Do numbers matter?

measurementA couple of recent conversations have led me to revisit an unending topic of debate in the world of church leadership. Do numbers matter when it comes to looking at our churches? Should we or can we measure success in congregational life? I dug through my blog file and ran across a couple of pieces from last summer as fodder.

Tom Ehrich says Sunday attendance is a “meaningless metric” and that we should instead measure “touches” of those who come in contact with a church or its ministries. In a somewhat more nuanced presentation, Ian Markham says (part one and two) we have a “myth of decline,” and that the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches are…not declining? Well, not really. He says basically that decline isn’t the real narrative and that we have to move past this to tell a more positive story.

And then there’s this cold, hard set of facts. In the Episcopal Church in 2012, a few dioceses saw growth in member numbers (which are not especially reliable), but the attendance numbers were pretty bleak. Over time, our giving numbers don’t keep pace with inflation. Bleak numbers, indeed. Markham is right, but you can’t really tell the story of your journey without a map and a sense of where you are. How will we know where we are if we don’t see our place? Are we growing? What’s working? What’s not working? Let’s be honest about our failures and (quicky!) move on.

After my zombie church post, I got a four-page letter from someone telling me that I shouldn’t “judge” congregations. Point taken. I hope that’s not what I was doing. Rather, I think we need to get some clarity about when congregations are thriving and what makes that happen. The opposite is true as well. With so many of our congregations struggling, it seems to me that we need to decide where to put our efforts. We need to learn how we might reverse numerical decline, assuming that’s what we want to do!

So allow me to make a few observations:

1. No measure is perfect, but I’m not sure how else we decide if a congregation is thriving or withering. To rely on anecdotal stories or one’s perception is to risk concluding that everything is fine when it is not, or that things are worse than they really are. Measures, taken together and laid along side qualitative assessment, help us get a true sense of health.

2. We need to measure so we can decide where to put our efforts. In the parable of the sower, Jesus reminds us that sometimes seed falls on rocky ground, among thorns, or in fertile soil. Surely that is true with our preaching, our ministries, and most every other aspect of parish life. Without measures, how can we see where we have rocks, thorns, or soil? Maybe numbers help us decide to stop doing one thing to make space for another. Maybe they help us know when it’s time for a new clergy leader.

3. Average Sunday Attendance isn’t perfect, but it’s a useful number. Imagine me saying to my doctor, “Blood pressure only tells part of the story! I won’t pay attention to that, because it’s not the complete picture.” Foolishness. We need to look at a complete picture of health, but there are a few measures that help us know if our bodies are healthy. Among congregations, the number of people who come for Sunday worship is a pretty good indicator. There are all manner of rationales for why our attendance isn’t growing or whatever, but the fact remains that if Sunday attendance is growing, the rest of the numbers — and the feel of a place — are very, very likely to be thriving.

4. Worship numbers matter. A lot. Following on from the previous point, some will say that we should measure people who use a building, the number of people we fed at a soup kitchen, or some other kind of numbers. I don’t disagree that we should measure those things. I even like Tom Ehrich’s ideal of measuring “touches” during a week. Reggie McNeal said that several years ago. It’s a compelling idea, and it’s actually possible to do, though some folks (mistakenly) say you couldn’t ever measure this. All that said, if we’re talking about a church — the ekklesia — I’m not sure there’s a more important metric than worship attendance. To be sure, we might want to start measuring “Average Weekly Attendance” to include folks who come during the week. This is especially important in urban congregations. But if a congregation begins to exist apart from its life as a worshiping community, it is, almost by definition, ceasing to be a church. I happen to think the world needs lots of voluntary associations to encourage people to do good works. This is a noble, and even Christian, purpose. But a church exists to make disciples, and disciples must worship together. So among all the numbers we measure in churches, worship attendance must be central among them.

5. Stewardship numbers reveal spiritual vitality. If you look at a congregations giving patterns, juxtaposed against the income levels of the communities it serves, you’ll get a pretty good glimpse of how engaged people are as disciples. Again, we love to rationalize why numbers are low (or high), but looking at trends year-over-year and looking at average giving vs. household income will tell a vital story.

6. If a church isn’t growing, something’s wrong. That statement will annoy plenty of people, at least among the more than four people who will read this far down. I believe, and I think the scriptures teach, that the Gospel is compelling. If we preach and practice the Gospel, the church will be irresistible. That’s what propelled the early church to grow from a few dozen people. The growth may not always be in numbers or attendance, but there will be signs of growth in a church that preaches and practices the Gospel. When this doesn’t happen, there are likely to be systemic issues or other problems. Too many of our churches are focused almost exclusively on maintenance and preservation, so newcomers quickly learn that the primary aim is to repair the roof rather than change lives. They’ll keep looking. And that congregation won’t be growing.

7. We probably need to keep looking for the right things to measure. To Ehrich’s point, our traditional measures are probably not the right ones. So let’s look for some others. Number of new leaders? Adult baptisms taken more seriously? Frequency of worship attendance? Self-reported measures of happiness or spiritual growth? Clergy tenure? Hours spent serving the poor each week?

