On an Appropriate Measure of Success

In my last piece I expressed some concern over the uncritical application of business models and statistics (counting) to the Church. What troubles me is not so much counting itself. That, as we shall see, is a very natural and understandable human activity and surely there are certain aspects of the Church that can be meaningfully counted. My concern is that when we simplistically or more problematically apply exclusively these practices to the Church, as if it were a business, they give us an inaccurate picture of the Church’s health and tend to divert our attention away from the real standards of ecclesial growth that are presented in the Scriptures. So I’d like to continue by asking what standard(s) of success is to be used when evaluating the growth of the Church.

The easiest way to define success in general is to do so in terms of the fulfillment or accomplishment of some purpose or desire. Accepting that aim as legitimate basically defines the measure used to gauge success. So in a capitalistic society the sole purpose of business will be profit. If that is achieved, if there are higher levels of production, increasing sales, etc., it is considered a success. Even so-called non-profit organizations measure success in terms of funds raised, aid distributed, and so on. In a narcissistic society like ours, the primary purpose of individual existence will be the fulfillment of personal desire. This can be measured in terms of the amassing of material wealth, the prestige afforded by position or education, and of course the myriad ways in which people amuse themselves. There can be little doubt that these two factors, profit and ego satisfaction, are the prevailing aims of our culture and therefore determine the primary means of measuring the performance of just about anything in North America. It has become (understandably) difficult for us to even think of success in any other terms.

The other thing that affects our understanding of success is that contemporary culture expects and practically demands what it calls progress. The idea is that, as our knowledge becomes both broader and more unified, we will experience continued or perpetual progress as envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet (Sketch for A Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind) and Kant (What is Enlightenment). This relentless progress is, of course, not limited to advances in technology, but includes social, political, and moral progress. Having grown accustomed to the constant evolution of technology, the late modern individual tends to generalize and project this movement on almost every area of life. For that reason we think that the economy always has to grow, that clubs, schools, sports teams, just about everything has to produce more members, more graduates, more wins, etc. In other words, we have transformed almost every aspect of modern life, including the Church, into a business-like entity regulated by some kind of profit/loss motive. Here again, having gotten so used to the truly impressive effectiveness of the techniques used to achieve and measure that profit in the business world, we quite naturally generalize and apply this overall approach even to non-business entities such as the Church. A number of authors (Barna, Marketing the Church, Reising, Church Marketing 101) openly state that the Church is, in fact, a business with a product, the Gospel, to sell and a mandate to promote that product and generate (demand) profits in the form of converts. By demanding constant growth we quite naturally turn to counting (in some form) as our chief means of evaluating this performance, that is, according to some variation of the profit loss standard. While not quite as explicit, most Church Growth thinking is based on a similar assumption, bigger is better, more is always the goal.

Were I to follow this course, I could tell you that during the decade from 2006 to 2016 our average Sunday morning attendance has grown from 62 to 101. That is a 63% increase in just ten years. But, what does this tell us about the growth and the health of my parish? It could mean that we are reaching new people with the Gospel (in keeping with the Great Commission, Mt 28.18) and/or we are convincing more of our members to attend regularly. Now these things could be important indictors of ecclesial health, but only if they can be shown to be expressions of the spiritual maturity that facilitates active, selfless witness or the progressive sanctification of the members that enflames the desire to be with and worship the living God. The numbers themselves are not important. In other words, numeric growth is not the goal by itself, but is rather an, albeit welcome, side effect of a completely different kind of growth, a maturing that is commensurate with the fact that the Church is a living, multilayered, spiritual reality, the body of Christ, and not a one-dimensional, profit or loss business. That is precisely why the scriptures give us a very different standard with which to measure the growth of the Church.

