Scott Kline, a professional driver, managed to wreck a million-dollar prototype hybrid car when it was first being tested. When asked to explain what happened, Kline reported,
I got so engrossed looking at all the dials and gauges and screens on the dashboard that I forgot to look where I was going.
There is an important lesson in this word in this for our church — as “dashboards” to count and measure and track become the new toy we get all excited about in the church, we need to remember that collecting data and monitoring statistics has virtually nothing to do with making disciples of Jesus Christ. You cannot evaluate quality by focusing on quantity.
Our new “Vital Congregations” emphasis has all the marks of steering us in the wrong direction. While its leaders talk about “goal setting” and “missional objectives,” the underlying message is that numbers are the ultimate indicator of health and vitality. Having high blood pressure, myself, I can attest to the fact that large numbers are not always to be desired. Having MORE people, small groups, projects, pastors, ministries, and money seems, on the surface, to be a good thing. However, there is an implicit given that must be taken into consideration, and that is a presumed quality. The presumption that our future growth will all be high quality denies our current reality: if we’re not doing very well with what we already have, it is highly unlikely we will do better with more. A few examples:
Professions of Faith: it has long been assumed that we are doing our evangelical job if we can get non-Christians to drop the “non-” and become Christians. Good as far as it goes, but when I did my study of congregational vitality last decade, I found that the number of professions of faith is conditional on “sticking-power.” Four churches from the south-central jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church reported these numbers for a three-year period. Church A: 45 professions of faith; Church B: 49; Church C: 7; Church D: 9. By our current standards, Church B is doing the best job — and, by golly, they were featured in magazines and on websites. However, at the end of the three-year period, how many of the professions were still fully engaged and active in their congregation? Church A: 9 (20%); Church B: 7 (14%); Church C: 7 (100%); Church D: 8 (89%). If we focus on engagement and retention rate, then C is doing the best job with D dogging its heels. Integrity topples size. The number of professions is not as good an indicator as integration and staying power.