8. We need to celebrate growing congregations and learn from them. Imagine if every diocesan convention gave some floor time to the congregation(s) experiencing growth. Let them share what they’re doing and, just as important, what it’s like to be in a thriving congregation. Let’s give bishops from growing dioceses more air time at the House of Bishops meetings (maybe this already happens and we don’t know it because the bishops prefer to get medieval when it comes to communicating most of what they do in their meetings).

There are some really interesting developments in congregational measurement these days. Forward Movement has launched RenewalWorks, building on great work that Jay Sidebotham did when he was rector near Chicago. RenewalWorks seeks to measure spiritual vitality using a sophisticated assessment tool with members of a congregation. Then leaders take part in a series of workshops to address what they have learned. If people are not regular in daily prayer or in serving the poor, how might a congregation help people grow more fully into the full stature of Christ? It’s early, but preliminary signs are that these measures can make a difference in people’s lives and in the health of a congregation.

I could go on, but I think there’s enough here to start some good conversations. What do you think? Should we try to measure congregational health? What are the best metrics?

UPDATE: My archnemesis has written a blog post about moving beyond ASA. Mostly he points out that we need to think outside the building, especially when it comes to social media. I think he would agree that metrics matter, with the possible exception of comparing our twitter follower counts.

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12 Responses

  1. Mike Besson says:

    Great post. In my humble opinion, counting attendance, writing it in a big red book, and then reporting it to the people who hold positions of authority over us makes us, whether we chose to admit it or not, focus on our numbers. We have the sense that we are being judged by them and that our “net worth” as pastors will be gauged on whether or not more people come to church in any given year over another. We focus on the numbers because we think, or know, that someone else is. I know pastors that won’t plan mid week services because it might affect the ASA; people will come on the days that “don’t count”. I know others that will only have Saturday services in the “evening”, even funerals, insisting on communion, because Saturday “evening” with communion “counts”. Dangerous. The quest for higher ASA can become the motivation for programming. Load up Sundays with stuff. Pot lucks. Events. All in an effort to get more people in so that ASA goes up and we will get the pat on the back while wearing people out in the process. Maybe I’m the only one honest enough to admit it, but I have done it. I think we should try this. The church should place a moratorium on the counting for one year. Use the excuse that they are giving us a break from the anxiety provoking red book, and watch what happens. Thanks for listening.

  2. Eileen says:

    I am part of a multi religious belief family. My daughter was most likely from Buddhist parents. My husband is Jewish. My children attended Catholic high schools and were taught by Jesuits and Sisters. My father was Irish Catholic and my mother an Episcopalian.
    Church was an intricate childhood as I was baptized and confirmed as an Episcopalian.
    My confirmation class consisted of my class mates, many of whom I continue to have close relationships from that experience. I do not remember how many people attended this church. The small congregation kept track of births, deaths illness, and supported each other during the blessings and difficult life events. Children, attending this church, were encouraged to focus on helping others and follow the teachings of Jesus. The most significant impact on me was that Episcopalians welcomed everyone to “the table”. The church focused on being inclusive and not exclusive. We were encouraged to do good deeds in a quiet and humble manner without taking credit because “God was in change”! I will never forget the lessons involving the sand dollars…you never know how many you can touch/reach but…. you have to be available! My suggestion…Keep Episcopal churches open regardless of numbers!

  3. Mary Thorpe says:

    Great post, Scott. It parallels my report to the parish for our Congregational Meeting this Sunday – we measure by numbers, which are admittedly useful but un-nuanced, but also by relationships. Relationships with God, with each other, with the world. Our ASA is stable – I’m grateful it is not declining – but I will not try to twist who we are as a parish simply in service to a higher number. I’ve got more folks participating in church life in all its fullness and deepening their relationship with the Lord, and that feels like a truer expression of “success” (a dangerous word) than the numbers alone.

  4. Thanks for this post. I’ve been at my current parish for 11 years and we have increased the ways we “touch” (safe church touches, of course) lives outside of our worship. We could measure this if we tried, yet this number would likely correlate to our growth in ASA. Anecdotally, those who worship regularly as a spiritual practice are the same people who grow in spiritual practices of “touching” the lives of others as they participate in service, education, teaching others to pray, bearing witness to the power of Jesus Christ, and personal stewardship. Those who get busy, even at church, but who don’t worship, are sometimes offering valuable service, but perhaps not growing spiritually. I’m not sure I’d want to measure any “touches” as a sign of church growth without worship attendance remaining primary. Our bishop recently asked us to count our Saturday worship in a local park as a part of our ASA. This is a way of counting “touches” beyond our walls and “weekend” worship. Maybe we should call it “AWA”.

  5. So many thoughts!

    “We can’t manage what we don’t measure,” as the saying goes, so what do we want to manage? I do think we want to manage the numbers of those who attend worship, so it’s a great number to have.

    One of the issues I have with the way we measure in the church is that we collect numbers without gaining insight, in my experience. We collect ASA without understanding WHY there’s a change (or no change) in ASA. The temptation when the numbers to go up is to say things are great, and when they go down to rationalize (or to find a way to make the numbers look better than they are). But numbers are not a moral gauge. They are just data, just information. The real trick is to interpret the data and then make changes as needed based on what we learn.

