Church Leadership
Wanted: An Effective System for Small Church Metrics
Small churches aren't ignoring the numbers. We just need metrics that apply to us.

Small church pastors are often told that if our church isn't growing it's because we're not paying enough attention to the numbers.

That's not true.

Small church pastors are very aware of the numbers – sometimes painfully so.

I'll admit that small churches don't use metrics the way bigger churches do. But it's not because the numbers don't matter to us. And it certainly isn't because we don't want our churches to grow. It's because of something no one ever talks about.

Metrics designed by and for megachurches don't work in small churches.

Metrics designed by and for megachurches don't work in small churches.

In a big church, an assessment of last weekend's services might sound something like this: "we were up 13 percent from this weekend last year, but the percentage of people attending our small groups has dropped by 7.4 percent. Let's hear from the small group pastor about what's being done to address this issue."

In a small church, attendance assessment will sound more like this: "attendance was down a bit this weekend because the Martinez family is on vacation, the Larsons were out of town for Bill's father's funeral, and we're still in the middle of flu season. But we had that new couple join us who just moved into the neighborhood. I took them out to lunch. They say they might be back next week. I'll follow up with a phone call tomorrow."

The Limitations of Traditional Church Metrics

The metrics most churches currently use have two limitations that make them virtually useless for small churches:

1. Traditional church metrics are built on numerical increase

Almost every analytical system uses numerical increase, not just as one indicator of health, but the only indicator of health. In fact, I'm not aware of a single exception to this rule.

For example, the best analytical tool I know is Christian Schwarz's Natural Church Development. It assesses eight aspects of church life to discover where a church is healthy and where it needs help. But even this better-than-most tool is based on numerical increase.

As Schwarz says on his home page "Churches that have done three or more NCD Surveys, have increased their average growth rate by 51% between the first and the third survey." But I know from personal experience and from a lot of conversations with a lot of small church pastors that the smaller the church, the less likely this is to be true.

Small churches need different metrics. Metrics that measure health without assuming higher congregational attendance numbers as an inevitability.

2. Traditional church metrics are only accurate for larger crowds

In a church of 75 (the US average) the presence or absence of two or three families changes the percentages so drastically that you'd go crazy trying to use those numbers to determine anything of value.

Statisticians know this. That's why they require a certain number of people for a poll to be considered valid. Crowds tend to behave according to patterns. The larger the crowd, the more accurate and predictive the numbers become.

In larger churches, it might make sense to track growth on a chart, compare numerical percentages and use those metrics as one determiner of how well ministry is being done. But the smaller the sample, the less valuable the statistics are. The smaller the church … well, you can fill in the rest.

Small churches need different metrics than large churches. The problem is, I don't know if anyone has designed metrics that assess the unique characteristics of small churches.

Different Sizes Need to Use Different Metrics

Keeping track of how many people attend small groups in a church over 1,000 might be an accurate tool in helping to determine the fellowship health of that church. But small group numbers are virtually meaningless in most small churches. Many small churches are a small group of their own.

Small church discipleship is different, too. It's often done through one-on-one mentoring rather than in classes where you can take attendance. Sometimes discipleship is done by a staff member or in a class. But it's often done by a mature church member without being officially assigned as such by the church leadership - it's called having friends. What kind of metrics would you use to measure that?

Which brings me back to where this post started. Small church pastors aren't ignoring the numbers. But we haven't been given accurate tools to help us gather and asses the right numbers. Because no one really knows what numbers actually matter in assessing small church health.

No one really knows what numbers actually matter in assessing small church health.

My friend, Dave Jacobs, proposed a starter idea for measuring small church health in a post, FINALLY! A Way to Measure Church Health That Makes Sense. His idea? Percentages. I think that's a great starting point.

But it's only a starting point. So I end this post with a request.

A Call For Help

We need church leaders and statisticians who are willing to do the research to help us find what's missing in assessing the health of churches – small church metrics that matter.

It's possible there are valid small church metrics in existence that I'm not aware of. If so, I'd love to hear about them. There are a lot of us who could use them.

But even if someone creates some really good small church metrics, let me warn you – small church leaders will be slow to embrace them because we've been burned before. We've used the can't-miss metrics only to see them miss, big time. So we're skeptical. But we're willing to give it a shot.

So, if you're a church leader looking for a subject for your next book, or a college student wracking your brain for an original thesis subject, I have a favor to ask. Take a serious look at the issue of small church metrics. Not only is it a great book or thesis topic, but your work in this subject could make you a real trailblazer. And it could be a huge blessing to a lot of pastors and churches.

Help us.

Small churches aren't ignoring the numbers. We just need metrics that apply to us.

Pivot is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

Join in the conversation about this post on Facebook.

Recent Posts

Read More from Karl

Follow Christianity Today

Free Newsletters