Does measuring mission make the Church grow?

I was recently reading a discussion on using measures of performance in secondary-school education, about which the author was highly sceptical. He quoted this aphorism (from I know not where): ‘Weighing pigs doesn’t make them any heavier!’ There is a general sense that too many things are being measured inappropriately in our culture, causing multiple problems. The first is that, if you tell people that you are going to measure something and assess their performance on that measure, then you are in danger of reducing their job to succeeding at that measure alone. Hence the criticism of education that teachers aren’t interested in children learning, only in their passing exams. The second is that we end up flattening life out, and only valuing that which can be measured—a danger challenged by the saying of Albert Einstein:

Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.

But the reason why putting metrics in place to measure specific things is so tempting is that it focusses the mind, and encourages people to think about what they are doing and why. Apparently, in the days of steam and regional railway companies, one company was exploring ways to make its trains run more efficiently and keep to time. It was discovered that the most cost-efficient measure was to paint the train funnels red! Why? Because the crew on the train felt as though they were visible and being watched, so they worked more efficiently!

Despite recent complaints that the ‘national church is stuck in broadcast mode‘, (and despite the irony that the parable of the sower in Mark 4 suggests that broad casting is the thing God wants to do that we should join in with), the evidence is that many local churches are still more focussed on issues of practical maintenance (roofs, heating, parish share) than they are on central questions of mission, evangelism, and church growth.

The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England (of which I am a member) functions as the Church’s executive board, making decisions in partnership with the Church Commissioners and the House of Bishops about how the central annual budget of around £132m should be spent. We have just been through an exercise in revising the way we express our aims, and we are working with nine objectives which we think express the concerns of the Church.

To bring more of the people of England to the faith of Christ through the Church of England

To strengthen the Christian faith and life of all who worship God in the Church of England

To ensure there are sufficient ordained and lay ministers of the required gifts and qualities who are effectively deployed to enable the Church of England to fulfil its mission, and to support those ministers in their calling, development, ministry and retirement

Common good
To contribute to transforming our society and communities more closely to reflect the Kingdom of God through loving acts of neighbourliness and service to all

To promote high quality Christian education in Church of England schools and voluntary education settings, and through our Church contribution to other schools, colleges, further and higher education institutions

Resources for the Church
To help dioceses and cathedrals to be most effective in their mission, by providing cost-effective national and specialist services and advice

To ensure all children and vulnerable adults are safe in the Church

To operate the national governance arrangements of the Church of England as cost-effectively as possible in pursuit of the Church’s mission

A Church for all people
To be a Church that can provide a home for all people in England

(It might be worth reflecting for a few moments on what you think of these as objectives.)

It is no accident that evangelism is the first objective, and with it the Council has a specific aim: ‘By 2020 to have halted the fall in numbers of Church of England worshippers in dioceses representing half the population of England and to see growth in numbers in a quarter of dioceses.’ There are several important questions arising from this.

First, should we have measurable aims at all? After all, the Church is not a business and the gospel is not a product that we are persuading people to buy. Would it make sense to have a numerical aim for the growth of a local church? If not, why the national Church? Secondly, does it make sense for the Council to have objectives in relation to dioceses over which it has little control? As Justin Welby often says, there are very few levers that he or anyone else can pull, not least because the Church of England is so diffuse in its organisation, with Synod, the dioceses, the Commissioners and the House of Bishops technically speaking all independent of one another.

On the other hand, why shouldn’t a local church have measurable goals in terms of its mission? Aim at nothing, and you are sure to hit it! This doesn’t need to be a case of usurping the sovereignty of God, assuming that these goals are discerning and worked towards through prayer as much as action. And the Council has hard decisions to make about budgets and allocation of resources; without measurable goals, how do we know whether we have made the right kinds of decisions. In the end, the delivery of the goal is in the hands of the dioceses—but the question is whether central decision-making has helped or hindered. There is an analogy here with measuring a fruit harvest: the farmer cannot make apples grow, but he or she can help to create the right conditions for apples to grow well and plentifully. Paul sowed, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Cor 3.6)—but the growth God gave was affected by the way that Paul sowed and the care with which Apollos watered, just as surely as it was for the farmer’s apples! Numbers matter, because numbers represent people, and people matter. And looking at numbers forces us to confront the reality of our situation and allows for accountability.

