Over the years I’ve found that it can be both tempting and easy to get caught up in the nearly endless discussions around definitions and measurements. When it comes to church transformation in North America, this discussion too often opens as the trap of distraction. The distraction of definitions and measurements has provided far too many church leaders the opportunity to engage in endless dialogue and provided them with an excuse for not engaging in the difficult and often thankless work of leading a transformational effort in their local church. It’s been noted by several researchers that, in general, the more educated the church leader is, the less likely they are to be successful in leading a transformational effort. I’m convinced one of the key reasons for this is that the “better” educated the church leader is, the more they are interested in the philosophy of church transformation – and the more esoteric the conversation, the greater the investment in the discussion.

So, let me begin by sharing my bias as a church consultant and coach. I’m interested in helping churches become both markedly and measurably transformational. In addition, I’m absolutely convinced transformation can, should, and must be measured – which implies we are working from a definition and a particular paradigm. However, let me be clear. I’m not particularly interested in joining the ongoing, seemingly never-ending, transformational discussions that virtually every mainline denomination is having. These discussions banter about trying to define “authentic” transformation; or theologically or politically correct transformation; or mainline transformation; or, most often, trying to define what transformation “looks like” in the DOC, UMC, ELCA, PCUSA, UCC, ABC, RFA, etc. Though these might be important questions to answer for some, the state of the church in North America is alarming enough that I tend to leave the discussions to others so I can put on my grubbies, roll up my sleeves, and dirty my hands helping churches at the grassroots, local level.

However, having said that, it’s a fair question to ask what we mean when we talk about transformation. Transforming from what to what?

In the largest possible picture, the transformation’s “from what” is the current state of the church in North America and the West. The losses from the church over the past fifty years are staggering. I’m not going to engage in a litany of what those losses look like, but if you want to check out the state of the church in North America, see Tom Clegg and Warren Bird’s Lost in America and Missing in America, as well as David T. Olson and Craig Groeschel’s The American Church in Crisis. Transformation would be turning this around so that the church was a thriving, growing, and culturally influential body.

On a congregational level, the transformation’s “from what” is from plateau or decline to significant growth in what we’ve identified as six transformational marks.

However, although I’m interested in transforming local congregations, I am vitally interested in is helping the church transform the lives of those in their community in the name of, and in obedience to, Jesus Christ. And so, yes, we believe that personal transformation is observable and measurable as well. If a local congregation gets serious about that, then they’ll experience the pangs and joys of transformation.

So, let’s begin with the vital. Without transformed lives, everything else is a waste of time. And to be perfectly frank, we see a lot of supposedly “transforming” churches that seem to be missing this key mark. There are a number of churches that appear to be growing and vital churches, but when looking for the marks of personal transformation among the general congregation, there are few to be found. We do not count these churches as “transformational.”

Measuring a Transforming Life

Let it be said that my job isn’t to measure individual lives; but as a church consultant (and as any church leader), it’s pretty easy to see trends and widespread practices across the congregation. When looking for transforming lives, look first to the church’s leadership. If there are transformational marks there, next look at those who have been participating in the congregation for a year or so. If both appear to be transforming, then a look at the longer term participants is warranted. Note: When looking at transformation, I’m looking almost exclusively at demonstratable behaviors, not at a greater theological understanding.

To measure transformation, begin with the scriptural marks and then move to look at general practices.

1. Are they increasingly manifesting the fruits of the Spirit? (Gal 5:22-23)

  • Do they exhibit increasing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

2. Are they decreasingly manifesting the fruits of the flesh? (Gal 5:19-21)

  • Are they increasingly becoming free of their addictions, bad habits, misbehavior, gossip, etc.?

3. Is there an increasing commitment to practicing the one-anothers?

4. Is there an increasing commitment to the practices of personal spiritual habits?

  • Are they praying more, engaging scripture more, worshipping more, etc.?

5. Is there an increasing obedience to Jesus’ commandments?

  • Are they demonstrating that they love God more? Love their neighbors more? Love one another more? Love themselves more? Love their enemies more? Remember, in context, love isn’t a “feeling”; it’s a commitment that is followed by behavioral action. This manifests in personal involvement in ministry and mission.

6. Are they bearing evidence of disciple-making fruit?

  • Jesus was extremely clear that the fruit of his disciples was more disciples.

Please be aware that the practice of a couple of these marks does not guarantee a transformed life. Indeed, the only one who really knows whether or not an individual life is undergoing a transformation is God alone. However, when measuring a congregation’s effectiveness in transformation, an accurate picture can quickly be formed by applying these six marks on a wider basis.

Transformational Churches

There is no such thing as a transformed church. The only church that completes a transformation is one that has closed its doors completely. Otherwise, a faithful church will always be engaged in the transformational process. As we speak of transforming churches here, note that we’re specifically speaking of churches that are increasingly faithful. Most churches in North America are engaged in a transformational process – but that transformation is from life to death. Our commitment – our life’s work – is to infuse these churches with hope and to help them make the difficult transition from decline to growth, from dying to living. However, we’re well aware that most local churches will not make this transition. Indeed, repeated studies have shown that only 20 percent of churches who engage a transformational process will be successful in moving from dying to living. In the mainline, that number appears to be no higher than 10 percent.

Here, then, is the observable and measurable evidence we look for in a church that is successfully transforming.

