Five key metrics every church should consider
Updated: Jul 16
Many pastors have an uneasy relationship with metrics as they seem to take all the mystery out of the 'mystery of the church'.
When we look at the Book of Acts we see a church that grows through prayer, a move of Holy Spirit, a bold proclamation of the gospel in the face of persecution, and apostolic leadership. It was a simple plan of pray, preach, disciple, and go. It seems like the church grew organically and with a genuine outpouring of Holy Spirit. The big take away for us is that our job is too wait in the upper room seeking God till this happens again.
A focus on metrics, on the other hand, implies 'strategies', 'target groups', 'markets' and other corporate concepts. Suddenly church growth and health is reduced to business paradigms. It almost feels you could build a church without serious prayer or the unction of Holy Spirit because great marketing, CRM's, and audience engagement measures will do the job better - particularly in the modern digital age.
What tends to happen as churches navigate this tension is that they do neither very well. The metrics are spotty with incomplete records or subjective measurements. On the 'spiritual' side we tend to focus on the 'preach' and 'disciple' aspects but struggle to do the 'pray' and 'go' well.
I believe that METRICS and MYSTERY can be complementary. When both are fully utilized they enable the church to accomplish its calling.
We are called to be 'spiritual leaders' which, in my mind, clearly delineates that our role is to foster the spiritual nature of the church while at the same time exercise great leadership skills and giftedness. Being able to set up strong processes for gathering data, and being able to interpret it properly, and then being able to know what to do with this knowledge is crucial to being a good leader.
The knowledge that comes from robust system of metrics does not determine the decisions or the direction of a church - it is the guidance of Holy Spirit who does that. Yet, strong metrics are able to help us see more clearly what the issues actually are and what is really happening.
Metrics provide leadership with 'the facts' which give clarity to their spirit lead decision making.
The facts that are revealed can be pretty brutal at times which is probably another reason we have a love/hate relationship with metrics. Many a pastor tenses up inside when they hear the question 'What is our attendance like pastor? There seems to be less people around' and the pastor knows that the facts, revealed in metrics, say the same. Our self preservation often has us shy away from facts and focus on more nebulas truths such as "I just know God is working behind the scenes to make something great happen".
But what if metrics actually were part of the solution even as they reveal the some of the difficult realities.
Goliath was tall 11 feet tall by some accounts.
David did not cower from the reality or facts about Goliath but rather ran to it. He used his small size, nimbleness, and his long distance 'sharp shooting' weapon to make sure he never gave Goliath a chance. He would have fired all five stones till one hit ever before being within arms length of Goliath.
David actually used the facts as part of the solution rather than a threat. Huge man = big, slow, half blind, target. Metrics can help us grasp the reality but also, with the power of Holy Spirit, see the solution. The clearer we see the present reality the more realistic solutions we can be seen and imagined.
So which metrics are the important ones?
1. Congregational Size
I know...this seems so WRONG and OUTDATED to even list it. But before you unsubscribe, hear me out.
The reason 'congregational size' is the most important metric is because it is the base metric used for so many other metrics that measure the more important issues.
We use 'congregational size' as the divider in calculations such as '% of congregation who gives' or '% of congregation in LIFE groups' or '% of congregation that regularly attends our services (online or otherwise)'. Of course, the one closest to my heart that uses 'congregational size' is 'the number of people baptized in our church this year compared to congregational size'.
The question of 'how you define what is the congregation', and the methods you employ to arrive at that number, is complex. It is important though, to put effort into arriving at an accurate definition and count for what your 'congregational size' is. The right definition, and an efficient method of collection, will give you a much greater insight into your church.
For example, as a senior pastor I installed a staffing ratio policy. We had money to hire but we were in danger of being overstaffed so a formula was developed around the number of staff hours as a ratio of congregation size. It was tempting to increase congregation size (by counting pregnant mums twice) because it meant we could hire more staff. The downside of that would be an inflated sense of how we are doing AND a decrease in pushing for volunteers to be raised up to led ministries.
Getting the size right helps get to the real facts and develop Holy Spirit strategies to grow health.
It is very tempting to inflate the digital attendance numbers because there are so many stats to pick from. You can even count people in your attendance who viewed for 3 seconds. Yet the broader the number the less it feels like a church and the more it feels like smoke and mirrors.
Let me give three possible ways a church could define what they mean by 'congregation'. Remember, the definition is not about getting the biggest number but about getting the most useful number.
Congregation - These are people who, if asked, would say 'Yeah, I would call 'xyz church' my church'. Often, as a pastor, you will call around to someone you haven't seen for a while and they will say 'yes pastor, we are still part of you' even though there is no other sign of life. Some of these people may only watch or attend 3 or 4 times a year.