The biggest change in allocation of resources in recent Church history has been the created of the Strategic Development Fund, through which Church Commissioners money is not simply distributed to dioceses to maintain what they are doing, but part is now distributed in response to applications for funds to support mission initiatives, including church planting both in cities and rural contexts. I am not sure that many in the C of E realise what a massive change this actually represents.

If we are going to measure against this goal, what measure should we use? The most common measures are ‘weekly church attendance’ or ‘usual Sunday attendance’, and this is ascertained by asking local churches to survey their congregations (usually in October) and send the information in to Church House, from which the Statistics Unit produces a very informative report, the latest one (produced at the end of last year) giving the figures for 2016. The graphs continued to show a downward trend on these two metrics (the main charts are on pp 13 and 14), though there is an interesting pause in decline in 2011 and 2012. On this basis, we are still some way from our 2020 aim of halting decline and seeing some growth.

But the question then arises as to whether weekly attendance is the right metric, for both internal and external reasons. Internally to the Church, there has been a noticeable growth in attendance at mid-week services and groups—so does Sunday attendance really measure involvement and engagement with discipleship? Externally, the pattern of most people’s lives continues to fragment, and there are many other things to do on a Sunday—and many other ways to engage with Church online. An alternative, and arguably more realistic, measure is to look at ‘Worshipping Communities‘ rather than weekly attendance, and the Statistics unit has now asked churches to gather this information as well.

Following consultation with dioceses, the “worshipping community” of a church is defined as anyone who attends that church (including fresh expressions of Church) regularly, for example at least once a month, or would do so if not prevented by illness, infirmity or temporary absence. It includes activities such as fellowship groups and other activities that have a distinct act of worship or prayer. It also includes acts of worship not on church premises (e.g. at a school or community centre).

We include those who: come to midweek services; are ill and unable to come to church; are away on holiday or business; have home communions; are part of a regular ‘fresh expression’ of church; live in care or residential homes and would consider themselves to be full members of their church; give regularly to their church; lead worship (e.g. clergy).

We do not include those who: are visitors – e.g. holidaymakers, baptism parties; consider their ‘home’ church to be another church.

What is interesting is that, according to the ‘Worshipping Communities’ (WC) measure, there are some signs of hope. Whereas only two dioceses (Hereford and Exeter) are showing growth over the last three years measured by Sunday attendance, 10 dioceses are showing signs of growth on the WC measure, and a further seven have halted their decline. The $64,000 question is whether the difference in the two measures is the result of wishful thinking—or a real insight into changing patterns of involvement in the church community, and changes in the way that Christians express and grow in their discipleship.

What, then, is the nature of the challenge that we are facing? The Council staff produced a very helpful diagram explaining what is going on with the Church nationally.

Though other people might react differently, when I saw this my heart leapt for joy—because this is the kind of analysis that you would do as a personnel manager when looking at the changes in your workforce, and it took me back to when I was just such a person (working at Mars Confectionery). At a local level, this means that the typical church with an attendance of 50 is seeing the net loss of one person a year. But that means that adding one person a year is what is needed to reverse decline, and growing by two people a year for such a congregation would represent world-changing explosive growth, comparable with the growth of the early church in the first three centuries. 67% of the UK population is in personal relationship with a Christian, and around 80% of Anglicans here say that they know someone who would probably respond to an invitation to come to church—yet only 17% would be willing to issue such an invitation. If that figure changes, who knows what might happen?

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35 thoughts on “Does measuring mission make the Church grow?”

  1. I remember Ian Hislop on Have I got news for you using that expression, and in response to a question about exams, saying “you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it all the time”.