1. They experience an increasing number of adult baptisms.

  • The fastest growing church-related population in the US is the church of the never-been-to-church. In Christendom, the church largely depended on biological growth. However, in today’s culture, it’s the number of adult baptisms, that is, conversions, that is the top indicator of a successfully transforming congregation. Congregations that show numerical growth without baptisms are either attracting the formerly churched, attracting the currently churched, or putting on the best show in town, but not engaged in disciple-making.

2. There is an ongoing increase in the number of worship participants (or wherever their “front door” is).

  • The “front door” for most churches is still their weekly worship service/s. A transforming church experiences significant growth in their services. The exception to this evidence is when the church is intentionally engaged in church planting from within their congregation. In these cases, their reported attendance will see a significant drop followed by increase.

3. They experience an expanding positive reputation in the community.

  • Transformational congregations get a reputation for being the kind of church people want to go to. They’re known for their signature ministry or mission in the community and more and more people take note.

4. They experience increasing participation in activities that develop adult discipleship.

  • Typically, transforming churches report significant and ongoing increases in their small group participation.

5. They experience increasing financial stability.

  • Note that seeing increased financial stability does not mean that a congregation no longer has financial struggles. Few building-based churches ever have enough money to engage in their ministry and mission as fully as they’d like. However, transformational churches experience increased giving in their church.

6. The congregation has an increasing missional impact on its community.

  • Transformational congregations are intentional in their outreach. This is not always an organized activity, since the most effective missional congregations are those that equip, empower, engage, and encourage their membership/participants into the community so that they can engage their personal passions in hands-on mission.

There are literally thousands of transformational congregations across the nation. Many, if not most of them were church plants that have been started within the last forty years. However, there are a number of churches that have experienced a transformation from dying to living – that have turned around. That process, however, can be painful and most of the time there is a sharp decrease in membership and/or attendance before the transformation can occur. Indeed, virtually every transformation begins with an exodus of those who don’t want to bear the changes necessary to become a transformational congregation (we use the word “virtually” pretty loosely here – we are not aware of any transformed congregation that hasn’t had to endure this exodus).

The Transformational Journey

I want to close this article with a nod to those congregations that have engaged the transformational journey. Here are the marks of a congregation that has seriously engaged the transformational process.

1. There is a marked decrease in the conflict level within the congregation.

  • Deep-seated, ongoing conflict is either being resolved, or the antagonists are held accountable for their behavior. New conflict is dealt with immediately in accordance to Matthew 18:15-17. Sadly, the decrease in the conflict level often is precipitated by an exodus of key, long-term members who simply couldn’t embrace the changes that necessitate transformation.

2. There is a decreasing tolerance for manifest fruits of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21) by both church leaders and the congregation as a whole.

  • That is to say that those who manifest bad behavior are called into accountability – which is a nice way of saying that church bullies and terrorists are held responsible for their behaviors and expected to change.

3. There is an increased alignment to the congregation’s DNA by church leaders that is followed by an increased alignment by the congregation itself.

  • The church leaders increasingly model and make decisions based on the mission, values, and vision. Ultimately, all programs, events, and decisions are made through the filter of the DNA. In addition, leaders and members are held accountable to the congregation’s expected behaviors.

4. There is an increased commitment to reaching the unreached in the community and there is a shift from the congregation’s obsession with meeting their own needs in favor of meeting the spiritual needs of the community.

  • Ministries are being evaluated for their effectiveness in reaching and discipling the community, and new programs, ministries, and missional events are designed specifically to reach out to the unreached.

5. There is a decreasing dependence on staff for doing ministry on behalf of the congregation and an increasing dependence on staff for equipping, empowering, engaging, and encouraging members for works of ministry and mission.

  • The role of staff changes from doers of ministry on behalf of the congregation to equippers of ministry and mission. Simultaneously, there is an increase in the staff’s commitment to modeling the faith that includes conspicuous practice of the spiritual disciplines.

6. There is an increasing level of trust between church leaders, both clergy and lay, as well as within the congregation itself.

  • Trust is a must when it comes to transformation. The congregation must trust its leaders to lead effectively. The staff must trust each other explicitly. And the church’s leadership must trust the staff and each other. This is generally facilitated by the increased commitment and adherence to the congregation’s DNA.

I close with this caveat. Transformation is not all about the numbers. As I mentioned earlier, churches that are not transformational congregations can and do grow numerically. In our paradigm, transformational congregations change lives as defined by that first list. But let’s be clear: a transformational church always grows numerically. There are no exceptions. Jesus didn’t die so that his church could crawl into the lotus position and meditate on his holiness. Nor did he die so that the church could become a politically active social services agency. Biblically, it’s clear that his expectation was that his church – and that would be the people, not just the organization – would witness, evangelize, and disciple. Transformed disciples of Jesus engage in discipleship and obedience to Christ, which includes that pesky Great Commission.

Don’t get me wrong: a church that’s not growing numerically may be making a difference in their community and/or the world. Sending money to various causes is clearly a good thing to do. And certainly worship among the faithful enriches the congregation. But transforming congregations make disciples, both more and better. Better disciples make more disciples. They bear “fruit – fruit that lasts.” And the only fruit that has an eternal shelf life is a disciple of Jesus Christ. Which means that, although numbers are not the ultimate mark of a transforming congregation, they provide a pretty good starting point.

Question: How do you measure transformation in your church? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.