How is your church doing?
I used to dread going to Pastors conferences for that question alone. I hated asking it and I hated answering it. Yet it seemed as obligatory as a handshake.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about how my church was really doing. Sometimes I longed for it. It was that it always ended up being code for “how big is your church?” No matter how I tried to answer it always came back to how many attended. The weird thing is that I knew many of my colleagues hated the question just as much and yet we all inevitably asked it of each other. We all felt judged by the size of our church, felt pride or embarrassment from the answer even as we tried to move the conversation to other things; tried to find other ways to describe the condition of our church. Usually we did eventually have good conversations about other things more important but the assessment based on size always hovered.
As Ive thought about it over the years I’ve come to understand the reason behind the conflict. It’s not that we truly think size is the best measure. It’s just that we’ve not come up with any better. We suspect that size alone is a poor way to assess whether our church is succeeding, but it does make sense that a healthy church should attract people so we continue to use it as the only assessment available to us. We implicitly assume that pastors with larger churches are doing something right and pastors with shrinking numbers are doing something wrong.
We had an unusual situation at Lifesong. Towards the end there was a brief period where we had more people attending small groups in a consistent basis than we had attending Sunday morning services. In other words measuring the way most churches do, we had more than 100 percent of our members in small groups. On top of this most of the groups (though admittedly not all) were experiencing a level of discipleship and care in the groups they had never experienced in church before. Given this was our emphasis it should have been a clearly positive assessment. We were growing but because it wasn’t visible on Sunday Morning it didn’t look like growth. Our paradigm of assessment was so ingrained to be the size of our Sunday morning services that morale was low despite a high personal level of satisfaction among the members. One member who left expressed at the exit interview that he had no complaints or concerns with the exception of one: we weren’t growing numerically and as the pastor I should know why and how to fix it and since I didn’t he couldn’t trust my leadership anymore. The assessment based on size was the only assessment of my leadership he wanted or needed. As for me, my inability to grasp and effectively articulate any different assessment at that moment was one of my failings
Unless you define discipleship solely by adding numbers (and I sincerely hope you don’t) then it is crucial to come up with some other means of assessment. Even if you see attendance as a symptom of health it is not synonymous with health.
Bottom line: as difficult as it is, some means of assessment is necessary to keep on track.
Here are some tips to help you work towards assessment.
Thinking trajectory instead of landing is more helpful for assessing discipleship. One difficulty wih assessing discipleship is that it has something to do with learning and our other model of assessing learning is academic education. There we do tests for knowledge and when enough tests are passed we graduate that person declaring that phase of their learning complete. When we try to think of discipleship in the same terms it doesn’t work. When can we declare someone has mastered faith or now loves God? Instead as our own life reveals life is not a set of fundamentals once learned and never questioned in easy concrete steps always up toward a goal but a slippery climb up a steep mountain where the very thing we learned a year ago is now suddenly a complete mystery to us. One day we are completely winning at life and devoted to God and the next we feel as immature as the newest believer in our midst. Of course the difference can be explained in that we are not measuring knowledge of this sort but instead measuring life lived under the headship of Christ. The ambiguity of this is precisely why we often fail to attempt any assessment at all. The answer is to stop measuring completion and instead measure trajectory. Trajectory is the path a flying object makes as it moves through the air. It’s a description of the direction and arc of the item. By watching the trajectory of a thrown ball, you can tell where it’s going to land. Discipleship is about the trajectory of our life; even though we can’t call the journey completed until it lands, we can still tell if we’re moving forward in the right direction. Even statements like “I’ve given my life to Jesus” are somewhat presumptuous until that life is complete. At the same time we can still judge whether the tenor of someone’s life is in keeping with such a statement, even when a given weak moment doesn’t indicate it.. We can assess whether the trajectory is in keeping with our goals of discipleship. Note that assessing trajectory requires relationship and community while testing merely for knowledge requires neither..
Seeking unity of faith and pursuit instead of unanimity of behavior. It’s hard to disciple trajectory; to encourage the Christian life to be perceived as a pursuit of Christ, a walk of faith and dependence, rather than an ethical life or religious creed, but it is precisely this distinction Paul is so often making in his letters. It’s also much easier to assess behavior than it is faith. Small groups of accountability are often less effective than they could be because they degenerate into mere checks on behavior. While there may be a place for this, discipleship is much more. We are not called in scripture to an obligation to make sure we all behave identically, but we are more than once called into an obligation to encourage unity of faith, to let no one be deceived. Note here as well, that accountability of shared faith and pursuit of Christ requires relationship and community whereas accountability of behavior does not.
Going backwards instead of forwards is progress if you’re going the wrong direction. If it seems particularly difficult to come up with a means of assessment it is very possibly because you have not clearly defined what discipleship looks like. And, as we discovered las week, if defining what is difficult then it might be because you haven’t clearly articulated why. Don’t be afraid to back up and take more time with the fundamentals.
Asking questions instead of declaring judgments is actually more useful for assessment. Precisely because the nature of the assessments are so life-oriented, faith-dependent and based on trajectory, you’ll find that asking questions which prompt the answerer to do some self examination at the same time providing you with information will be much more helpful to determining trajectory than making declarative statements and judgments without their involvement. If you ask, for example, “Do they understand the importance of grace and faith to overcoming sin?” You may get one answer from your observation of their life, another one from their own lips and a third from comparing how the two answer interact By asking them the question, you may not only learn where you are mistaken in your judgement but you may also learn things not asked like what they think grace means, what they think faith means and even what sins they are aware of continually failing to overcome. Asking questions also helps you frame things in terms of trajectory rather than in terms of completion. You can assess whether things are habits, convictions, points of ignorance or rebellion, desires but not habits and so on. Most importantly, you may find where God is working in their life and this can help discipleship follow the curriculum of life set by the Holy Spirit rather than your own particular agenda of the day. I encourage you to develop a set of questions to help identifying trajectory rather than completion and conviction rather than only behavior. Maybe the ball hasn’t even been thrown, maybe it’s in the air heading the wrong direction, maybe it’s on track with minor tweaks…. Consider a set of questions that you can ask at every level. Group and ministry leaders can ask their groups. Leaders can ask each other as well as discuss the condition of the church as a whole through these questions. Parents can ask children and spouses could ask each other and so on..
Here’s an example of an assessment tool we used at Lifesong called “Way Stations of Discipleship.” Were I to pastor today this would likely change again, but it is a good example of how we used both trajectory and questions in our assessment tool.
Part 6 is up here!
See you next week!
Smiling at the future,
I founded Discipleship Matters to help churches with leadership retreats, pastoral coaching, guest speaking and conferences as another supporting voice in your work of discipleship. We can create a custom long term plan (anywhere from 6 months to 2 years) or arrange an al-a-carte conference. (If the information in this series intrigues you, I’d specifically suggest the Big Ideas conference where I help you and your leaders work through these important first questions on your way to a unique plan of “How” to build a thriving community of Discipleship. I value you and the work you do and want to help if I can in anyway. Call me at 505-393-5433(LIFE) or email me at Pastormac_@mac.com (put Discipleship Matters in the subject if you want to get my attention right away.)