    I doubt that is the origin, but it was possibly about 10 years ago and that’s still the only time I’ve ever heard it used.

    I think you are otherwise right about what you say here.

  2. We have found that worshipping community mesure most helpful since we started taking it seriously. During the October period where more detailed statistics are required, we do a full census of who attends (quietly in the background) and use this both to answer the questions and to accurately determine the size and the age profile of our worshipping community. (And yes this is covered in our privacy policy!)

    These numbers are much more robust than the ASA or NSA numbers as they are about the number of people we are engaged with. Previously, we could look at the stats and explain them away by saying that ‘many don’t come every week’

    We do now have a really useful measure of the effect our mission activities have on numbers and it has given these matters more attention from the leadership.

    This information is also useful for pastoral purposes as we become more aware through the year of people who have not attended recently. Not to do this would be like a shepherd not counting their flock to see if any are missing.

  3. the pattern of most people’s lives continues to fragment, and there are many other things to do on a Sunday

    Yes but… if someone isn’t willing to give something up in order to attend church, even if only their lie-in on a Sunday morning — if they will only deign to fit God in if He can be made to fit around the things they actually want to do — then how serious actually are they about following God?

    I remember, when I was young, a lot of disparaging references, especially from youth-group leaders, to ‘fair-weather Christians’. Does anyone else remember those?

    Such references seem to have disappeared as I have got older. Maybe youth-group leaders, of whom I now know none, still make them. But those looking for adults seem to have done a complete about-face and be actively looking to encourage and make it easier for people to be ‘fair-weather Christians’, by trying to find all the things which might make going to church a sacrifice and removing them.

    But then what happens when the storms come?

    • Well, yes, at one level I would agree. But in terms of metrics, if you now need to be *more* committed to attend on a Sunday than you needed to be 20 years ago, then when you are measuring the decline in Sunday attendance you are measuring a change in culture, not a decline in commitment. That’s the important point in relation to the question here.

      Does that make sense?

      • It does, and if you look at it that way then the figures from the past could look a lot less bad; if what they represent is not a drop in commitment but instead the falling-away of the ‘fair-weather Christians’, leaving only those who are truly committed.

        But when the subject turns to measures for future growth, is the aim really to just get those ‘fair-weather Christians’ back into church, by making it easier for them?

        If we say that the past figures are (at least partially) illusory because a lot of those who have apparently left were never really wholly there in the first place (a stance I would have a lot of sympathy with), would that not mean that growth achieved by the same method would be (at least partly) illusory, by the same logic?

        • Exactly…a point that’s as brilliant as it is succinctly argued!

          When, in 2015, the Archbishops explained the decline, they did so in terms of usual Sunday attendance: ’Attendance at Church of England services has declined at an average of one per cent per annum over recent decades..

          I mean how much more illusory than including nominal membership can it be to include, as a measure of recovery from decline, those who ’are ill and unable to come to church; are away on holiday or business…live in care or residential homes and would consider themselves to be full members of their church; give regularly to their church.

          Yet, in Peter Ould’s 2016 post here , Jayne Ozanne’s YouGov poll was decried because its sample of ‘Anglicans’ was unrepresentative of those who ’attend church as part of their regular weekly pattern.

          What’s next? Claiming that ordained clergy statistics are not the best way of measuring the recovery from the previously reported decline in ministry numbers.

          Of course, the background to this re-calibration exercise is that, as I wrote in July last year: ’Meanwhile, to cover the cost of training the encouraged influx of ordinands under Reform and Renewal, the Archbishops’ Council 2018 Budget forecasts eye-watering diocesan apportionment increases of 9.4% in 2019 and 11.1% in 2020 (compared to 9.3% over the past three years).

          You can’t very well go ‘cap in hand’ to the Church Commissioners for a bail-out without some (albeit ersatz) evidence of growth!

