition of the congregation.
The quantitative vital signs I routinely check are baptisms, offering, and attendance.
These three metrics provide a quick snapshot of congregational health, especially when compared to the previous year or previous quarter. You can quickly assess whether the congregation is making disciples (baptisms), has bought in (offering), and is growing (attendance).
I encourage you to at least keep track of three metrics every week and compare them week-to-week and year-over-year to get a true sense of the condition of the congregation. By the way, these numbers probably should be kept on a spreadsheet and not displayed on a wall in the sanctuary or foyer. (Remember those days?)
Some say, “I don’t want to become overly focused on numbers; people are what’s really important.” I agree, but hear me: People are so important they should be counted and identified.
Counting people is important; at least God thinks so. How many people were baptized after Peter preached the gospel in Acts 2? How many people did Jesus miraculously feed near Bethsaida? How much money did the leaders of Israel offer to God to build the temple in 1 Chronicles 29? Someone was counting!
I’m not suggesting you count because you have numeric goals for attendance or baptisms. I have heard of pastors and leadership teams having goals for baptisms, which seems shortsighted. Can you imagine the apostles in a boardroom strategizing a numeric goal for total baptisms before Peter preached in Acts 2? Do you think Peter said something like, “I’m not going to stop preaching until we have 3,000 respond to be baptized”?
The idea is to keep a simple count because it’s a quick measure of health or decline.
So, based on the three major vital signs (attendance, baptism, offering), what is the condition of your congregation? Don’t know? Get counting!
Before I go further, let me remind you that unhealthy things can grow too. Doctors can describe the patient’s condition as good based on the vital signs, yet the patient’s body or mental state could be rapidly deteriorating.
The same can be true of churches. A congregation can have a good number of baptisms, a substantial amount of money, and explosive growth, yet the culture of the church could be unhealthy. It could be failing in the mission to which Christ has called us.
Measure What Matters
Making disciples is the primary mission of the church.
What the world needs most, right now, are healthy churches that are making disciples who make disciples.
So, are you making disciples? How do you know? Can you even track disciple-making at your church?
If you are strictly looking at the three quantitative vital signs listed above, I don’t think you’ll be able to discern whether your church is making disciples.
I’m a part of a learning community through Renew.org. I recently heard Bobby Harrington say, “We can only ‘make disciples’ if we know what a disciple is and how to make one.”
We define a disciple as someone who is following Jesus, is committed to the mission of Jesus, and is being transformed by the example of Jesus.
When Jesus called believers to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), he didn’t distinctly identify what a disciple looks like. However, Jesus did provide a simple pathway for how to make one.
In the Great Commission, Jesus clearly asserted that the first step of making a disciple is to baptize them. The branch is dead and powerless when it’s not connected to the vine.
If you are witnessing baptisms at your church, you can be sure you are witnessing the first part of disciple-making.
But disciple-making isn’t an event, it’s a development.
In Matthew 28, Jesus continued instructing that disciples are to be taught to obey what Christ has commanded. A disciple is receptive enough to learn and humble enough to obey the teaching and commands of Jesus.
Jesus concluded by saying he will be with us to the very end. A disciple must live by faith that Jesus is ever-present. This faith that Jesus is always with us should be on display in the life of a disciple.
I’ve heard it summed up this way: A disciple is becoming the kind of person Jesus would be. A disciple is learning to follow Jesus and learning to do the things Jesus did.
Disciple-making is not a pathway, though a pathway that intentionally positions people to pursue Jesus is important. It’s not a program, though programs such as classes or learning communities are needed. Nor is disciple-making a staff position. Churches are strengthening their staff with disciple-making ministers—and rightly so—but disciple-making is far more diverse than a staff person can administer.
The greatest metric of disciple-making is found in the number of disciples who are making disciples.
To measure if the congregation is making disciples, ask, How many people in the congregation are baptizing friends, family members, and co-workers? And even beyond baptism, how many in your congregation are leading people to follow Jesus? And beyond following Jesus, how many in your congregation are teaching others so that lives will be transformed by the example of Jesus?
It’s not an easy metric to measure; it’s more qualitative than quantitative. But you can determine whether a congregation is living out the commission Jesus gave to go and make disciples.
Disciple-making is a metric that should matter to every congregation because it matters to Jesus. We measure what matters. And if all we’re doing as congregations are measuring the vital signs, we’re likely measuring the wrong things.
The measurement for making disciples is not about how many mission trips someone has been on or how much biblical knowledge they’ve amassed. It’s not about how often someone is unleashing compassion on your community or serving in the church. Those things will all be the fruits of a true disciple. Jesus taught us that true disciples will be recognized by their fruit.
The metric that should matter most is this: Is the church making disciples who make disciples?
Measure the Metric that Matters Most
Here are four questions that, when answered, can assess the true health of a congregation. These questions will help you determine if the congregation is truly living out the Great Commission.
1. How many people are surrendering their life to follow Jesus? Sadly, according to Dann Spader in Disciple Making Metrics: How to Measure Your Effectiveness at Developing Disciple-Makers, the average congregation in the U.S. is witnessing only two to three conversions for every 100 believers a year. And around 50 percent of churches in the U.S are not witnessing any converts in their congregation each year.
2. How many people in the congregation are involved in a ministry of the church or ministry to the community? These are the people who are following Jesus—they are serving the Lord in the local church or serving the Lord through a parachurch ministry.
3. Who are the people leading others to follow Jesus? These are the folks who are constantly inviting friends to attend a church service or event. They are baptizing people because they have played an important role in the development of that person’s faith. Like the apostle Paul, these people are encouraging others to follow their example as they follow the example of Christ.
4. Who in the congregation are witnessing the one they led to faith now leading others to follow Jesus? These are the people who are part of a cycle of disciple-making.
Discover how many in your congregation are in all four of these metrics and you’ll begin to understand how your congregation is living out the commission of Jesus.
I was once led to believe that church health was found in the three vital signs that were presented earlier. Those vital signs are important, but they’re not as important as knowing if your congregation is making disciples.
This is the metric that matters most right now: Is the church making disciples who make disciples? Well, are you?
Matt Merold serves as lead pastor of Bethany Christian Church, with campuses in Washington and Vincennes, Indiana.