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For Churches and Religious Organizations: Do Ratings and Lists Matter?

Should we be competing over the size of our churches?

Over the years, various magazines have published annual lists of the fastest growing churches in America, the largest churches, and other similar stats. In the non-profit and ministry space, there are similar lists based on size, income, outreach, etc. I understand the desire to know who’s doing what, but outside of IRS or governmental regulations, do lists really matter?

After all, if we’re supposed to be a counter-cultural force in the world, why do we keep using the same metrics the world does to measure our effectiveness?

First, many of those lists are generated from data supplied by the churches themselves. But in many cases, that data is suspect. I once was asked to work with a church who year after year was at the top of the “fastest growing churches in America” list. But what I saw during my visits completely contradicted that statistic. So I called the magazine and suggested they do some fact checking. Sure enough, the next year, the church was dropped completely. Apparently the church had been spiking the numbers to look better. Good thing, because within a year or so, the pastor announced his divorce, membership kept dwindling, and soon after, the facilities went up for sale. So within less than two years, the church went from being the fastest growing church in America to selling their building. While not every situation is that dramatic, any researcher can tell you that these types of reports are often suspect.

Second – and even more important – is that our assignment on the earth is different than Apple, Google, or Bank of America. It’s even different than United Way, the American Cancer Society, or the Red Cross. Central to our mission is the message of the cross. We aren’t of this world.

We should be countercultural.

And yet we measure our work the same ways everyone else does. The bigger the church, the more successful we think it is. The more stations a media ministry is on, the better we believe it is. The more money people give to us, the “more effective” we believe we are. A pastor with a bestselling book is more popular.

Any suggestions for this dilemma? I’m not sure how to measure the work of a church – or if we need to “measure” it at all. But either way, if we’re going to make an impact in the culture, our standards need to be different from McDonalds.

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  1. In our church, we measure our “success” or effectiveness by the number of lives we touch and help.  Now, bear in mind, our attendance on Sundays fluctuates between 15 and 25, generally speaking.  We don’t even spike that much during Easter and Christmas.  But we are committed to social programs.  We had 40-50 kids at last year’s Vacation Bible School and some of them and their parents joined and some stop by on a more erratic basis.  Some lives touched. 

    But we ran a Job & Ecomonic Fair earlier this year.  There was no charge for admission – for “customers” or vendors.  We had 25 non-profit and government agencies across the area came – Freddie Mac even flew in from Virginia – and manned tables.  Almost 100 people came into our little church and spoke to the various agencies.  In the end, we helped hal;f a dozen of them with potential jobs, twice that with housing issues and double that finding “lost” money (, getting rental assistance and continuing their education.  The vendors all donated various gift cards and kitsch, for a giveaway basket that ended up valued at around $150, mostly in gas and grocery cards that went to a needy family.

    Now, we only had a couple of these folks return to our church Sunday morning, but we consider it a huge success.  The vendors want to know when we’re doing another one and we have a similarly-styled Health Fair scheduled for January (we have lots of retirees and people without insurance).

  2. Yes, do we need to “measure” at all? I think all too often Churches/Ministries measure success by how many baptisms they have, how big their congregation is, etc. What Churches/Ministries should really be focused on is (forgive my terminology) building “quality” Christians. Once we have Christians who eminate Christ, “quantity” will naturally follow.

  3. This is a great post, Phil. I do think we, as Christians need to have some type of measurment – but as you said, it’s not necessarily the same as what fortune 500 companies use. I think about the prophet Jeremiah. God gave him the task of spreading His message and told him, that overall the people won’t listen and he’d have a hard time. Jeremiah kept doing what God wanted him to do, even though the ‘numbers’ didn’t follow. If we looked at his ministry, through our usual standards of measurement today, we’d conclude that Jeremiah was a failure. However, God would say that Jeremiah was successful. He was definitely counter-cultural.
    Allen Paul Weaver III
    Author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers
    and Speedsuit Powers (August 2009)

  4. A few years ago, I heard the leader of a church’s denomination outline how their church-growth strategy paralleled McDonald’s business plan.  All I could think was, "that’s the best you can do?"


  5. This is a trickey subject.  On one side, we can’t measure the way some businesses do in terms of ROI (return on investment) or in advertising "cost per point."  The cost per soul is and always will be priceless.  Can’t be measured.

     But on the other side I think we have to unpack the term "counter cultural."  If we mean that we are always going against the grain of a hedonistic, self centered cultural environment then I’m with you 100%.  But if that term means that we don’t have to be accountable and have no real way of measuring effectiveness and impact (essentially an excuse for sloppiness) then I’m not with you.

    As a producer pitching many ideas to Christian networks, the conversation would always get very challenging whenever I asked how many people were being reached.  No one could really tell me.  Without some kind of measurement that is independent as opposed to being anecdotal, we’re lost and our programing/activity will lack relevance.  Or in a church setting I’ve had people get very nervous when I asked for independent medical data to verify a healing.

    Data is not just quantative it’s qualitative.  What kind of audience is this?  How responsive are they?  What do they value? How do they think?  How do they behave? Without that knowledge we don’t know who we’re reaching.  We’re lost.

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