Weekend Service Attendance - This is the easiest to calculate as it simply means counting those physically attending services along with using the myriads of data collection points from your livestream platforms. This has dominated metrics in the last number of years.
Engagement - Engagement was historically measured through activities such as 'giving', 'regular attendance', 'in a LIFE group' or even 'play on the church soccer team'. In the digital church it is enlarged to include those who subscribe, post, and keep clicking 'like'. Engagement in the digital age could be described as those 'you are in conversation with'. A person is engaged with your church when they intentionally interact with your content (subscribe, listen to podcast, watch full clips etc), For example, a person might read your daily devotional (written or video) but not regularly view your service. We would consider them 'engaged' with your church.
Many churches have struggled to effectively utilize the new platforms for engagement because everything was historically orientated around the 'in-person service'. It was a massive shift to go from a simple 'In person engagement' paradigm to a 'digital engagement' paradigm. The in-person service will be back - but it will now share it's importance with other forms of engagement.
So which is the 'right' choice for you base metric?
I believe zeroing in on those who call your church their home is the right way to go.
This concept of 'congregation' is aligned with how the apostles understood the local church.
The etymology of the word congregation is latin and it means 'to gather (as in a flock)'. The word reminds us that a 'church' is a 'flock'. It is a group of people who have self identified themselves as being under the spiritual care (and accountability) of the local church (shepherds).
There is tremendous pressure on this traditional definition in light of the digital age. We now have 'churches' that have 1000's of people viewing from all over the world. It is tempting to redefine the size of the local church according to this reality. Yet we all know that while many of these viewers might say they are being 'fed' by the church not as many would consider themselves under the spiritual care. They are, quite literally, viewers or consumers of content.
This is not 'the church' but rather the 'viewership' or 'audience'. Please don't get me wrong. I strongly encourage churches to grow the viewership as you are helping people grow in their faith and you are demonstrating an ability to be relevant. And I very strongly urge churches to develop an incredible engagement strategy.
Yet the apostles defined local churches by the word 'flock' and not 'viewership'. I believe this truth withstands even the digital age.
Using those who call your church 'home' as your base metric helps you focus on depth rather than breadth.
By asking 'how many people identify as being under our spiritual care' you are naturally led to the next question which is 'how are we doing at helping our people grow spiritually?', By focusing on 'flock' we centre on the process and methods of spiritual growth rather than just numeric growth
This metric also provides context for the 'engagement metric' and the 'attendance metric'.
If you have 500 people who self identify as being under your care but only 200 people are engaged (attendance, social media, etc) then you know that you face some big challenges. We have learnt in the midst of the pandemic that being part of a church is a heart decision and people can remain committed for a long time - even without major engagement. However, if over time you consistently fail to engage them (especially in a pandemic) their hearts may go elsewhere or at the very least cool off.
The traditional congregational metric is the first metric to get right because it sheds light and gives context to your engagement level metric or attendance metric.
How do you accurately ascertain the size of your congregation?
The simplest and most accurate method is to simply ask!
If a congregation is 'those who self identify as being under your spiritual care' then it is logical that you ask people, from time to time, if they consider themselves to be part of your church.
Here are some practical ways to build and qualify your database...
A call around twice a year to both ENGAGE your people and ASCERTAIN if they still call your church home.
Continually incorporate in your forms (online engagement or physical) the opportunity for people to indicate where they are at i.e. when they register their children for a program have a section that asks 'Attender OR Visiting OR My home Church' This is a natural way for people to identify their progression and you can subtly include it on many forms. You may say 'but they haven't attended the 'newbies class?' but if they self indicate this is their church home now you can call them and invite them personally! This easy 'onboarding' process is particularly crucial in the pandemic as people have actually joined your church that you have never met...and you need to find this out.
Glean from membership lists, LIFE group lists, etc. This will be piece meal but will help fill in gaps.
Train your staff so they might be key in qualifying where people are at.
Here are two points on data collection...
I would strongly urge you, as you collect this data, to put names and faces to the data. Go beyond just having a number but also gather as much personal information as possible (including photos for id) so you know specifically who these 'sheep' are.
Get a modern, interactive, web based data base that the entire staff (and even volunteers) have access to and can adjust. The congregation is fluid and your team are the best to know the status of people. If they are trained to update this info as they engage people your data will become a powerful tool.
Ok...this is enough for now!
It was a long and technical one so congratulation's on being the only person who made it to the end! I am sure you are salivating as you wait for the next instalment.
It is my hope though, that through this blog, I got you thinking about how you utilize metrics in your leadership of the church. They are another tool to help your spiritual leadership and, as you refine them, they can be as effective as David's stones.