The Power and Pitfalls of Metrics

This is reproduced from a podcast done with the Malphurs Group. You can view it and other great resources here.

We all want our churches to be healthy. We want them to bear fruit and be strong enough to hold out hope in a world that is seemingly turning against Christianity. But how healthy is your church? We all swap stories and look for evidence that the vision is being enacted… but is that good enough? In fact, that question: “is this good” is a curious question to ponder as we reflect on the flock of people that God has entrusted to us. 

It is in this context of querying the health of our churches that metrics have real potential to help us explore what is happening. But where there is power in metrics to help us, there are pitfalls we ought to be aware of.

The Power of Metrics

The task of pastoring is broad, complex and overbearing at times. Sometimes we forget the simplicity of what’s important. Metrics can help bring that focus back. 

When Jesus used the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus expects that every shepherd would seek out that lost sheep: “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4). Of course we would seek the one. But I wonder if our question is “who is the one”. How might we give focus to individuals and their stories while pastoring many?

Metrics help you explore basic aspects of health and give focus to your leadership as you seek the growth of your church. 

There’s another important aspect to focus on: sharpening alignment of the variations of the perceived measure and pursuit of health. I wonder what might result if you asked your staff team: “are we doing well?”. You’ll get different answers, perhaps even rightly pushing back against the question itself! But my point is, every individual has a particular version of “good” in their head. This is because they might have different responsibilities but they also see and hope for different things. What if you were able to join stories and goals with a more objective set of metrics? What if those metrics promoted a more unified focus on what is happening and longed for in your church? This can make a profound difference to the leadership of a ministry team.

The Pitfalls of Metrics

This being said, we so easily turn that which is good into something that competes with God. There are several pitfalls to using metrics. Each pitfall is simply a perverted version of the good so you’ll do well to keep these things in focus to avoid the pitfalls:

Health is more comprehensive than numbers, but not necessarily less than

The health of your church is so beautifully multi-faceted and personal (since the church is the people!) that it is sadly reductionistic to sum it up in a few dials and graphs! Not only that, but real-time metrics, like member regularity, are only qualitative metrics.

Other metrics like measuring someone’s transformation are much harder to assess and are fraught with further reductionistic problems in even trying to measure it. Every metric represents a story of a person and it’s our job to pastor people not simply to move the dial. But if we pastor well then God willing, the growth might just come.

To expand on this idea, attendance, for example, could represent someone’s engagement at your church, which might be an indicator of where they’re at in their discipleship journey. So keep a wholistic view of “weighing disciples” and not just counting attendance… but don’t not count attendance either! Have the leadership conversation from the basic metrics and shepherd richly.

Don’t simply chase numbers, chase your “first love”

Perhaps one of the scariest statements Jesus could make to a church is what He says to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:

“[2] I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance… [4] Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.”

You could imagine their metrics would have been fantastic… and yet there is a catastrophic emptiness behind them. Because health is more comprehensive (but not necessarily less than) metrics, we must ensure that our love for Christ is our primary source and goal in our ministries. It’s likely the metrics would eventually show the emptiness of a loveless church (when for example, the “lampstand” is taken away v5). At that point, it will be too late.

It is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6) so let’s pray in every endeavor and give God the glory for every piece of fruit shown to us by metrics or any other way.

It is worth facing the numbers but our worth runs deeper

Leadership authors like Jim Collins exhort us to “face the brutal facts”. Sometimes the numbers are going to show us our worst fears. We all want to see health and growth. We need to know where we’re starting from to lead well – so the leadership wisdom is helpful. But the challenge with leading a church being informed by metrics is that we’ll naturally entertain the narrative that our leadership is deficient when the trends turn away from our hopes.

We’ll be served well if we remember that such metrics don’t necessarily represent the whole story. We ought to learn from the failure of the church growth movement to run the church by the numbers entirely. How many of God’s chosen leaders saw little fruit but worked faithfully according to God’s plan for them and those they ministered to?

In this way metrics simply help us be aware of what’s happening and our holy discontent ought to urge us to lean more into God for both fruit and our worth. Your worth is so much richer than “the performance” of the church you’re serving in… But don’t be lazy and unaware either!

Garbage in garbage out!

Sometimes our databases can look like the spare room of our house. It’s a dangerous thing to pretend it’s all clean by putting a nice curtain over it all. It’s just too easy to use something like Growing Healthier Churches to present some nice-looking trends but it will be garbage (and dangerous garbage!) if your data is garbage!

That’s why we’ve spent time working out how to best present the data so spurious information is exposed rather than hidden. One of the most frequent things we hear from people using our platform is “oh wow I need to clean up our data.” This question is then followed with “and I know where to start.”

What does good look like?

Using an off the shelf product like GHC has already gone to some length in answering the question of “what does good look like”? Ensure you’ve done the hard work to answer that question biblically and in the context of the church God has called you so that metrics might sit in your pastoral leadership.