Resolved for 2022: affirm abundance, not scarcity

December 5th, 2021

The pandemic accelerated and amplified worrisome trends for many congregations. Church leaders are confronting the hard truth that parishioners who disengaged from church participation over the past eighteen months are slow to return, and many never will. This means decline in the most common metrics for evaluating congregational vitality, including worship attendance, small group participation, financial giving, and membership. 

These declines were trending before 2020, but the pandemic accellerated urgency. Churches face the unavoidable task of reevaluating the efficacy of their disciple-making systems and the actual metrics used to define effective discipleship. 

Our program staff went into a retreat to tackle this very question: What will effective disciple making look like at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in a post-pandemic, post-Christendom world, and how will we measure it? 

At the outset of our gathering, I offered a reflection to ground our work theologically and biblically. I reflected on three stories from the Gospels in which Jesus used numbers in relation to the task of spiritual formation. Each of them offered us principles to guide our conversation and reimagine a new kind of metric for evaluating discipleship. 

1. Feeding of the 5,000: operate out of a sense of abundance, not a perception of scarcity.

Remember, during any strategic conversation, that God has already given us the resources, creativity, and intellectual capital to meet the challenges of a post-COVID, post-Christendom world. This is an important but often overlooked principle for our congregation. God has given us everything we need, and we do not need to operate out of fear or scarcity. We already can be faithful, careful, and courageous stewards of God’s blessings. Jesus is saying to us, as he said to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

2. Parable of the lost sheep: look for the hidden “thing behind the thing.”

This story is often interpreted evangelistically, to remind us to seek out those who are lost and hurting. In the context of discussing the content and metrics of discipleship, the metaphor offers additional meaning: be willing to look beneath the more obvious, conventional metrics, in order to discover the more elusive, more significant indicators of spiritual maturity, congregational health, and community impact. Don’t fixate so much on the “99 sheep statistics” that we forget to look for the deeper, more personal, and more informative “1 sheep statistics.”

The late Junius Dotson (pastor and discipleship expert) differentiated between “counting” and “measuring.” Counting pertains to conventional statistics that answer “how many?” How many people in worship, how many dollars pledged or given, how many people in small groups, and so forth. We should also pay attention to measuring, which answers the questions, “how far, how deep, and how wide?” How far has a person come and how far do they have to go in their spiritual journey? How deep is a person’s faith, and how is it being lived out? How wide is our communal impact, and how deep are the relationships that we are forming with persons out in the community?  

To that end, he offered these examples of counting vs. measuring in his booklet, Measuring Discipleship:

  • Generosity. Focus less on the number of dollars given in a particular year, and more on change over time. Is giving to missions, for example, increasing from year to year? Who is increasing their giving and why? What is happening spiritually in that person, and might that indicate a trend among others?
  • Membership and presence: Focus less on the number of members and more on professions of faith—in particular, whether professions of faith are increasing over time. 
  • Worship attendance: Focus less on the number and more on the trend. Look for increased frequency of attendance of individual persons as a sign of spiritual maturity.
  • Invitations: Ask people to inform the church when they invite others to corporate worship; and track the invitations that lead to baptisms and professions of faith. Find out what draws visitors to your church and, more importantly, what brings them back again. What are they seeking spiritually? Might that indicate a trend in your community? 
  • Community engagement: Track relationships built as a result of training in community engagement. 

Be courageous in digging beneath the conventional “counting” statistics, by asking what is happening spiritually in the life of individuals and your surrounding community. I’ve called it, “looking for the thing behind the thing.” 

3. Parable of the rich young ruler: addition through subtraction

The same Jesus who espoused searching for the one lost sheep was also willing to let the one rich young ruler walk away. Clarity and adaptive change will lead to loss. Changes to programs and ministries for the sake of new vitality may result in people leaving. The work of anti-racism and the work of LGBTQ inclusion, which are part of who we are as a congregation, will lead to people leaving over ideological differences.

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But sometimes that loss is of a different sort, one that comes from choosing to let go of an adherence to conventional ways of thinking, such as conventional statistical metrics, in order to make room for innovation. This kind of faithful risk-taking is required for us to emerge from the pandemic, and to practice adaptive change to meet the challenges of a post-Christendom culture.

Our staff retreat produced rich, fruitful discussions about disciple-making and metrics. One of the results was a renewed and reimagined focus on first-time visitors. We came up with new initiatives for invitation and an emphasis on discovering why visitors choose to return for a second or third visit. We are looking at a wider array of gateways for first-time visitors beyond worship, to include missions, small groups, and life-stage events, so that we can learn what people in our community are spiritually searching for. We renewed our attention to principles set forth in the revised book Four Disciplines of Execution by McChesney, Covey, and Huling, which we have been exploring for years. 

Further and deeper conversations are sure to follow, and we look forward to all that the Spirit will continue to teach us. For now, we rest in the uneasy but necessary tension between what has been and what is yet to come.

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