Measuring by Jesus

Posted on January 7th, 2013

My great-grandfather used to repeat a rather irritating and somewhat tactless joke. You could depend on hearing it when out for a drive. If Gramps passed a cemetery, he would ask his traveling companions: “How many dead people are buried over there?” More often than not, some sucker would frantically start counting headstones. Then Gramps would interrupt: “They’re all dead!”

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate one thing about this obnoxious attempt at humor. At least my great-grandfather recognized the difference between mindless counting and the reality being measured. Followers of Jesus could learn something from this distinction. Today’s church loves so-called “metrics,” quantifiable outcomes, and statistical precision. Movements that are in decline often do. Something has to be done (and quick) to turn the institution around. Many herald a rush to measurement as the only hope for renewal.

A lot of Christians are now preoccupied with some kind of argument over metrics. In fact, to raise caution regarding measurement will get one labeled an enemy of positive change or a slacker. Not so fast. Measurement is not a bad thing, but it does require very careful reflection.

Clear thought is often about grasping distinctions that matter – understanding the differences, as well as the relationships, between various principles. Here are three distinctions to consider when pondering the importance of measurement in church and society. 

Power and Value

Over one hundred years ago, a well-respected teacher of ethics said that there are basically two ways to determine moral obligation. One way calculates the kind of end desired by action. The other way stresses the value of those receiving our action. The first emphasizes subjective prerogative and our ability to determine outcomes. The second emphasizes the objective worth of others. These two are not automatically in conflict, but when a desire for outcomes uses others, something is wrong.

Our passion for measuring success and failure in the church can violate the values we claim to respect. Add ecclesiastical power to the mix and things get especially troublesome. Those in positions of privilege are seldom shy about defining objectives for others, and there is a definite privilege associated with church leadership positions. Yet this identification of desired outcomes does not always reflect the gospel. Those without power can become pawns in the drive for measurable results. Call me eccentric, but I’ll hold myself accountable to the objective, God-determined value of others before seeking to please the privileged.

Survival and Purpose

None of the distinctions I mention are really about the church. They are rooted in a larger struggle erupting throughout our culture. We’ve had enough insider angst over survivability among the various denominations. Quite honestly, we’ve already spent way too much energy worrying about whether this or that expression of the church will continue. The language of measurement and outcomes is often not so much a courageous response to the world as it is an insecure attempt to mimic the world. Perhaps if we strike a bargain with “trending” values we can hang on a little longer.

Let’s face it, few outside the church care if our respective denominations live or die, and I don’t blame them. Time and again my friends (many non-Christian) tell me that they could care less about fashionable attempts to attract them. If anything, they want Christians to be – well, Christian. By that they mean loving in the way that Jesus taught. I work with some hardboiled characters, and they tell me that the only thing that gets their attention is a life well lived. They admire unceremoniously compelling people. They say that such examples challenge and invite them into a more meaningful life. The last thing these friends respond to is one more “brand” concerned about its survival. They know when they are valued because of their intrinsic worth and when they are being considered targets of some organizational agenda.

Doing and Being

Perhaps the best gift the church has to offer the world is a conscious distinction between doing and being. It is important for faithful people to act, but an uncritical stress on measurement can value people only when they contribute to desired outcomes. What happens when people fail? What happens when they get sick? What happens when they age? What happens when people can no longer produce the results desired by institutional leaders? What happens when the church operates as if our very worth is determined by our works instead of God’s grace?

This is no excuse for sloppy commitment. Those who know Jesus and his redemption will be moved to bear the fruit of love. Yet a church that assigns value based on desired results is no longer the Church of Jesus Christ.

I’ll admit that there is a tantalizing danger in living toward others a love that refuses to calculate outcomes. We just might end up with a church full of people – broken, bruised, wounded people. People like me and you. People like those put off by self-righteous obsession with budgets and strategic plans. We might end up with all kinds of people wanting “in.” We may not know how to handle the movement, how to control it, how to make sure that it conforms to our expectations. It might no longer be about us!

Unconditional love? Lord knows people don’t experience much of that in our culture. Lord knows they seldom experience it among the church. There has never been a time in human history when the gospel is more relevant, more deeply appealing, and more promising than today. But we will have to get out of God’s way.

Holding ourselves accountable as disciples of Jesus is critical. Making sure that we keep track of important things is necessary. Challenging one another to do the best we can with the best news our world will ever know is a must. But let’s be careful how we measure things.      

Our college once hosted a Holocaust survivor who labored in a broom factory as a child. He considered himself relatively lucky because as long as he could work, he would not be sent to a death camp. Rules stated that workers in the factory had to be twelve years of age, but he was only ten. One day a sadistic supervisor threatened to report him, but this enterprising boy argued that he was producing the same number of brooms as the adults and eating only half the food ration. The “logic” worked and kept him alive for the war’s duration.

We should think very clearly before we presume to calculate value, and we should honor the worth of ALL people before we attempt to measure anything.

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