The word “success” (ἐπιτυχία) only occurs once in the bible (Wisdom of Solomon 13.19, LXX) and it fits the general definition (see above) of the achievement of some aim. However, the word for “grow” or increase (αὐξάνω) does occur in both the Old Testament (39x) and New Testament (23x). In most cases it refers to the growth of animals, plants, the hair on our head, the young, and so on.  It is also used with specific reference to our faith and to the Church. But there we are told that the growth is caused by God alone (1 Cor 3.6; 2 Cor 9.10), that its object (focal point) is Christ (Eph 4.15), that it involves our witness, faith, spiritual maturity, grace, good works (Col 1.6, 10; 1 Pet. 2.2, 18). In any case, nowhere is this kind of growth, the  growth of the Church, spoken of in terms of numbers. Here there is no talk of profit or of ego satisfaction.

Ephesians 4 is a good example of this perspective on ecclesial growth. In this chapter St. Paul refers to several growth related themes: he talks about children growing into adults, about teaching that leads to increased knowledge, about the Church maturing into the fullness of the knowledge of Christ. So, it is this process of maturing into knowledge and not growth rates and numbers, simple counting, that St. Paul sets up as a standard for measuring the growth of the Church. So if we apply Eph 4 to the command to witness (Mt 28.18), we see that what we need to measure is our faithfulness to Christ, that is, our willingness to keep his commandment to witness, and not simply the results of that activity. That means that even during times of persecution and decline the Church could be considered a success if it remains faithful. Of course, decline (as may be the case in NA), could just as well be the result of unfaithfulness. In any case, the model works.

If the goal determines the model of success, we may also have to reconsider our understanding of success in terms of the actual, biblical goal of Christian outreach. In the Great Commission (Mt 28.16–20, Mk 16.15– 16, Lk 24.47–48, Acts 1.8) Jesus specifically commands the apostles to take the message of His coming Kingdom into the whole world. The grammatical structure of the passage is of special interest. Verses 19 and 20 read as follows in the Greek text: “πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος, διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν.” What is so interesting here is that the command contains only one explicit imperative, namely the word “make disciples” (μαθητεύσατε). That word is followed by two participles, baptizing (βαπτίζοντες) and teaching (διδάσκοντες), which receive an imperative sense from the word μαθητεύσατε. The whole construct is preceded by the term πορευθέντες, which also acquires an imperative sense (Cf. E. Rommen, Notwendigkeit der Umkehr, Brunnend Verlag, I987). So the actual command here is to make disciples (not converts), to do so by baptizing and teaching, to do so as you go out into all the world and to keep on doing that until Christ returns. In other words, the goal of our outreach is not simply an ever larger number of punctiliar conversions, but rather an ongoing, continual ministry of life-long discipleship.

So if conversion is simply the first step in an ongoing process of becoming like Christ, and if conversion itself is no guarantee that the individual will even move on to that living discipleship, then, it cannot possibly be used as a measure of success. Nevertheless, there is something very appealing about that approach, since it is so easy to count and analyze conversions. We can talk about percentages of increase, trends, and complement ourselves with detailed reports on who is and who is not being converted, etc. Unfortunately, that kind of preoccupation with numbers creates a false sense of accomplishment, the feeling of having completed a task. But if conversion is not the end of the process, but, at its very best, just the beginning of fulfilling the Church’s responsibility to the world, then we will have to look to the state of the ongoing process of facilitating maturity in Christ to find a way of measuring success. But, the problem here is that the things that St. Paul speaks of in Eph 4 cannot be counted and do not yield to statistical analysis. How do you count “edifying of the body of Christ,” “the unity of the faith,” “the knowledge of the Son of God,” “the fullness of Christ,” “no longer being children,” no longer being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine,” and “growing up in all things into Him?” Yet, these are the very things that constitute success in mission. These are the very things that we will need to find a way to assess in order to determine the extent to which we are fulfilling the Great Commission. More on that next time.


