I am about to go where angels fear to tread.
Yep, church numbers.
Very few churches gauge how effective they are in carrying out their mission. One reason is simple: how do you gauge how a church is doing in a quantitative, much less qualitative, way? Can you chart pastoral care, or community, or spirituality?
Here’s what we should know:
1. Hip to Hate. One of the more cliché lines is “We’re not into numbers.” Let's be honest -- it's "hip to hate" all things "numbers," particularly when it comes to large churches. I get that. But the equally cliché response is “We count people because people count.” Numbers matter because they represent people, and people matter to God. No, they don't account for everything ("a church isn't just about numbers"), but they do account for something.
And I've noticed a disturbing trend. Many of the people who aren’t into numbers tend to be those who either 1) aren’t part of a particularly numerically impressive enterprise, or 2) are not particularly oriented toward the outreach dynamic of the Great Commission. So while "hip to hate," let's do a gut check that our aversion isn't a smokescreen for some missteps on our part that resulted in a less than banner season of ministry, or a heart that isn't oriented toward outreach
2. Pastors' Math. Pastors' math is notoriously inflated. You know “pastors' math,” right? You ask someone, “What are you running?” and they say, “Oh, around 500.” Of course, that was Easter, rounded up. (Come on, guys, let’s fess up).
3. Meaningless Membership. In most churches, membership numbers are meaningless. I used to work for one of the world’s largest Protestant denominations. Everyone liked to talk about a church’s size in relation to membership, but we denominational insiders knew that whatever the figure was, you had to cut it at least by half in terms of how many were actually showing up. Many churches had people on the rolls that didn’t even live in the area any more, much less had attended in the last five years. Many on the rolls were, well, dead – and I don’t mean spiritually, I mean literally!
4. Numbers Aren’t Everything. Most “numbers” mean very little. You can tell me how many you have in attendance, and you haven’t told me whether they were originally churched or unchurched, are now growing or stagnating, currently give or serve … in other words, you aren’t telling me anything more than the number of pulses you have under a roof. For a church, that’s not particularly significant.
5. Baptisms. The lack of vetting with baptisms, particularly among those churches eager to rack up high baptism totals, is shocking. Years ago, while still a graduate student, I published a research paper titled “Rebaptism in the Life of the Church.” I explored how many baptisms are actually rebaptisms – e.g., people using baptism to mark a rededication of their life, people who were baptized by sprinkling after becoming a Christian and wanted to be immersed – as opposed to those who were truly being baptized as believers for the first time. I also explored the rise in “toddler baptisms” – baptism of those older than an infant but under the age of five – among those churches that decried infant baptism. When you pull these kinds of baptisms out of the system, the number of true conversion baptisms shrinks dramatically. But few vet their baptism candidates in this way.
So what metrics matter?
I would argue for six. And I’ll even give you our numbers on each one. This is a first for me/Meck, as I have written openly about my concern with annual “Largest” and “Fastest” lists. But once you see the metrics we count, you will see why our numbers wouldn’t fit such lists anyway.
1. Metric #1: Percentage Growth in Weekly Attendance
Let’s face it – how many are showing up from week-to-week matters. But I don’t like charting this numerically. There are so many fluctuations (Easter highs, Fourth of July lows) that I took Meck to percentages years ago. I want to know in an aggregate way how much we are growing.
Our internal goal is to grow by 15 percent each year. From 2011 to 2012, we grew by 18.56 percent.
2. Metric #2: Percentage of Growth from the Unchurched
Let’s state the obvious: transfer growth is much easier than conversion growth. With transfer growth, you are simply trying to get the “already convinced” to make a consumer switch. Equate it to getting people who want to fly from Charlotte to Atlanta to change airlines from U.S. Airways to Delta. It’s a consumer decision. If you are after conversion growth, which many churches say they are, then what you’re trying to do is get people on board who don’t want to fly! As often quipped, you’re trying to turn atheists into missionaries.
