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Numbers or stories?

As an organization grows and industrializes, it’s tempting to simplify things for the troops. Find a goal, make it a number and measure it until it gets better. In most organizations, the thing you measure is the thing that will improve.

Colleges decided that the SAT were a useful shortcut, a way to measure future performance in college. And nervous parents and competitive kids everywhere embraced the metric, and stick with it, even after seeing (again and again) that all the SAT measures is how well you do on the SAT. It’s easier to focus on one number than it is to focus on a life.

Measurement is fabulous. Unless you’re busy measuring what’s easy to measure as opposed to what’s important.   (Read Seth Godin’s post in its entirety here.)

Several months ago I measured the ministry of my congregation by adding up how many members are serving in a church-numbersrelated ministry role. Imagine my joy (oh, all right…my pride) when I discovered that 75% are serving! I sure couldn’t wait to announce that number, given the typical 80/20 rule of most churches: 80% of the ministry being done by 20% of the congregation.

But in reality, that measurement is not as impressive as it sounds. We are a small parish. Very small. If only 20% served, we would struggle to even have a worship service each Sunday! There would be no nursery, no children’s church, probably no music. By necessity, almost everyone in my parish has to step up and serve just so that we can have what is considered the bare minimum in most churches.

The truth is that what goes on inside the walls of a church is not the true measure of life-changing ministry. It is certainly not a credible measurement of the spiritual health of individual believers. But it is a whole lot easier to measure that kind of ministry than it is to measure spiritual health. And so we do. How many people are serving in church-related activities? How many people are in Sunday school? How many kids attend VBS? How many adults are in a small group? This is what many  churches typically measure. But what do these numbers really tell us?

Numbers are not a reflection of spiritual health. Stories are. Like the one I heard a few days ago: Sarah is one of our toddler church teachers, who works closely with our two nursery workers. Both have just finished college and are moving on to the next phase of their lives, so Sarah invited them to her home for dinner to celebrate their ministry with us. Sarah saw her ministry as coming alongside these lovely young women to encourage them in their faith as they step into adulthood.

Another story I heard recently involved two young families, one in need of a microwave and the other selling a microwave. The couple selling shared that they were selling all their “extra stuff” to raise money to adopt a child. The couple purchasing decided to give them more than the asking price because they, too, would like to adopt one day. The first couple insisted on giving the second couple the microwave as a “down payment for their future adoption fund.”

I don’t really know how to measure that kind of spiritual health, but I’m certain that it can’t be measured with numbers, with how many serve or how many attend. And I’m equally certain that I prefer those two stories of loving ministry to the comparatively cold 75% statistic I came up with when I did my head count!

So, what are you measuring?

When is the last time you heard a good ministry story?

When is the last time you shared one?


4 thoughts on “Numbers or stories?

  1. Very inspiring post Andee! Well done! Numbers are not the whole pictures and numbers may help some in a congregation count that the risk and uncomfortableness is worth it, but stories like this are really what help change a culture and show how not just the church is changing but how the change is impacting individuals. “The church is not a building… THE CHURCH IS THE PEOPLE!”

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