Churches need to see themselves as signs and not solutions
Living in our modern, western, business minded 21st century world, it is not surprising that plenty of churches have adopted practices and perspectives from this surrounding culture. In some cases this is a good thing, but in many others it is seriously unhealthy.
One of these unhealthy areas is when it comes to success.
In a business context, everything has to be quantifiable. It’s all about metrics and measurement. Success is based upon what can categorically be proved. One way or another, it's all a numbers game.
The transition of this into a church context has been deadly. Ask most church leaders how their church is going and the response you will get – and the response, if we’re honest, we are looking for – is all about how many people attend the weekly services.
Bums on seats has become the single most significant measurement of what makes a successful church. This isn’t a new observation. There’s nothing original here in what I write. But that’s what makes it worse. We’ve known about this for years, and yet nothing has changed.
It’s not that the number of attendees is irrelevant. It’s all too easy to sell a small church as being about quality while assuming any ‘successful’ church is only getting lots of attendees because they have compromised on quality or ‘the true gospel’. We make it into an argument about quality versus quantity. But this is a major distraction from more important questions.
One such question is whether we should be measuring church success at all. Is it even possible to measure true success? We’re talking about matters of faith, matters of the heart, matters of the spirit. Can these ever be captured by numbers?
In Krista Tippett’s recent book Becoming Wise, she shares details from an interview with Jean Vaneir, founder of L’Arche, the International Federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs, and support networks with people who have intellectual disabilities. In the interview she asked him how he thinks about success. Here’s what he had to say:
L’Arche is not a solution, but a sign. It’s the transmission of a vision and a culture. We don’t know how to measure such transmission, moment to moment and life to life. But it’s reality is undeniable.
This strikes me as exactly the sort of definition of success we who are involved with church should be using.
The success of a church is simply not measurable with attendance numbers. Too often church can come across as putting on a show and judging it’s success based on how many people turn up.
But a healthy church is not about putting on a show. It’s not about entertaining people.
Church is about creating spaces for people to encounter the divine. That can happen with two or three people, or it can happen with two or three thousand people. But the success is not based upon the numbers; it’s simply about whether space was created that made it possible to engage with mystery and wonder and experience God.
Not all churches are meant to be the same. Not all churches are meant to be big. Nor small. The truth is we need all kinds of different churches for different kinds of people. Sadly, the churches we always put on pedestals are the large ones. And so we miss out on the wisdom of the pastor who has for years faithfully led a community of perhaps just forty or fifty people. That pastor doesn’t get to speak at the big conference with celebrity leaders. And yet I want to hear from her too.
Churches, like humans, come in all shapes and sizes. And I want to hear and learn from the experiences and accumulated wisdom of every type of church – large or small – that is faithfully creating spaces for people to explore and express faith, serving the poor, and being a beacon of light and hope to their community.
In the words of Vaneir, I want to hear and learn from all who are leading churches that offer themselves to the world not as a solution, but as a sign. It strikes me that the healthiest churches are those that point away from themselves and towards Christ.
Churches exist to create communal environments where people can explore and express faith, encounter Christ, and serve humanity. And whether the church doing that has ten people or a thousand people makes no difference to me.
Let’s keep our focus on what truly matters.