Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Christ Is the Metric

When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

Many years ago, I was in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at Iowa State University.  As a Midshipman, I was expected to be able to run 5 miles in under X minutes (the number escapes me now; but not being a big fan of running, the number seemed unattainable).  Consequently, I spent many hours on the various indoor and outdoor jogging tracks available at the University.  I also knew, almost down to the second, how long it took to run a lap at each of these facilities (they were all different) in order to stay on pace for an X-minute 5-mile run.

One day, at the State Gym track, I was feeling especially good.  My stride seemed effortless, my rhythm consistent.  I wished my high school football coach - who once described my running style as looking "like an empty garbage can rolling down a hill" - could see me now.  In fact, I was so swift, I even was passing some old geezer professors (you know, in their 40's or 50's).  After 5 laps or so, I glanced at the big clock at one end of the track and, if my mental math was correct, I was on pace to run just under a 5-minute mile!  Immediately, my imagination began to run as swiftly as I was.  Heck, if I can run a 5 minute mile without any serious training...who knows what I could do if I really applied myself??  Iowa State may have just found its knew middle distance runner....and the '76 Olympics were just 3 years away...

About that time, I lapped a group of those "old geezer" professors.  As I passed them with dreams of setting collegiate and Olympic running records dancing in my head, I heard one of them say, "I wish they'd fix that stupid clock."  "Yeah," another somewhat winded voice said. "Yesterday I ran a 2-minute mile!"

When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

What is the system of standards by which you measure yourself?  This system of standards - or metric, to borrow a term from business and industry - provides some of the data by which we begin to imagine that which we are capable of achieving in this world.  Bad metric = bad data.  Bad data = bad understanding of capability.

I am a part of a Christian organization that is in decline...and has been nearly my entire life.  More than just a part of the system, I am an ordained leader within it.  This organization - the United Methodist Church - is searching for two practices of "being church."   First, it is searching for any and all practices that lead to greater vitality in the local church and its ministries that seek to fulfill our common mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The second set of practices for which my Church is searching is a metric that will generate data indicating the extent to which any local church is fulfilling a vital fulfillment of the first practice.

When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

What is the metric whose generated data can given an honest appraisal as to the faithful fulfillment of a purpose statement like "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world"?  For years the metric was membership.  But, as every church leader knows, membership is a funky category.  There are some (especially in Alaska) who attend weekly and are very active but will never actually join for many reasons.  There are others (especially in small, rural towns) that will never transfer their membership to the larger city in which they live because they believe retaining their membership in that little church will somehow keep it alive just a bit longer.  Membership data is important; but, probably not as an indicator to vitality.

In recent years, worship attendance has become the "be-all-and-end-all" metric for church vitality.  But, some argue, emphasis upon this number as a vitality metric has created a consumerist approach to worship in which the church caters - or, some would say panders - to the tastes of the consumerist society in which we live.  Parishioners are taught, implicitly if not explicity, that the measure of effective worship is what one "gets out of the service" rather than Whom one encounters and by Whom one is then transformed.  Emphasis on the "take away" from the service or "value added" by the service is the ultimate surrender of the church's mission to the consumerist society.

Others now offer that metrics for church vitality can be measured in terms of mission giving (both in money and people/hours), first-time professions of faith and/or baptisms, or any one of several other categories most churches measure annually.

Lest we forget...When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

What if Christ is the metric?  Here is a set of data that cannot be quantified easily.  The process of truly encountering Jesus Christ and being transformed by and through an ongoing relationship with Christ is a process that generates sometimes conflicting data.  The first shall be last...to preserve one's life, one must first give it away.  Do we measure inclusivity or exclusivity??  Yes!  This Kingdom Christ proclaimed is one of absolute, unconditional inclusivity; all (meaning all) are welcome at this banquet feast.  However, the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world; we exclusively stand "over against" this world in which the Christian is understood to be a "resident alien."  What is "success" in this Christ-like, paradoxical system of measurement?

When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

Several years ago, I heard a church leader of some renown say these refreshing words with respect to church vitality: "The United Methodist Church (and, I believe you can fill in any denomination at this point) must simply make Jesus Christ its first love again."  This I have known and have witnessed: when members of a church openly fall in love with Jesus Christ to the extent that it changes who they are, everything else falls in place.  First, this love becomes contagious; others experience it.  Next - in no particular order - worship attendance rises, the number of people willing to serve in hands-on missions skyrockets, giving increases and, yes, even membership begins to rise.

This, too, have I known and witnessed: when this begins to happen, not all will be happy campers and we will be sorely tempted to include their state of discomfort into our vitality metric.  There are many in our midst who have been convinced or trained to understand that categories like risk, transformation or growth have little to do with their concept of "church."  By giving into this temptation we corrupt our metric and the data it generates.

Remember? When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

If this statement is true indeed, we have no choice but to pursue Christ-likeness with our entire lives.  Though it is a metric rife with paradox, we ultimately have no other that will free us of our vain, self-centered imaginings and challenge us to encounter a God "whose power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20 NRSV).



  1. Thanks Jon. Good post. Long post.

  2. Amen. Great blog. I remember hearing this story a time or two. Love you.


  3. Jon, so appreciate your insights and articulation of this truth. Much of it mirrors my own thinking and experience.

    BTW: congratulations on your election to General Conference. You will represent all of us--not just the Alaska Missionary Conference--well.

  4. Hi, Jon. In the Evangelical Covenant Church we say "Our desire is that every Covenant church become a healthy, missional church. By “healthy” we mean pursuing Christ. By “missional” we mean pursuing Christ’s priorities in the world."

    There are a number of markers of vitality that help us understand if a church is "healthy-missional", "stable", at a "critical moment" or "at risk." There are tons of resources on vitality at http://www.covchurch.org/vitality/

    We also might ask "vital to who?". Are we to be vital to our own members? to the community? the unchurched? If we can figure out what true need we are meeting that the surrounding community cannot live without, we can see a piece of our vitality. If no one needs what we do or give, and wouldn't miss us if we were gone, we have no vitality as a church.


  5. Well said, Jon. I agree with what you said, but easier said than done, right? There is no way we can, as pastors, force it. Heavy thinking on all our parts...