  4. The change in Commissioners’ funding has had and is having a huge impact on how dioceses operate. Dioceses which have historically received a lot of central funding (mostly newer dioceses without historic funds such as Birmingham) are having drastically to cut their clergy posts, often in very poor (and culturally diverse) areas, resulting in Anglican withdrawal from some of our most needy communities. Dioceses are diverting much of their efforts into planning, applying for and running diocesan-level 5 year projects aimed at stimulating church growth. The bulk of the money goes into employing people at diocesan level on 5 year contracts to run projects and initiatives. Sustaining them beyond the 5 years on internal funding is very difficult, however.

    It’s still too soon to see if this will work in terms of improving church attendance and engagement in the longer term (or even shorter term) and what its over all impact will be. But I trust the Commissioners and Archbishops’ Council are monitoring and learning from it all!

    On worshipping community: I’m broadly in favour of this, especially as it captures the key difference between the average Sunday congregation and the numbers which actually attend the church (e.g. because people don’t attend every week). But I worry it will count involvement in low commitment groups such as Messy Church the same as attendance which typically betokens greater commitment e.g. Sunday mornings. Perhaps the best indicator of actually committed churchgoers would be the number who give regularly to the church – I wonder if those figures exist.

    • That’s a really important perspective…but I think I want to push back a little.

      Dioceses who do have historic assets were not using them to fund revenue expenses previously, and stashing away CC money, else that would have been cut. I think the difference is that dioceses without assets have found the change in funding to have an immediate impact on rethinking, whereas dioceses with assets are now eating into them.

      I know of one diocese with substantial historic assets, but which is now spending them at such a rate that they will all be gone in 20 years unless they change their strategy.

      This illustrates a. what a radical change the SDF process is and b. how desperately it was needed given that resources were not being oriented towards mission and growth previously.

      • I agree with your push back here Ian.

        The diocese where I live has historically received less CC money than others and the decline in stipendiary clergy happened some time ago and has been halted. If others are having to do it now then that is interesting.

        Yes we are seeing a radical change in approach. In our diocese I can trace this back to the realisation that if we if carried on doing the same, then we would just be using our historic resources to fund decline until they ran out.

        I think some of the things that ++Justin has said may have influenced or reinforced this view. The SDF funding certainly helps but remember also that the SDF funding is only providing at most 50% of the costs of the projects. The dioceses themselves are putting their own capital into the projects. Here this is seen not as paying for decline, but investing for growth. The projects here are definitely planned to become self funding after 5 years, but this will depend on the amount of growth that is stimulated locally. I expect that others will be doing the same. I suppose that is why so many projects are taking approaches that have been shown to work elsewhere, such as resource churches planted by HTB.

        In our diocese, the projects have a strong element of taking the learning and applying it elsewhere in the diocese so that their reach will promote growth elsewhere.

        If we are trying new ideas that we want to transfer elsewhere, then having objective measures to determine whether they are successful is quite important. People have invested a lot of time and money in these projects and without objective measures it would be easy for those involved to persuade themselves and others that something which had failed was in fact a success. Without these objective measure we might go on to promote failed ideas in other places.

        • Thanks both.

          I agree with all of this, especially the last bit of Nick’s comment about the importance of getting an accurate picture of effectiveness so that only good practice is spread.

          I actually broadly support the strategy and agree that a lot of dioceses were just using central money to manage decline. But I’m also aware of the impact it’s having on parish clergy numbers especially in poorer areas, and the reality of what many of the projects look like in practice ie a set of diocesan officers on 5 year contracts. The challenge is to actually find things that work so that numbers really are turned around and, from a practical point of view, revenue recovers.

          • I entirely agree that if a project is creating a set of diocesan officers, rather than a parish based project then I would be very sceptical of its effect.

            Dioceses need to refocus their efforts to support parish ministry, but I do not think that should be supported by SDF funding. That should be business as usual for dioceses.

          • Hi Nick

            I think diocesan officers can potentially be effective for stimulating growth, if done well, but my point was (agreeing with yours) that we need to monitor it and work out what actually works so we don’t just waste money on short term projects and, worse, reproduce ineffective models.

