Measurement has been a troublesome thing for the church for two thousand years." That's how Jim Mellado of the Willow Creek Association responded when I asked about measuring congregational success. "It's incredibly hard to measure transformation in a heart," he continued, "and that's what we're all after."
No matter how you state the ultimate goal of your ministry, it is difficult to measure the things that truly matter.
When I began writing this, oil was still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from a drilling accident at the Macondo site. It was being described as the worst environmental disaster in history because of the widespread effect on the Gulf and its shoreline. Now the oil has stopped flowing and the most intense cleanup work is complete, but the incident is far from over.
Several storylines remain, including investigations to determine causes and assign financial liability, and debates over what restrictions to impose on future offshore drilling.
Measurement is an important subplot in this story. In the weeks after the blowout, two measures received a lot of attention: the number of days that it took to cap the well and the amount of oil that had escaped into the environment. The first was easy to quantify but of little value to anyone except the media. The second, the amount of oil, was much more difficult to measure and hotly debated. It caused me to wonder: Does it matter? Apart from sensational headlines, how does the quantity of oil from Macondo make any difference for the future? The official government estimate is that 4.9 million barrels leaked into the Gulf, but apart from the size of the fines assessed, this measure has no impact on the most important issues for the Gulf Coast.
What actually matters going forward? It matters if beaches are clean so that families can enjoy vacations on the Gulf. It matters if it is safe to eat fish and shellfish from various parts of the Gulf. It matters if there are steps we can take to protect the environment or accelerate the recovery.
The measurement challenges facing the church have many parallels to the Gulf oil spill. The things that matter the most—transformed lives, ministry effectiveness, spiritual growth—are the hardest to measure. So we settle for metrics that are easier to obtain but much less meaningful.
Inputs or outputs?
Many Christian organizations are unclear about what data is meaningful to their ministry. A chief struggle is the common confusion between inputs and outputs.
Simply defined, outputs are the results produced by a given organization or process. Inputs are what the process starts with or what it uses along the way.
For example, a bicycle manufacturing plant starts with steel for the frame and rubber for the tires as key inputs. It uses labor, machinery, electricity, and paint as further inputs. Can you imagine the plant manager boasting, "We set a record for the amount of steel we used this month"? Of course not. The accomplishment that truly matters is producing a certain number of bicycles and to do so within its budget. This doesn't mean the plant manager ignores the usage of steel. Monitoring steel consumption (or labor hours or any other input) is important, but merely as a tool to achieve the ultimate output goal.
To put this in church terms, attendees are inputs, disciples are outputs. But for churches, measuring this output isn't simple. The bicycle plant can clearly describe and accurately measure its desired outputs. Heat and machinery consistently form steel into a bicycle frame, but the processes for "forming" disciples are much less predictable.