I’m excited that the Olympics are cranking up. Like most sports it offers a respite from the work-a-day world of mundane responsibilities. Then we can get really serious about something that matters: college football. Whoa! Sports isn’t just a metaphor for life. For many it is life. Ask Michael Phelps who has been a tadpole his whole life, or the child warriors who have balance-beamed/beaned themselves in the head since they were toddlers. The Olympics and all sports are about dedication.
That’s why we can’t abide cheaters. You either earn it fair and square or not. There’s honor in giving something your best shot and losing to a better person. There’s a whole gamut of different emotions if somebody doped their way to victory. It makes the whole notion of accomplishment a sham. As much as I like the idea of giving all the little-leaguers a trophy for just being on the team, it lessens the achievement it takes to be the real deal and come in first.
I’m glad that the Olympics has drug testing and I’m fascinated by the last surge the swimmers make as they touch the timer at the end of their swim. We need photo finishes and all the other measuring devices to help keep us honest. Some would say that’s the purpose of using metrics in the church, too. You know, the weekly dashboard reports that get sent in electronically denoting worship attendance, professions of faith, monies raised for missions, number of people in small groups, and numbers of people doing mission work. Yes, sirree, measure up in these categories and you’re a “vital congregation!” Gosh, if it were so easy.
While I might support local churches using these numbers themselves to gauge their own spiritual progress, I have a hard time seeing me as a District Superintendent measuring a church or clergyperson’s worth on numbers that could be easily falsified or misunderstood. That’s about as inaccurate as using someone’s salary level or years of service to denote how good someone is in ministry or how bad a local church is because their church can’t afford the extravagant cost of direct billing. What I’m trying to say doesn’t mean that I don’t support accountability. We’ve been measuring this stuff forever at Charge Conferences and with year-end statistical tables, and the church is still in decline. Maybe doing the weekly math will help keep some honest, but forced compliance will likely flip the intrinsic joy of doing ministry into just another extrinsic hoop through which to jump. Coercion is not a good motivator.
Then there’s another problem. Numbers lie, except maybe in the Olympics. Thank God I have a District Statistician that alerts me to churches whose numbers have jumped or declined significantly. We make phone calls to see if somebody made a mistake. It happens enough that I am convinced that the only way to measure a local church or clergyperson’s effectiveness is through lots of personal contact. I have to know the lay of the land with churches and people. I cannot sit at Metrics Central and let impersonal numbers do all the talking. They cannot tell the whole story. I can’t even trust my own perception alone. I may hear a sermon and think it was yuck, but standing around the shade tree after the service with the church people I may learn that Pastor _______ spent most of the week helping a bereaved family or a crisis-facing teenager. Then who gives a rip if that sermon wasn’t up to Fred Craddock standards? The incarnational presence of that follower of Jesus was off the charts for those who knew better than I.
Therefore, I have to listen, intuit, and use any means possible to sense the sometimes imperceptible growth of the Kingdom in a given place. Metrics may help but the church isn’t the Olympics. Yes, I agree with all the fruitfulness stuff that Jesus talked about, but I also know He said that the Kingdom is like a slow growing sprout from a mustard seed. Oh, Lord, inspire us to do ministry more than measure it. Is there a middle way that honors the Holy Spirit’s timetable, and acknowledges our panic over numbers?