A Call to Action Part the First: A Charitable Reading of the "Metrics"

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


By now, many of you may have seen the UMNS news story highlighting the work of the recent (April 6-8, 2010) meeting of the "Call to Action Committee." If not, go read that first.

Some of you may also have seen or read Dan Dick's riposte on his blog, United Methodeviations. Not that it matters all that much here, but I commented there as well.

The commentators on the original news story and Dan Dick have both done a pretty good job, from a wide variety of angles, of demonstrating how these indicators really do not help us deliver on what we say is the mission of the Church, "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." Frankly, my comment at Dan's blog also moved in that vein a bit.

What I'd like to do here, though, is try to offer a "charitable" reading of what the vitality indicators that came to the top of the consultants' original 2 question survey might mean for congregations as congregations.

Here are those top indicators:

  • Average worship attendance as percentage of membership;
  • Total membership;
  • Number of children, youth and young adults attending as percentage of membership;
  • Number of professions of faith as percentage of attendance and membership;
  • Actual giving per attendee; and
  • Finance benevolence giving beyond the local church as a percentage of the church budget.

I want to offer a charitable reading of these because I do still believe congregations have good work to do in the world, even if that work is not directly likely to generate very many disciples of Jesus engaged and equipped all that well to be part of God's mission of transforming the world. That's really what groups like class meetings in Methodist Societies were for. That's their specialty, and they've done that work historically very well. And we need far more and better partnerships between congregations and groups like that if we ever expect to get very far on our stated mission.

But congregations continue to have an important role to play. And I do not wish to downplay that at all.

So, let me go one by one here and offer my charitable reading.

1.) The ratio of worship attendance to actual membership. Since about the sixth century in the West, at least, congregations have organized themselves to accomplish 4 major things-- the public worship of God, laying a foundation of basic Christian theology, some way of caring for each other, and being a good and trusted institutional player in the local community. All four of those functions are good and helpful in many ways. And all four are necessary for discipleship, even if they are also generally insufficient.

There are two "variables" in this indicator-- worship attendance and membership. The worship attendance variable concerns the first of the four functions of the congregation, so congregations should have every reason to hope for and work toward a good number of worshipers. Membership, among the four, probably actually correlates best (in real life if not in our official theology) with "some way of caring for one another." You can't care all that well for folks you don't see, and you are less likely to offer Christian care for them if you don't also participate with them in worship. That's because it is probably worship, more than anything else, that actually forms us in Christian habits and practices-- again, given the typical congregation.

So yes, this turns out to be a pretty helpful indicator of vitality for a congregation. If most of the members are present in worship, you have two basic functions of the congregation covered well-- worship and a means of caring for each other.

So lets give that one 3 stars out of a possible 5.

2.) Total membership: This indicator is probably a bit more "slippery" for United Methodists now than it formerly was, since "total membership" for us at this point would have to include both baptized and professing members. We used to mean by that only "full members," the equivalent of what we now call professing members.

A larger total membership for a congregation at least has the likely potential to generate worship that may be richer because the number of people, and therefore the number of gifts they can offer well in worship may be larger.

Larger groups, if they are going to be sustainable at that larger size, also tend to organize themselves in ways that make them better institutional players and partners in the local community.

More people also potentially means a greater number of social networks, and so perhaps a greater potential to continue to increase membership over time-- at least if the people who come activate their social networks toward that end.

There are a lot of "potentiallies" and "conditionals" there, so I'd say this one might merit 2.5 stars.

3.) Number of children, youth and young adults attending as percentage of membership;Okay, I'm a parent of two teenage boys (17 and 13). My wife is an Episcopal priest who is a part time school chaplain and in her parish job also works closely with parents of preschoolers. I think between the two of us, we know lots of children, youth and young adults.

They do bring vitality that can enliven worship. They also demand a lot of the older folks in terms of education and formation. But let's be clear on this-- in nearly every congregation I and my wife have served it has been primarily the young adults with children who end up caring for their and other children during worship, so in fact you have children and young adults taken OUT of worship as much or more than included in worship. Youth, almost no matter what you do, are going to be narcissistic. So their contribution to worship may be more disruptive and demanding than uplifting, overall. The net effect then on worship is then either negative or a wash. And the effect on formation may also be negative or a wash, as most of these young adult parents have not been sufficiently formed themselves to provide even a basic theological education to their children or those of others.

As for institutional reliability, there are increasing demands being placed by both denominations and local law on how children are supervised and cared for that do have an impact on increasing the institutional reliability of congregations at least in this function. But that refers primarily to how they function internally. The other side of that is that when you have a lot of focus on the needs/desires/care of children, youth and young adults as an organization, that can divert away from (and often does!) issues of caring for adults and the larger community. So this could end up being a wash as well.