    1. You ask a most important question, does just “being” the actual church make it healthy? Does “being” the Orthodox Church constitute health in and of itself? No! I do not want to make a simplistic equation between being the Church and it automatically being healthy and growing. However, what I am saying, is that in order for an entity to be healthy in the way the NT describes that health, and in order for group to grow in the way growth is talked about in the NT, that group will have to actually be a Church. Something that is not a Church cannot possibly grow in a “churchly” way. There are, in fact, many groups that are not Church (even though that is what they are called) and for that reason the growth that they may demonstrate is not growth in a biblical sense and should not be copied (or even envied) by us. That is why all the “doing” in the world cannot bring biblically defined growth. It first has to “be” a Church, then it can grow as a Church. On the other hand, I would say that every Church, every Orthodox Church, is going to be both healthy and unhealthy, both growing and declining in certain areas, and will thus have to work, with God’s help, to grow toward the maturity he expects from us.

  1. Fr Edward,

    Thank you for your continuing discussion of Church growth. My parish is going through a similar discussion so I find this very timely.

    I take your caution that true success in the Church isn’t ultimately a measure of numbers attending on Sunday. But, as I said in a previous comment, I’m loath for us to abandon numbers all together as if they are somehow something foreign to the mind of the Church. I don’t think we should completely discount them. They may not tell the whole story, but they might be critical clues that each parish needs to honestly face in order to see that they may have a problem.

    Decreasing numbers may not necessarily be a sign of sickness. People die, move, etc. Growing numbers are not necessarily a sign of health. People check out the liturgy, come for a cultural experience, are immigrants committed to their ethnic religion, and never really grow spiritually. Certainly these things are true, but isn’t it fair to say that if a parish is steadily declining over time, that’s probably a good indication that questions need to be asked?

    The book of Acts frequently has reference to the numbers and the growth pattern of the Church. It’s mentioned twice in chapter 2, again in 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and again a few times in 11. Luke seems to think this is a good sign that things were going well, without needed to confirm that each of these people were disciples and not just converts.

    I’m very interested in your thoughts on this matter. Again, I don’t disagree with the main thrust of your article, as I understood it. Numbers aren’t the goal, but they aren’t the enemy either. I’d rather that we all looked at the decline in parish attendance and grieved , and then asked the hard questions that may lead to repentance and renewed dedication to the task of making disciples.

    1. Once again, I have to commend you for raising very insightful questions. Some of what you are asking about counting and numbers will be answered in my next post. Stay tuned!

      For now, let me say that I am not rejecting all Church Growth thinking, I know that many (probably most) of the people working in that direction only want what is best for the Church. I not only respect that I want to make a positive contribution to achieving that end.

      Because of its unique nature as a living, spiritual organism, the Church has to be measured in terms of things that are appropriate to that nature. So the first step is to define just what those things are. How do we want to grow? Once we identify the types of growth that are unique to the Church we can then ask how we can go about measuring those things. Not all of those things can be counted. But there are most definitely some things that we can count. My concern is that we count the right things and that we draw legitimate conclusions based on what we do count.

  2. Just coming across this blog for the first time and have a few loosely-related thoughts.

    One difficulty is that within the Church, there is a prevailing culture to only talk about church health/growth in terms of numbers. At clergy meetings, casual conversations tend to focus on how many members are in your parish, Sunday attendance, budget. These general metrics also tend to be what are most requested in written reports, inquiries by the hierarchs, etc. My sense is that numbers are a very tangible thing to focus on, while deepening discipleship is a far less tangible thing to talk about.

    Something that I’ve tried to do to moderate the numbers talk with describing what happens in the parish. At it’s most basic level, it’s giving thumbnails of positive things happening in the parish–stories about the ministry we do as a result of growing discipleship.

    I will also occasionally employ the image of our parish as a living, organic entity that is in the process of maturing. Right now we function in ways that reflect and adolescent point of development, but the expectation is that we will continue to mature into adulthood. The difficulty is that this image can still easily stray into only talking about the parish in terms of “progress” and “growth.”

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