  5. I think setting some kind of target for growth is important. It sets an agenda for growth and should result in prayer, meeting agendas, time and money being set aside for mission. We don’t set a numerical figure in our parishes, (that might be something to think about), but we have put time and resources into mission and continue to make it our priority. And we are growing. Yet not really on a Sunday.
    Where we are growing is midweek, in school, with young people and with families. Our wider community of engagement is now hundreds a week, which didn’t exist at all a few years ago. And faith is growing. Relationships were growing. Connections are growing. And if we didn’t use the Worshipping communities counting none of this growth would be measured.
    I don’t expect this growth to transfer to Sundays because I feel it is perfectly possible to express faith, grow in faith and be part of the body of Christ without attending on a Sunday and instead attending on a Saturday afternoon or Wednesday morning. We don’t engage in mission to staff a buildings committee, ensure a full PCC and parish share in years to come. We join is with God’s mission to build his Kingdom and enable faith and to help people flourish in faith.

  6. We decide what things we measure but by measuring things we make them more important – hence the school issue – if we measure effectiveness by exams then exams have more importance than other things. If we measure church attendance then bums on seats becomes important. Getting those people who know a receptive unbeliever to issue an invitation may be vital but if we don’t measure change in attitude (and how would you measure it) it will not be seen as important. – The McNamara Fallacy

  7. You suggested we reflect on the objectives. What struck me was the reference to bringing people to “the faith of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ”.

      • Thank you for your reply. From the little I have read on ‘New Perspectives’, I do know of the issue of translating ‘pistis Christou’, but that is a dispute between “faith in Christ” and “faithfulness of Christ”.
        In English, there does seem to me to be a small but not insignificant difference between “the faith of Christ” and “faith in Christ”. The first seems in the direction of being external and propositional, the latter more internal and personal.
        Having read your excellent piece on Michael Curry’s sermon, I might suggest that the discussion of the content revolves in exactly the distinction between these two phrases. “That is really what Jesus of Nazareth was getting at and was willing to die for.” seems to be “the faith of Christ”, and not faith (trust) in the person and work of Christ.

  8. Hi Ian,

    Any increase in participation church activities (including mid-week) is encouraging. Nevertheless, how does it make sense for the Church, back in 2015, to have initially diagnosed the symptoms of decline in terms of usual Sunday attendance from the Statistics for Mission only to re-define the measure of recovery from decline in terms of: ‘anyone who attends that church (including fresh expressions of Church) regularly, for example at least once a month, or would do so if not prevented by illness, infirmity or temporary absence.’

    The true measure of numerical decline and growth has always been based on a figure which can be related to CofE membership, understood in the light of the Church Representation Rules:
    (2) A lay person shall be entitled to have his name entered on the roll of a parish if he is baptised, of sixteen years or upwards, has signed an application form for enrolment set out in Appendix I of these rules and declares himself either –
    (a) to be a member of the Church of England or of a Church in communion therewith resident in the parish; or
    (b) to be such a member and, not being resident in the parish, to have habitually attended public worship in the parish during a period of six months prior to enrolment; or
    (c) to be a member in good standing of a Church which subscribes to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (not being a Church in communion with the Church of England) and also prepared to declare himself to be a member of the Church of England having habitually attended public worship in the parish during a period of six months prior to enrolment.’

    Can someone on this thread explain why it’s not just spin to introduce this ‘worshipping communities’ criterion as a valid barometer of Church growth, when attendance (and/or an assessed potential to attend) for at least one month (instead of six) cannot be correlated to the above accepted criteria of CofE membership?

    • We have some people on our electoral roll who at best come to church once a year, but live in the parish. Conversely we have people who attend faithfully who, despite our efforts, will not sign up to the electoral roll.

      For me the worshipping community definition has far more meaning than electoral roll

      • Hi Nick,

        It smacks of desperation that some parishes keep anyone on the electoral roll who has declared CofE membership and after a short stint of regular attendance, resorts to pitching up at church once a year.

