Data shmata: Are we counting the right stuff?

August 17th, 2016

We have a love/hate relationship with data. Even as big data shapes almost all our online experiences, we’re not so sure how we feel about data in the life of the church. Yes, we count worship services, offerings, worship attendance, small group ministries, baptisms and confirmations. But deep down inside, we resist measuring ourselves. I suspect it’s because we fear we don’t measure up.

I get it. Measuring ourselves is hard. I experience that every time I step on the scale. If my weight is high, I’m bummed. Paradoxically, my response is to want to eat more. On the other hand, if it’s low, I take it as license to indulge. I’m stuck either way. Data shmata.

Jesus said, “You shall know me by my fruits.” What fruits are we as a church producing? In the United Methodist Church, we proclaim that we are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There’s only one way to know if we are accomplishing our vision or not. We have to measure ourselves.

I know what you’re thinking: data shmata. Who cares about the numbers? You can’t measure what churches do. You can’t measure the growth of a soul or the impact of a sermon.

I say if we’re not willing to measure ourselves, we’re not serious about our vision.

For instance, can you imagine Michael Phelps practicing without a timer? Or Simone Biles executing moves without a judge? Is it even conceivable that Usain Bolt would, well, bolt, without clocking his speed? They count on that information to guide their performance.

There’s only one way to know if we’re actually making disciples or transforming the world, folks. And that’s to count. It starts with counting the right stuff.

Counting the right stuff

Imagine if Olympic athletes measured their effectiveness by the numbers of programs sold, seats filled, hotel rooms booked or hot dogs consumed. That would be ludicrous, wouldn’t it? Those figures have nothing to do with what’s going on in the field, on the court, in the pool or on the mats. Katie Ledecky measures her effectiveness by the numbers of medals won, records broken and milliseconds shaved off. She doesn’t care how many programs are sold. It’s irrelevant to her performance.

We need to adopt the same attitude. Too often we are dazzled by the irrelevant.

I remember attending many a church council meeting where people raved or lamented about “how busy the church was.” Busyness rarely translates into discipleship, though. I’m not sure it necessarily translates into much world-transforming either. It’s probably more a measure of the usefulness of the building, low cost rental space, or how many meetings we schedule than anything else.

So what should we count?

For a long time, we have counted traditional measures like worship service attendance, number of small groups, attendance at such and the size and scope of giving. The question many of us have had is do those measures add up to what we say we’re about? Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is our goal. Do those things we count directly connect with our vision?

It’s possible that the vital signs of old are no longer effective measures of disciple-making or world-transforming. Maybe they never were.

My own annual conference recently sent out an announcement that we would no longer be participating in Vital Signs. That we need new measures to assess our effectiveness. I’m curious to see what they come up with.

New vital signs

With new church starts taking place in gardens, fields, pubs and around dining room tables, traditional measures like numbers of worship services and professions of faith may not be adequate to tell our new story. A story that goes beyond numbers of church buildings, pews and worshippers.

As we reinvent church, it’s time to reinvent our vital statistics. One of my favorite stats on the current Vital Signs dashboard is “total number of persons from the congregation engaged in local, national and international mission/outreach.” That seems to me to be heading in the right direction. The new story of church isn’t what happens inside the church building as much as what happens in the communities we inhabit.

We need stats that relate to our vision. That means we need to be clear on what exactly we are out to create in the world. For instance, just what do we mean by the transformation of the world? Or disciples of Jesus Christ, for that matter?

Does a transformed world mean fewer kids who live in cars and more people who are gainfully employed? Does it mean less domestic violence and more families who sleep in peace? Does it mean empty jail cells and full rehab and treatment centers? Does it mean fewer mass shootings and more neighborhood parties? Does it mean fewer people who self-sabotage and more people who seek God’s will?

I suspect each church needs to define “transformation of the world” for itself. And then reorganize itself around that vision. The same goes for “disciples of Jesus Christ.”

In the meantime, here’s a thought or two.

What counts

Instead of counting small groups, maybe we need to count what those small groups do. Like the number of prayers offered, kind things done, suicides averted, hospital rooms visited or courageous words spoken.

Or, instead of counting people who attend worship, maybe we need to count the number of people in and beyond the church who actually emulate Jesus. Like people who act courageously, live sacrificially, call us to a new humanity and put God’s will above all else.

No doubt, the UMC, like most religious groups, is headed toward a leaner future. Our current statistics show that. But that doesn’t mean our spiritual footprint need be smaller. Quite the opposite. Jesus turned the world upside down with a very small following. The truth is, I expect our impact can be greater than it’s ever been. But we have to truly embrace our vision, be clear about what it means, then design measures to connect us to it. Finally, we need to be willing to collect and crunch data that tells us how we’re actually doing.

Data shmata? No way. It’s time to love the numbers.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church

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