But I'm trying to be charitable here, right? So let's move on to caring for each other. Congregations often do seem to provide a level of inter-generational care that few other public institutions do as well. So it may well be the case that the presence of a larger percentage of children, youth and young adults do help to vitalize at least this part of the "organizational wheelhouse" of congregations.

Let's call this 1.5 stars. (That's 1 star for caring for each other, and 1/6 of a star for each of the other three, assuming they may each be slightly net positive).

4.) Number of professions of faith as percentage of attendance and membership. To get at what this means you have to think about how this happens. Why do people come to profess faith in Christ in the context of the typical congregation?

I'm not talking here about anything mysterious. I'm talking practicality. What are the factors congregations engender that most predict this kind of outcome?

I might argue that the most important of these is caring for each other. If cognitive science has taught us anything over the past two decades, it is that every decision people make is first emotive and second "rational." So people profess their faith in Christ in a given community when that community has showed persons they really do care for them and that Christ has something important to do with that.

Worship has something to do with this too, and, I would argue, perhaps more on an unconscious level than a conscious one. Where worship happens in ways that people can encounter and WANT to encounter God, there is a kind of social contagion of desire that others present can pick up on and respond to.

And so does the teaching of basic theology. So far we've only talked about the emotive side, as it were. It does take some teaching to help guide people to interpret what's going on as they experience love from others and encounter God in worship to understand what a response to that looks like-- especially a response of professing faith in Christ.

As for institutional reliability, frankly I would suggest there may be no corollary here. I think we've all known many caring congregations with good intentions and high rates of professions of faith with zero institutional savvy or even interest, though also some that do manage to do it all. The point is that this indicator isn't a predictor.

So, I'll say 4 stars out of five.

5.) Actual giving per attendee. Giving to a local congregation should be a primary indicator of the degree to which they care about the congregation and trust that it will handle their financial resources responsibly. Though financial giving for the congregation itself has become a more pronounced feature in worship over the past century or so, and there have been more efforts to try to connect giving affectively and cognitively with worship itself in some way, it's less than clear to me that those efforts have actually moved the dial all that much-- or even can.

I say this because of my years of working with United Way. I've known plenty of people whose giving through United Way and other philanthropic organizations was substantially higher than their giving to a local congregation, regardless of how the congregation may have integrated giving into worship or teaching and regardless of how often they attended worship or even liked worship there. The bottom line is what Jesus said it was-- you put your money where you actually care the most, and then where you trust those who receive it to use it wisely.

So I'd be apt to give this 2.5 stars (for caring and institutional reliablity, with maybe some small spillover effect from worship or teaching), except for one thing that one of the commenters on Dan Dick's blog pointed out. If we're serious about this metric, actual giving per member as a real dollar figure, not as a percentage of disposable income, then, frankly, we're also saying that a vital church can't actually include very many members who are poor or who have very little disposable income to offer. If the congregation is to be a public institution, much less one with Open Hearts, Open Doors and Open Minds, then we must include sizable numbers of folks with less money to give in our membership ranks.

I'd say that's a big blow-- a full star's worth. So 1.5 stars.

6.) Finance benevolence giving beyond the local church as a percentage of the church budget.Of the four major functions of congregations in the West since the sixth century, this addresses the institutional reliability function perhaps the most directly. Being a reliable institutional player in a local community means both that you have working structures that other institutions and people in the community can rely on to work, but also that you have something substantial to give, to bring to the community table as your offering to improve its overall life.

And you must have both.

So just being a pass-through (i.e., every dollar received somehow goes out elsewhere) doesn't actually qualify you as a reliable local institutional player. Spending all your resources on your own internal needs, no matter how reliably and accountably you do that, doesn't cut it, either. You need real institutional presence-- something you're doing with and for "insiders" and doing very well-- AND you need to be able to offer something valuable to the larger community.

If the end game here is on the community end (and in this function, historically, it is) then the balance of funds and resources should be tipped at least somewhat more outwardly than inwardly, but not so much as to jeopardize your internal capacity to do what you do and deliver what you deliver reliably.

That requires some teaching, and perhaps more than that it requires some real caring for others more than just yourselves, which means it first of all requires worship that continues to engender an "outwardly biased" ethos.

In short, I end up where Dan Dick does on this indicator, thinking it perhaps the best of the six-- and a full 5 stars out of 5. But I do so not because I think congregations are all that good at making disciples of Jesus or should try to do that themselves AS congregations-- but rather because I think that a congregation that is giving on balance more outwardly than it is using on itself inwardly is very likely exercising all four of its core functions pretty well to generate this result.

How would you size up these indicators?