Every time I download a photo, upload a file, or scan my computer for viruses, I find myself mesmerized by the progress bar. The progress bar is the horizontal meter graph that moves from 0% to 100% as the computer processes a task to completion. With a small file on a fast computer, the progress bar zips through the task in the blink of an eye. For larger tasks, the bar slowly progresses with unpredictable starts and stops until the work is finished.
Sometimes the bar mysteriously lingers at 27% or 42% before lurching forward to 64% and then to completion. Whether it moves quickly or slowly, I find myself unable to look away. The actual work of the computer is internal, unseen, and invisible, and so there is something satisfying about actually seeing visible activity, forward motion, progress, and accomplishment. What accounts for the seductive quality of progress bars and our hypnotic attraction to them?
On the other hand, there are computer programs that use oscillating hourglass icons or spinning circles of light to reveal that they are working on something. Unlike the progress bar, there are no numbers or percentages. You can never tell whether a task is merely starting or nearly complete. You can’t determine where you stand or how much longer you must wait to accomplish the task. The images repeat and churn and continue on without direction or measurable movement. The spinning and churning frustrates me when I can’t discern progress. These types of programs have none of the attraction, seduction, or satisfaction of a progress bar that indicates percentages of work completed.
I like progress bars in other parts of my life, also. I like to measure, count, add, accumulate, and compare. I like to know where I stand, how much I’ve accomplished, and how much more lies ahead. Whether losing weight, measuring blood pressure, running miles, analyzing my pension contributions, or counting the pages of a manuscript, I like to see progress. Odometer trip meters, GPSes, and frequent flyer programs were made for people like me. I like to know how far I’ve come and how much remains.
And yet many important things in my life simply do not lend themselves to progress bars and percentage signs. How’s my relationship with my wife and sons these days? How am I doing at loving God and following Christ? Am I fifty percent completed? Am I five percent ahead of where I was last year? The questions sound ludicrous, don’t they? These are tasks and callings and commitments that never finish. They are always repeating, perhaps deepening, and sometimes churning. Or what’s the measure of awe, beauty, mystery, and meaning in my life? There are no meaningful metrics capable of reducing matters of relationship, spirit, and soul to quantifiable form.
The same is true for the practice of ministry. There are the measurables of attendance, finances, pledges, small groups, new visitors, people served, mission activity, facilities completed, age trends, etc. Tracking these can provide a sense of achievement, accomplishment, and satisfaction. They can give direction, shape priority, cause us to recalibrate goals, and stimulate focused work. They reveal trajectory. They help us plan. They can indicate health or sound alarms to draw our attention to important needs. Some elements of ministry and church life fit the metrics of a progress bar, providing a visually and measurably satisfying representation of the inner workings and outward impact of a congregation.
On the other hand, there are critical elements of community life that are not reducible to numbers. The feeling of belonging, the strength of unity, the level of conflict, the sense of coherence, the depth of purpose, the authenticity of caring, the breadth of commitment, the maturity of discipleship, the impact on lives, the presence of Christ—these are qualities of the spiritual life of congregations we perceive intuitively. If we can discern them at all, we see them through the eyes of faith. They have a elusive and ephemeral quality. They require repeated and continuous attention, and yet we never know exactly where we stand. Spiritual tasks are never completely accomplished. When we try to determine how we are doing with faith, hope, and love, we realize with Paul that we always “see in a mirror dimly” (I Cor. 13).
Since congregational ministry comprises both the visible and measurable elements as well as the spiritual and intangible elements, it’s hard for anyone to answer the question with complete satisfaction, How am I doing with my ministry?
I see two risks with ministry metrics. First, we are mistaken if we believe all ministry is reducible to numbers. To attend only to numbers on a progress bar leads to shallow ministry, a thin businesslike, soulless operation. Much of our most meaningful fruit ripens in hidden ways. God is Spirit. Christ’s presence is perceptible, but immeasurable.
Second, we are also mistaken to believe that numbers do not matter. Ministry numbers are like the vital measurements of weight, blood pressure, and temperature taken each time we visit a physician; they signal health or they sound alarm. To count is to notice. Numbers are people; each is someone’s sister or mother or daughter. Each is a child of God for whom Jesus offered his life. To open ourselves to measurable trends provides reminder and correction, and stimulates focused work.
There are limits to what metrics can comprehend. Yet merely because some things are immeasurable does not mean that those things that can be measured are unimportant or invalid. The key is a balanced perspective and an acknowledgement that some things are measurable by the progress bar and some things are not. Both the visible and the invisible are important for relational, spiritual, and missional health.
I like progress bars. In this calling I find them useful, and yet so many of the most important purposes of my life and ministry don’t fit neatly into measurable categories. We serve Christ who reveals “the immeasurable riches of God’s grace” (Eph. 2). And we fulfill a calling in which the most significant work of our lives will not be accomplished in our lifetimes.
Yours in Christ,