Some Metrics for a Growing Church
At its recent meeting, the Synod of NSW and the ACT reaffirmed its commitment to growth, to being a growing church. From the beginning this growth has been broadly conceived – yes it includes numbers of attendees/members, but it is also about growth in discipleship and impact.
I am supportive of this commitment and focus on growth, and am also in favour of metrics – in fact, despite often hearing concerns to the contrary, I am actually in favour of more metrics, rather than less. As a contribution to this discussion, and as a potential resource to churches as we consider how we will understand and measure growth, I offer the following metrics that I believe are well worth incorporating into our annual reports:
- How many debts have we forgiven?
According to Canstar, the average Australian owes $3,925 on their credit card, has personal debt of $21,200 (excluding credit cards and property loans) and has a mortgage of $540,166. Debt is a live and often oppressive reality for our neighbours (and our own members). It causes deep stress, controls choice, and contributes – for many – to a palpable sense of shame. Debt not only infringes on the ability of people to experience the abundant life Jesus sought for us, but also – in the way that it occupies headspace and time – inhibits people having the freedom to ask, seek, and knock. Fortunately, our Scriptures are also concerned with the reality of debt, and thus the necessity of debt forgiveness. From teachings on Jubilee, to the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ opening proclamation of his ministry in Luke 4 those whom have experienced the liberative forgiveness of God are called to extend forgiveness – not only spiritual but material.
Recently, St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico wiped out nearly $1.4 million of medical debt for 782 households – indeed the medical debt of the entire state. This is the work of loving our neighbours, this is a joyous response to the grace and forgiveness we have received, this is the work and witness of the church. So consider, a metric: how much debt (for neighbours, strangers, members) have we forgiven this year?
- How many of our members have felt convicted to leave jobs that they feel are no longer compatible with their commitment to Christ and his kingdom?
The gospels record people leaving their professions in order to follow Jesus (and in the case of Zacchaeus, redistributing what they have improperly gained through an unethical profession to those they exploited). We also know that in periods and places of the early church it was believed to be incompatible to serve in the military and be a Christian. As we explore what it means to be disciples in Christ in our time, as we – through the signs, symbols, and stories of the gospel – shape our Christian imagination, it is not inconceivable that members in our church might begin to question if their employment is compatible with the call of Christ. That we might begin to wonder if our employer or industry is too complicit in ecological destruction, in the harming of vulnerable people, in the exploitation of unequal power dynamics, to bound to the ways of the principalities and powers for us to continue with clear conscious, and so, as an act of fidelity to Christ and his kingdom, disciples may chose to leave that form of employment.
There is a related, sub-metric, that needs to accompany this: how has our church structured and presented itself in a way that those who feel this conviction to step out of their employment in faith know that the church will support them (financially, emotionally, and spiritually) through this transition as potentially re-train and seek new employment.
- How many people have we visited in prison?
The first teaching that might come to mind when reading this metric is Matthew 25, where Jesus condemns the unrighteous for their failure to attend to him by their neglect of those in prison. In addition to this, I reflect often on the admonition in Hebrews, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them” (13:3). It is difficult to remember those whom we have never met and whom we have no relationship with – moreover it is difficult to remember those in prison as though we were there with them, if we haven’t been there with them.
Sadly, in our society prisons operate in a mode of out of sight, out of mind – placing prisons in often inaccessible places, well out of the way from many of us. This locating makes this remembering and visiting all the more difficult. Yet, this should only spur us on to take decisive action to build relationships with those our society seems so determined to forget.
- How have we reckoned with having property on lands of unceded Indigenous sovereignty?
At the last National Assembly, the Uniting Church recognised the ongoing, unceded sovereignty of the Indigenous nations of this land. Given the recognition of this reality the next important question is, how do we recognise this? How do we grow as a church in our understanding of the history of this land, the legacy of colonialism, and the responsibility of the church to seek to redress the wrongs of the past and present? How do we grow as people of repentance who seek truth, restitution, and justice?
These questions are not ones we answer on our own but in relationship with those whose sovereign land we now live and worship and witness. And they are questions in which we ask with a readiness to be led and directed. Perhaps it involves “paying the rent” as it were with the sales proceeds and rent gained on this land, perhaps it involves supporting programs and organisations established to work of Indigenous justice, perhaps it involves decolonising our liturgies and polity? In this repentance and vulnerability we will have to give up some level of security and control, however this will enable us to grow in our trust in God who calls us to seek the truth and for in the truth there is freedom.
- How many people who live on the same street as our church have invited us into their homes?
When Jesus sends out the twelve he orders them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. Jesus’ disciples are sent out vulnerable so that we will not think to rely on our own resources, or think of ourselves as self-sufficient/self-enclosed, but will rely on our neighbours to greet us and welcome us, to feed us and provide us with shelter. Further the disciples are told wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. While, clearly, attitudes of hospitality and home are strikingly different in our time and place, there remains a lesson for us here. Disciples are sent in such a way that they need to (in some form) rely on the hospitality of, and enter into relationships of trust with, those to whom we are sent.
We are sent to our neighbours (and while this is a conversation for another time, there is a virtue in church’s narrowing their focus to understanding themselves as existing for the closest 200 houses to their church, or the six blocks circling the church) and if that is the case we should desire to develop relationships or trust and ease with them to the extent that they invite us into their homes. Mission is not only about the hospitality and service we can offer, it is about being guests – being able to accept hospitality, relinquish control, and develop relationships of mutuality from which the sharing of life and love and faith overflows naturally. There will be some in our street who will not offer welcome, not invite in, and this is fine – Jesus doesn’t ask us to become combative or to compromise who we are in order to gain this invitation – but we won’t know who will welcome and who will not until we know the people in these households themselves: know their names, their stories, their hopes, their stresses (which might also help us with metric 1).
These metrics aren’t going to be able to be applied whole cloth in each community, and there are many other missional and contextual metrics that can be drawn for the stories and symbols of our faith and developed in dialogue in each place. The hope of this article is to encourage us to think more broadly, creatively, and specifically about how we measure growth than we have previously envisioned and entertained.
Also, as my own act of confession and repentance – as a disciple and minister – I shake in my boots at the thought of being measured by the metrics outlined here. And yet I do, truly, want to be a part of a church that could. And so I call out earnestly to my siblings in Christ for support and fling myself into the wings of the Spirit for hope that I may, by the grace of God, be so bold as to try again.
Liam Miller is a PhD Candidate at Charles Sturt University and is a Minister of the Word currently serving as Supply Minister at The Forest Kirk Uniting Church on the land of the Gayemagal people. He hosts the Love Rinse Repeat podcast.