Jason Byassee: Measuring faithfulness?

Can you really measure faithfulness, or even effectiveness, in ministry? Perhaps. So why the ill-at-ease feeling about the idea?

I remember the first shout of outrage I had at the idea of measuring ministry. I was a leader in InterVarsity, an evangelical campus ministry, and we had to fill out an annual performance form. “How many converts have you made this year?” A benign enough question, one would think, from evangelicals—who by definition are out to convert people.

“What?! Are you serious? How on earth can we reduce what we do to number of converts? Are we McDonalds?”

My friends tried to talk me down. The sheet measured other things—small groups, freshman members. There were even some open lines for mentioning intangible things. I wasn’t having it. “These Midwestern businessmen who fund us just want to know what they’re getting for their money,” I said. Is it any wonder I went into the mainline instead of evangelical ministry?

Now measurement has followed me into the mainline. It may have never left. Methodists measured everything fastidiously from our first days, even got our name from others thinking how silly it is that we thought there was a method to holiness. A recent Faith & Leadership article details the way Will Willimon, my mentor in ministry, is pushing numerical means to measure fruit-bearing among his clergy in north Alabama. He told me once, “I’m not sure they’ll remember me fondly around here.” He was proud of it. I know why now.

In one sense I think he’s right. Christianity is meant to grow. We have a world-saving message, and we’re commanded by Christ to go and tell. Churches that aren’t growing are signs that something is wrong. And bishops have ledgers full of churches that aren’t growing.

On the other hand, Ken Carder and James Howell are right to insist also on less numerical and more intangible measures of faithfulness. Willimon would not disagree—but for a church that’s lost millions in just decades a bump up in the numbers might help. Notice Carder and Howell don’t go as far as my youthful critique of evangelicalism—that numbers are meaningless, or even contrary to measures of faithfulness.

Those who fear numeric measurements are not necessarily just excusing ineffectiveness with piety. Some fear that we’ll do whatever is necessary to be popular and leave behind the gospel in the process. We all know the critique of the megachurch by now: you play down Christian specificity to attract people who look and sound just like you. I remember a secular review on a blog of Willow Creek Church outside Chicago. What’s not to like? It asked. The coffee’s good, the parking is plenteous, the space is aesthetically pleasing, the show up front is terrific. Where else do you get this sort of entertainment on Sunday mornings? No need for Jesus, of course.

My sense is the day for that critique has passed. Even Willow is pushing social justice now. Nobody thinks numbers alone do the trick. But more leaders, like Willimon, are saying numbers are necessary, that without growth something is wrong. And on that score it’s hard to disagree.

Jason Byassee is an executive director for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.