Every time I go to the doctor, the visit begins with a familiar ritual. It doesn’t matter if I’m there for a flu shot, a sore throat, a general check up, an unexplained pain, a twisted ankle, or a serious illness. The visit begins with cuffing my arm, taking my temperature, counting my pulse, and having me step up on the scales. Whether I’m presumed healthy or sick, strong or weak, doing well or doing poorly, the staff takes note of my weight, blood pressure, pulse rate, and temperature. These basic signs of health are universally appreciated as essential for understanding our physical well-being, and for monitoring trends, changes, and directions that the doctor and patient need to perceive in order to make good choices for maintaining and improving health.
Now think with me about how we perceive congregational health, and how we notice trends, directions and changes in the body of Christ. What are some of the key elements that those who love the church and care for and lead the body of Christ should notice and attend to? Actually, there are many. Some of the most common are membership, attendance, financial trends, giving beyond the walls, apportionment giving, number of households, constituents, pledging units, numbers of visitors, new members, professions of faith, baptisms, volunteers or volunteer hours, and various measures of small groups, bible studies, Sunday school classes, and mission initiatives. And there are tons of immeasurables – we can count the number of hospital visits, home visits, nursing home services, funerals, weddings, youth retreats, children’s plays, and Sunday School parties, but no one can objectively and fully perceive the impact of these for changing lives, forming souls, helping people grow in Christ-likeness.
Even with diverse ways of attending to the health of congregations, and the subjectivity of many of them, I am aware of one indisputable fact. Pastors and lay leaders who notice the trends and attend to them in their ministry decisions tend to see greater fruitfulness, growth, and new initiative than those who do not. Maybe that’s why so many stories in the New Testament about the early church include numbers. Maybe that’s why the early Methodists attended to the numbers with almost eccentric fastidiousness.
As part of our fulfilling our mission and covenant as the Missouri Conference, we agreed at the called session last March and again at the June meeting of conference to identify Signs of Fruitfulness. Over the last several months, the Mission Council, the District Superintendents, the Conference Staff, and many others have been part of a conversation about the most helpful signs of congregational vitality. We talked about membership – to me, a measure of the church’s past – and about attendance, which is a snap-shot of a congregation’s present. We talked about professions of faith and baptisms that give indications of a congregation’s future. We discussed many other possibilities, such as numbers of first time visitors, youth, financial trends, apportionment giving. I do hope that our churches and pastors become more adept at attending to all these and more.
However, our goal was to propose a plan that was helpful, focused on the most important signs, easy to measure and report, and most beneficial for pastors, lay members, and superintendents to learn from for the purposes of strengthening local church ministry.
With the New Year, we are asking all local churches to begin to report monthly on four simple, but vital indicators of congregational ministry. The first is weekly Worship Attendance. This is the combined number of those people attending all worship services regularly held during the week, including children, worship leaders, and musicians. The second is the number of Professions of Faith, including those making their first professions of faith and those restored by reaffirmation. The third is the number of Baptisms – adults, youth, and children. These should be simple for pastors and congregations to report, since the year-end report already requires attending to these. But the fourth will require a little extra effort: the estimated number of people from the congregation serving in “Hands-On Mission and Service” during the month. This includes those involved in personal engagement and service to people beyond the congregation on behalf of the church, such as VIM volunteers, soup kitchen volunteers, volunteers and servers who tutor, or do medical, educational, disaster response or construction, etc..
During the weeks to come, our pastors will receive instructions about how to enter the reports at the end of each month. We hope to make the reporting as simple, accessible, and easy as possible. Reporting should take no more than a few minutes of entering numbers on the computer once a month. I encourage your helpfulness as we begin this project of focusing on a few critical aspects of congregational fruitfulness across the conference.
Sometimes someone suggests that we should not focus on numbers because that is too corporate. It reduces ministry to a business. I disagree. While fruitfulness cannot be reduced to numbers, nevertheless numbers are important. Numbers represent people – each number stands for a person who is old or young, married or single, new to the faith or long-established, rich or poor, immigrant or citizen. Each is someone’s daughter or son, brother or sister, father or mother, friend and neighbor. Each is a person for whom Christ died. In Christ, each is a brother or sister to every one of us. Each is a person searching for meaning, needing community, and wrestling with hope and despair, joy and grief, life and death. Each has a story, a history, and a future that are infinitely important in God’s eyes. Each is a person with whom God desires to have a relationship.
The purpose of the ritual in the doctor’s office is simply to begin to answer the question, “How are we doing, and what can we do to help?” That’s the same purpose of the Signs of Fruitfulness Project, to help us understand better how we are doing, and what we can do that leads to greater strength and fruitfulness in fulfilling the mission God has given us in Christ.
Yours in Christ,