Checking Our Vital Signs

January 20th, 2012
This article is featured in the Call to Action (Feb/Mar/Apr 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

We have an inspiring and urgent mission as United Methodists—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. All of us who support the mission and work to achieve it continue to ask, how is success measured? How do we know if we are making progress and how do we define our faithfulness and fruitfulness in measurable terms?

Metrics are important to health and vitality. When people come to the United Methodist Hospital in Memphis, they are diagnosed first by checking their vital signs—pulse, blood pressure, EKG, blood work, and other tests. Part of the assessment is to ask how they are doing, do they have any pain, any soreness? And they are also asked what is going well.

These tests and questions tell a lot about someone who comes to the hospital. When people indicate they are feeling good or that they are doing well, the hospital staff does not stop there. They check their vital signs as well. The vital signs are a series of metrics that help to diagnose if a person has an illness that needs further attention. We cannot only rely on their smile or their testimony that they are well. Some people are seriously ill and do not realize it. Checking their signs of vitality is essential.

When a district superintendent or a bishop visits a church, they are also looking for signs of vitality. They may be warmly greeted, experience a lively worship service, hear a testimony about a mission trip, and hear people talk about how much they enjoy their church and how friendly it is. Just like at the hospital, what people share is important information. But it does not necessarily give a picture of a congregation’s overall vitality. These signs are often imbedded in the church’s “numbers,” just like a patient’s vital signs are imbedded in some clear measures of health.

Jesus knew that healing was important because people were not as vital when their bodies were not functioning well. Jesus lived and taught by the numbers. He withered a fig tree because it was not bearing measurable fruit. It had leaves, but not signs of vitality—fruit. Jesus taught about talents and that multiplying talents was a sign of faithfulness. The scriptures often included numbers—5000 fed, 10 healed, 12 disciples made. Jesus said, “You will know them (disciples) by their fruit.” (Matthew 7:16)

By what fruit will churches be known? Friendliness is important, helping out at the local soup kitchen is essential, a good preacher helps; but in the end, it is a matter of whether or not the congregation is making and engaging disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The mission of the church and the Call to Action report are precisely looking for this type of vitality. But how do we know if a church is vital? It is not only what people tell us, but vitality, like a person’s health, is imbedded in tangible measures. But what are the appropriate measures?

During 2010, a team of clergy and laity from around the world grappled with the question, what are the appropriate measures/goals that demonstrate a congregation’s health and vitality? The group said that the goals must be about discipleship and what disciples do. Healthy congregations make and engage disciples.

The group identified five goals:

  • Disciples worship—worship attendance
  • Disciples make new disciples—number of new professions of faith
  • Disciples engage in growing their faith—number of small groups to grow the faith of disciples
  • Disciples engage in mission—number of members engaged through the church in community and world mission
  • Disciples give to mission—amount of money given beyond the local church for community and world mission

The team invited clergy and laity from around the world to review the goals to see if they were the right goals for congregations. The response was overwhelming; 87 percent said they were the right goals to measure for a local church. These goals are indicators of healthy ministry that is bearing fruit.

We have also learned from the Call to Action study that many in The United Methodist Church are “averse to metrics.” The church would rather tell stories than measure faithful fruitfulness. Recently, a pastor went to the new website which helps congregations set and accomplish these discipleship goals. After viewing the site, he reported that he was reluctant to send his members to the site to learn about goal setting and see the congregation’s results for the five goals over the past four years because the congregation had very negative trends. Do you know what happens to a patient who tells their doctor, “I do not like the results you are sharing with me and I am not coming back for exams anymore?” Some churches would rather be happy and dying than challenged and growing.

There is a great future for The United Methodist Church. A number of people are seeing the new church already emerging. Some churches will look at their measures and results and build on their positive trends. Others will look at challenging trends and prayerfully set goals that will assist them to make and engage disciples for the transformation of the world. Metrics are a resource to measure vitality and to set appropriate goals that move the congregation toward health and move The United Methodist Church toward achieving its mission.

comments powered by Disqus