Moneyball for religion? Why your church should rethink its numbers

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MoneyballThe book-turned-movie Moneyball chronicles the change in baseball that resulted from a change in how to measure how players performed. By measuring well, baseball discovered a new way of thinking about how the game should is played.

Can there be a moneyball for religion? Congregations are often judged by their size, but what does this hide about the way we do religion? Is there, like in baseball, a hidden way of doing things that should be measured?

I asked Ed Stetzer about this. He is executive director of LifeWay Research, an evangelical research firm. Among other things, LifeWay Research works with churches to help them measure and evaluate outcomes.

I’m guessing that most churches only keep track of two numbers: attendance and money. What, if anything, do these tell churches about how they’re doing?

Attendance and money– bodies and budgets– can tell us some things, but not everything.

Do we need to count how many people came to a service or gave financially? I would say, “Yes,” with a caveat. You can be a good, faithful church and shrink, often due to external factors such as a surrounding community in decline.

So since those traditional numbers don’t always reflect the faithfulness of a congregation, the question becomes exactly what measurements can determine our ministry effectiveness.

I think we should still include areas like conversions, attendance, baptisms, etc. They can be compiled on a dashboard of sorts, and can give a pastor a quick snapshot of overall church health.

These, however, are not the only things that matter. For example, in the research for our book Transformational Church, Thom Rainer and I identified seven elements, beyond the normal measurements, that characterized the differences between the top 10 percent of churches and the other 90 percent. So, at LifeWay Research, we are committed to moving beyond butts in seats as the only measure.

In addition to the quick dashboard or easy to measure things, we should also be measuring growth in areas like discipleship, missional living, prayer, leadership, and participating in a small community.

How well do churches measure other results that they care about?

Things like attendance, finances, water baptisms and the like are pretty self-explanatory, and simple to capture. When it comes to these metrics, churches are generally pretty good at measuring them well.

There are, however, metrics that can be much more difficult to understand and apply – like those I mentioned previously. It’s not that churches are doing a bad job at assessing these different areas. It is more simply that they’re not assessing these things at all, but they should be.

Remember this, your metrics always determine your behavior. What you measure will determine the path your church takes. We ought to pay attention more carefully to our assessments, or lack-thereof. Then, we should celebrate those metrics—because what you celebrate, you become.

Give us an example of a church who changed how they operated because they were measuring results differently?

There are lots of tools out there, but I’ll use an example from our work. I have been running a series on my blog entitled “Stories of Transformation,” where we have been highlighting churches that saw tangible results from assessment and a change in how they measure.

Recently, I led a conference with a group of Chicagoland churches and walked them through our Transformational Church Assessment Tool (TCAT).

One of the churches that saw great benefit because of it is Lakeland Church in Gurnee, just outside of Chicago. Their pastor, Dan Weyerhauser, related the following to us. I think his summation is better than mine.

In some cases the [TCAT] strengthened our commitment to what we were already doing. In other cases, it gave us reason for a fresh look at neglected areas. Honestly, just answering the questions of the instrument was instructive by itself. I felt a little like being at a doctor’s appointment, armed with the list of what I’d done to improve my health, and have my doctor ask an entirely different set of questions than I expected, the answer to most of which was “No… I have not done that” The categories of questions alone have made for profitable conversation and action among our team.

I am grateful the areas of exploration are evidence based categories, flowing out of the evaluation of transforming churches. While Jesus is the One who transforms people, we are helped to focus our attention in keeping with what we see in the Scriptures. This tool is helping with that… I was surprised and encouraged that our summary report also suggests approaches to dialog as a leadership team to discern next steps together.

We also now have fresh benchmarks in areas beyond attendance, giving, and baptisms, benchmarks related to behaviors and values that are at the core of seeing real change in people’s lives.

Some people might say that people can’t quantify spiritual outcomes. Or worse: by trying to measure success, a church becomes too much like a business. What’s your response to that?

I think we can become too mechanical, at times, and so I appreciate the warning, but I don’t think it’s ok to disregard all attempts to measure spiritual progress. In fact, Scripture seems to indicate that a church has a responsibility to assess spiritual progress for those who are in their midst.

Church discipline and spiritual growth, among others, are church functions the New Testament seems to indicate require a level of spiritual discernment and assessment from the leaders of the congregation.

So, measurement is a given biblically, which means our concern is making sure our measurements are biblically faithful. And there are numerous assessments available, not just ours, to help assess spiritual progress.

The truth is that all of us assess. We just need to make it a priority to assess the right things, and assess them well.

When you assess the right things, it’s not all about nickles, noses, and numbers. It’s about life change—and that’s worth measuring well.

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