    The number of Jesus’ followers fluctuated wildly, so I’m not convinced that “growth” is a trustworthy empirical sign of “things are going well.” But I also think the point is well taken that we need to look at the numbers squarely and not simply say they don’t matter.

    I think your point of “looking for the right things to measure” is also well taken. One thing I’d love for us to measure is the number of people in their 20’s in our churches. If we could increase that number, I think we’d be in much better shape as a church. So if I were to add any one thing to our tool box of measurement, it would be “age group of people in attendance.” But then to ask the questions of what that means, and what we should do about it.

  6. Lynn says:

    Great article Scott. In this day where statistics are everything (I could talk about the almost always negative impact of this in all aspects of our society for hours…)we often get mixed up on church priorities because, of course “we” (TEC) use them too.
    Your #6:If a church isn’t growing, something’s wrong. This also borders on the formulaic for me, IMO.We err when we think growth=numbers. It does NOT. We have many small town, tiny congregations that by virtue of location and demographic may never grow in numbers, but the members may grow in their understanding in living out their life in ways that transform their community. I live in a big city, a huge city, and quantification of everything is just the way it is here – ‘church growth’ being one I have interest in and am acutely aware of. Here ‘church growth’ often involves the wrong ‘bait’ to increase the numbers, many times leading the community away from its real purpose to transform lives… I believe that we do not have to grow in numbers as a community or an institution to do God’s work in the world. We often misunderstand that. The kind of growth that ‘does God’s work’ is also a magnet, often attracting people.

  7. C. WIngate says:

    You were rather kinder to Ehrich than I was.

  8. You are right, this is a perennial conversation. Any why? Because numbers DO matter. Especially as we grapple with the challenges of aging congregations and numeric decline, honestly engaging our numbers and trying to figure out how to count what matters is necessary if we are to develop strategies for health. It’s part of stewarding our talents wisely.

    I’ve been doing a series on data (which I need to get back to) for exactly this reason:

    The most recent post, “The Number You Need to Know” was on a number just as important as ASA which most parishes probably don’t even know is trackable. Check it out at

  9. Nicole Porter says:

    Why is it that when the ASA is low you get people coming out of the woodwork claiming that it doesn’t matter? No people,no parishes, and they don’t run on air.

  10. Michelle Meech says:

    I think using the number is important, but only because it tells us one important thing about a congregation. It’s size. The problem is that people in this culture use that number to judge a congregation’s ministry. I’ve seen some large congregations who have no sense of mission. And I’ve seen some pretty small congregations who have every single member engaged in mission. If we’re using the number to compare, then it’s a misuse of the metric. If we’re using it to tell us one part of a congregation’s story, I believe that’s a better use of that information.

    What adds to the fun about using this metric, is this: I recently saw a FB discussion about what ASA actually means and what clergy should be recording in that space. There are people who don’t include numbers from weekday services there. And that’s not an accurate reflection of worship numbers.

    And I just want to throw a note of caution about the notion that a congregation must be growing in numbers to be healthy. There are small congregations in very rural towns where the population is so stagnant, they maybe only see a few people moving in/out of the town each year. Although, in general, I do think that’s a better metric than “bigger is better.”

    I agree that it’s not helpful to use anecdotal information about whether or how a congregation is engaged in ministry. And that we need to keep searching for a better way to reflect the health of a congregation. But the ASA is not necessarily a sign of health, in my estimation.

    What I think might be better is to offer a range of “health metrics” that takes into account the community around it. For example: one set of metrics for thriving cities, one set for rural towns of less than 5000, one set for suburban towns where the industry is dying, one set for small city, etc.

  11. As numbers go, the only ones we can objectively count in a reasonably consistent way are nickels and noses – how much money comes in and how many people attend. In general, if these are going up things are good and in general, if these are going down there are problems. But there are enough exceptions (ie the numbers drop by 10% during a period when the local population dropped by 50%) that we can’t rely on them as any more than a “quick and dirty” analysis – most often reliable but often enough not.

    When I worked in government one of my regular duties was to analyse the quarterly tracking poll numbers on how well we were managing the issues related to our department and sector. I always started my briefing note with the reminder that “numbers tell you what they tell you, but that’s all they tell you.” On the one hand we want to ignore numbers that make us anxious, but at the same time we want to read things into numbers that simply aren’t there.

    But none of that constitutes a reasonable excuse for ignoring the data. ASA, giving from members, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals and whatever all else we count may not tell us everything, but they will tell us some things and it is mind-numbingly stupid to pretend otherwise or to choose to ignore these indicators.

  12. R Ray Morford says:

    Making Deciples. To some that’s a novel idea. But Jesus did. That was his whole premise for being here. He gave the Church a way to cope in this sinful world. He didn’t promise a rose garden, but helped us see the path he had set before us. There is an old song,”I want to be like Jesus.” For some that’s a daily struggle. Others hour by hour or minute by minute. His help is a free gift. there’s nothing you can do to earn it. Just accept it. When we do, we then can help someone else become a Deciple.