Stop Converting 100 People [mission.hack]

A mission.hack is defined here. We look at mission statements or at mission initiatives and examine different ways of expressing them. Hacking them...if you will.

Prodigal Jon over at Stuff Christians Like has a point that I want to make as well.  He writes about the numbers game that churches play with events...you know, like "25 souls saved at this worship service" or "120 new followers of Christ from this mission trip" and such.

A great way to confirm a parent's belief that your church only cares about numbers is to over celebrate the number of kids that came to VBS and the number of kids that were saved. Please don't read this as "Jon hates when kids give their lives to God." Not at all. I just think that it needs to be about relationship, not only a number.
"Well, no one thinks that" you might say.  But since this is a mission.hack, what about your signage or reports that sound something like what Prodigal Jon saw:
A church near me had a sign that said "VBS – 1,200 kids, 432 saved!" Again, the heart of that is great, but the sign felt like it should say "That's a 33% success rate in Fiscal Quarter 2."  
I wonder how many churches honestly do this.  If a worship event cost $5000, and 50 people converted to Christianity, that's $100 per convert.  Would that get more credence at the church budget table than a bible study that costs $1000 for the year but merited only 5 converts (thus, $200 per convert)?  I guess if your church is in the evangelical numbers realm, this would have to be a consideration.

Prodigal Jon concludes with this astute observation:
Be careful, parents might not dig thinking "yay, my kid was #234 at your Christian factory."
I think the kernel of this conflict is that Christians emphasize different parts of the Great Commission.  What is that?  Last chapter of Matthew, Jesus says "Go forth and make disciples of all the nations"
  • If you emphasize "make disciples" then you are encouraging growth and discipleship...in other words, forming relationships.
  • If you emphasize "of all the nations" then your evangelistic goal is to make more Christians, either to assure the coming of the Lord or to save more souls to Christ.
Both are valid forms of Christianity.  But when we emphasize the numerical growth over the discipleship (which in some ways is unquantifiable), then we fall down a slippery slope to "the ends justify the means."  Bryan Stone, a professor at Boston University School of Theology, expands on this in his book Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness.
When the mission of the church becomes a mission of numerical growth, quantitative influence, and geographical spread, evangelism is easily reduced to whatever means, method, or gimmick will facilitate that mission.  Conversion then becomes a lowest common denominator decision or experience that will allow a church, without too much embarrassment, to claim an individual as its own. (page 272)
The problem for church leaders, of course, is how to gauge "success" without playing the numbers game.  Stone continues with something of value to us at Hacking Christianity:
Evangelism can be measured by how fully inclusive is our "reach" and how thoroughly we refuse to allow that "reach" to be domesticated by the political boundaries and economic disciplines of the [world]...the measure of Christian evangelistic reach is its openness and hospitality to the poor, the stranger, and the socially ostracized. (pp. 273-274)
Remember: this is a mission.hack where we examine the words we are using.  Perhaps then instead of a sign saying "VBS – 1,200 kids, 432 saved!" a better sign may be:
  • VBS: 1200 kids, 400 given scholarships and came for free.
  • VBS: 1200 kids, 233 first-timers came!
  • VBS: 1200 kids, one Lord who welcomes them all!
  • VBS: 1200 kids, and at least 12 of  them were black!
  • VBS: 1200 kids, and two were probably gay!
  • and my favorite - VBS: 1200 kids, and we didn't resort to BibleMan Action Figures or candy to welcome 432 kids into a relationship with Christ.
By focusing on the reach of our evangelism to the poor and ostracized, not just the breadth of its spread, then perhaps we are one step better to doing evangelism better.

Thoughts? 
  • Examples of churches in your town that prefer numbers over discipleship?  
  • Ideas for how to quantify discipleship in ways that aren't about the numbers?
Welcome to our visitors and every comment is cherished at HackingChristianity!

4 comments:

yipeng June 30, 2008 at 8:45 AM  

What abt statistics that track church members who have been serving for more than a year... or regular attendance at prayer meetings :)

Matt Algren June 30, 2008 at 10:05 AM  

Ever heard of The Power Team? My former church (after I moved) had them in a few years ago and the pastor was over the top excited about them. He's very much a numbers guy.

Leaving aside the unabashed idiocy of the thing, they use the numbers game on their website, claiming that you'll get one convert for every $10 and that 20-30% of attendees will be converted.

P.S., last I knew, my former church experienced neither the promised convert return nor the promised phenomenal increase in church attendance. Shocking.

As for other ways to quantify discipleship, it's a fine line sometimes. My church recently finished our VBS, and while they did publish attendance numbers and such, they also put the focus elsewhere. Just recognizing all the people who worked for VBS in one way or another is always an impressive and memorable message for the church.

Another good method is to take lots and lots (and lots) of pictures during VBS and scroll them before service. Visuals seem to make a more lasting impression than numbers.

Missy Ann July 1, 2008 at 12:30 PM  

You know, I was totally just having this conversation with the chair of our family ministries on Sunday. She had been really excited about our Kids Club program because it was the largest it had ever been and there were more than that had never been there before. The last day our attendance dropped about 10, which wasn't surprising because it was rainy. Another leader told her that the whole thing wasn't a success because we didn't have the numbers. She was struggling with feeling like it had been a huge success because there were new kids there instead of having the large number. I am going to print this out and give it to her also because although our conversation gave her a different perspective, I don't think she was quite as convinced anymore which I think is really sad that another church leader can do that...More work to do!

momentum-mag.org July 4, 2008 at 8:23 PM  

"Facts are the fingers of God," wrote A.T. Pierson in 1888. "What gets measured, gets managed," wrote Peter Drucker. We need statistics--but we need the right statistics for the right reasons. You can look at statistics AND their use and know what motivates any group, be it church, club or political gathering. The one problem that I often see with these kinds of statistics is this: that the church uses it to compare themselves to others, thus validating their existence, but rarely compare it against their stated goals. If the goal is to reach a city for Jesus, for example, how will converting 100 people help? Programs have to scale to embrace more people than are presently being born, or the Body of Christ is not "gaining" on its goal. Relational characteristics are trickier to manage, and I've written about these myself: http://www.momentum-mag.org/2007/01/measuring-charactermeasuring-character. Finally, despite my comment about scaling, we have to remember that every stage of a new ministry is important and deserves its own quantifiable statistical "signposts" to indicate how it is doing. A ministry just being birthed needs a different kind of stat than a ministry that is older and maturing; we need to know when we've gotten from infanthood to toddler etc. Stages of maturity.

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