        That still doesn’t make the case for inflating growth stars by adding in anyone who attends a church-run event once a month (or would be expected to attend once a month, notwithstanding illness, etc) which includes an act of worship or prayer.

        If it did, then it would be easy enough to declare that the mere addition of a closing prayer converts any amateur activities at the local community centre run by church volunteers (astronomy, photography, motorcycle maintenance, tea dances, you name it) into ‘worshipping communities’.

        It’s akin to hospitals putting emergency patients on corridor trolleys overnight and calling them ‘mobile beds’.

        And if that ain’t spin, I don’t know what is!

        • In our case it is not desperation. If a person wishes to be on the roll and qualifies by reason of residence there is no way we can legally stop them being on there. When the roll is started afresh every six years (next year) we are required to write to everyone on the roll to ask them to reapply.

          And if a person stops regularly attending, they cannot be removed from the roll for that reason if they still live in the parish.

          Worshipping community is not just attending any event once a month it is some sort of service of worship.

          It is interesting though that our worshipping community is the same size as our electoral roll. Its just that they are not exactly the same group of people.

          • How a resident of the parish might be removed from the electoral roll is relevant, but only tangentially so, because it correlates with usual Sunday attendance.

            You claim that ‘Worshipping community is not just attending any event once a month it is some sort of service of worship‘.

            While that may be true for you and the parishes that you know that doesn’t tally with the quoted definition, which could include any church-run event (whether on or off parish premises). What qualifies it is that it includes ‘a distinct act of worship or prayer’.

            So, on the Fresh Expressions site, there’s the example of St. Peter’s House, the Manchester chaplaincy, where the worshipping communities include:
            Bee keeping;
            Guitar lessons;
            Baking society;
            Tai chi classes

            So, tack on a prayer at the start or conclusion of these group activities and that’s enough to transform them miraculously into worshipping communities.

            Well, the whole enterprise sounds more like collective wish-fulfilment than worship. And that’s hardly convincing evidence of Church growth.

          • In the interest of thoroughness, I should mention that I omitted:
            Sunrise Yoga Breakfast;
            Breathing Space Yoga;
            Mindfulness Meditation.

            No doubt all worshipping our Risen Lord!

          • If you want to make the definition so tight to exclude something you think might be happening then we get into the territory of the pharisees and we might exclude something that is good. I would leave the definition as it is and leave it to common sense and good oversight.

          • There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Fresh Expressions in all their variety. However, I doubt that you’d describe as pharisaic the Archbishops 2015 lament over decline (which used the exclusionary yardstick of usual Sunday Attendance).

            If there’s a word to describe the refusal to ‘cook the books’ contrary to objective and conventional measurements of Church growth, it’s not Pharisaism. It’s integrity.

          • I am not saying sunday or weekly attendance is not important, just that we need other measures as well to understand what is happening.

  9. Re: the diagram you like about the different elements of the overall decline (children to adults, deaths etc) – presumably this just related to CofE churches? It would be interesting to know how many move out to non-CofE churches and how many move to no church at all. Likewise for those coming in. That would help us see whether (for example) htb plants are having negative impact on other churches whilst boosting CofE stats; or whether people are leaving the CofE for other churches in which case we should ask questions about what they prefer elsewhere (without becoming too consumerist!)

  10. To get back to the original question. Does measuring mission make the church grow. In a strict sense no. But if you measure something it makes you more aware of it and more likely to do something.

    A good set of measures of both actions and outcomes – sensibly applied – will concentrate the minds of leadership on the important issues.

  11. And Christian worship is?… a whole new blog article.
    But it certainly is not anything to do with yoga. Look up the spiritual source or roots as to who or what is worshipped therein.
    And every Sunday is, in Christianity, in Christian theology?
    As for statistics and counting – figures have faces.
    Andrew Wilson has written a recent blog post on large churches, planting, and growth, including his. Unless I missed it, however, he doesn’t mention membership, but, seemingly pointedly, sidesteps the issue.


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