As a result, we chart the percentage of unchurched people we are reaching, and we do it through our membership classes. We ask them a simple question: have you been actively involved in a local church in the past six months? Pick this question apart all you want, but it does cut to the chase.
Here are our unchurched percentages for the past year:
Highest Class Percentage of Unchurched: 77 percent
Lowest Class Percentage of Unchurched: 61 percent
3. Metric #3: Numerical Growth in Database
The third metric has to do with numerical growth in our database. The reason we like this to be numerical is that so many practical matters must be based on the raw size of the people who call your church “home” in one form or another. If you have “x” number of people who may call your church their home, that is what you have to think about in terms of pastoral care, potential seating, holiday events, and more. It also helps you track how much you are growing overall, and from that, how well you may or may not be doing in turning people into active attenders (see below). Granted, someone can enter your database who came to your church one time, filled out a connection card, and have never been back. You don’t really have much of a shot at moving them higher up and deeper in, but it’s still a valuable metric.
Here are our overall database numbers:
In July 2011: 19,920 people
In July 2012: 22,573 people
4. Metric #4: Numerical Growth in Baptisms
When it comes to numbers, I’m a baptism guy. But only if they mark true baptisms. As mentioned above, I’m not into rebaptisms, whether for rededication, entrance into a new denomination, or to clear up immersion vs. sprinkling (when it was already after conversion). We can have a nice theological conversation about that, of course, but if someone was baptized as a believer, it counts in my book and we aren’t about to do it again at Meck. So we vet like crazy, and turn a lot of people who want to be baptized away.
Here are our baptism numbers from the onset of our existence:
2008-2012 (YTD): 985
5. Metric #5: Numerical Growth in Active Attenders
This may be the most interesting category of all, as it is “new” to most people. I don’t know of another church that follows people this way, but I would hope there are. It is one of our most important metrics. In fact, our 2020 Vision is to be a church of 20,000 active attenders with ministry in 20 countries by the year 2020.
So what is an “active attender”?
In many ways, this is what has replaced “average attendance” for us as the most important “vitality” metric of actual size. An active attender is someone who, over the past six months, has been “active.” That means somehow, in some way, we know they have attended, we know they have served, we know they have given, or we know they have taken a class.
We have a lot more than this attending Meck, because to become “active” you have to surface or engage in some recognizable way. You could attend Meck but never put a child into MecKidz, never fill out a connection card, never financially support the church in a way that identifies you, never register for a class or join a small group, and we would not know you exist. So the number of active attenders is critical to our thinking, as our goal isn’t crowds, but life change.
Here is where we stand with active attenders:
July 2011: 5,736
July 2012: 7,356
6. Metric #6: Numerical Growth in Discipleship
The final metric I would suggest has to do with discipleship. Certainly not all that there is to discipleship, but one of the ways we track people’s steps toward spiritual growth.
At Meck, we have three primary legs to our stool: the first has to do with our large group events which are mostly our weekend services. The second leg has to do with our small groups and serving teams which provide ways for people to get connected. The third has to do with our Institute, which offers classes and seminars designed for education and spiritual growth.
We think of the Institute like a community college, offering instruction on everything from financial health to theology, verse-by-verse studies on books of the Bible to parenting seminars. We track how many people show up for any Institute event, and use it to help us know how many are taking advantage of growth opportunities.
Now, one person can take multiple classes, and some classes ask for people to come multiple times for various levels and experiences, so we take an aggregate view of overall participation.
Here are our participating numbers in regard to the Institute:
2011-2012: 3,958 (YTD)
Our metrics may not be your metrics, but I would argue that however you track things, tracking matters. Churches can hide behind the difficulty of charting qualitative matters quantitatively, and make no tracking efforts at all. The truth is there are things that can be tracked that can illuminate your church’s health and progress in very important ways.
If the mission is to reach irreligious people and develop them into fully-devoted followers of Christ, then let’s dig into our numbers enough to know whether we are fulfilling that mission. Because if all that we’re doing isn’t fulfilling that mission, we’re wasting a lot of time and a lot of kingdom resources.
And none of us want to give our one and only life to that.
James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.