I had a conversation recently with a small group of mainline pastors and the conversation naturally turned to church transformation and church growth. When I asked how they measured whether their churches were growing, plateauing, or declining I started getting the typical excuses and defensive posturing I so often hear.

“Numbers aren’t important.”
“Numbers don’t really tell the story.”
“You can’t measure what’s really important.”

Yada yada. Excuses, every one of them. It’s clear that numbers are important enough to God that there’s even a biblical book named after them. And they’re important enough to Jesus and the apostles that they knew there were 12 apostles, 70 sent forth to preach, 4,000 fed, 5,000 more fed, 120 in the first Church meeting and 3,000 men baptized after the first public altar call. Oh, and just in case there’s any question about that was then … there are 144,000 marked and sealed saints in the Revelation.

Numbers count. Not because the size of the church is important. Jesus said that he shows up whenever two or three are gathered together (oh wait, those are numbers too). But numbers are important because each one of those numbers is a person who desperately needs the living God.

So, numbers are important. The question is which numbers? Well, IMHO the most important number of all is the number of the unchurched (define “unchurched” however you’d like – they’re all important). In most communities that number is about 83 percent of the population (if you thought the figures were more like 60 percent, make sure you take a gander at Olson’s The American Church in Crisis). So, if you live in a community with 100,000, as I do, then figure there are about 83,000 people outside the church. Now that’s an important number.

But let’s talk about numbers of the church. How can we faithfully and honestly measure growth or decline? What should we be measuring? I attend a church regularly that does a large number of baptisms and it’s membership rolls are swelling … but it hasn’t actually seen any growth in worship for almost a decade. They’re growing, but are they? And then I’ve worked with a number of churches that are quite large and have a growing worship attendance, but when the leadership has significant conversations with the attendees, they discover that the worshippers aren’t growing spiritually. So what can we measure?

Well there are any number of measurements that we could take, but there are seven key indicators that are the most helpful in measuring the growth or decline of a church. These indicators include (1) Average Worship Attendance; (2) Adult Baptisms (3) Small Group/Faith Development Participation; (4) Per Capita Giving; (5) Mission Involvement; (6) Personal Discipleship Practices; and (7) Reputation (I’m indebted to the Rev. Dr. Kris Tenny-Brittian of middle judicatory fame for quantifying this last measurement).

If there’s interest, we can talk about these more fully later, but let me conclude this post with a brief description of each of the Seven Key Indicators of Growth.

  • Average Worship Attendance: How many people show up for worship services. Count ‘em all or just count adults – just be consistent.
  • Adult Baptisms: Yes, officially any baptism counts, but adult baptisms measure conversion growth … or how many of that 83 percent you’re actually reaching. Biological growth is important, but as church leaders we don’t have much control over this one.
  • Small Group/Faith Development Participation: How many adults regularly attend a small group or faith development group. Taking one course in Christianity doesn’t indicate mastery of the subject. The key is ongoing participation and attendance.
  • Per Capita Giving: To find this number, divide your offering plate receipts by the average worship attendance. There’s an old saying that the last part of a person to be converted is their checkbook. If this number is increasing, that’s a good thing.
  • Mission Involvement: How many in the congregation are involved in some hands-on mission work outside the church. It doesn’t matter if that involvement is with Habitat for Humanity or the local food bank. The question is … is the average person attending your church getting more involved in mission because of their faith or not.
  • Personal Discipleship Practices: This measures whether the congregants are engaging in developing their personal spiritual practices such as Bible reading, dedicated prayer time, faith sharing, faith encouragement, and so on.
  • Reputation: What is your church’s reputation in the community? The only way to find out is to ask – if you guess, you’ll be wrong. Most churches might be surprised to discover that if they suddenly closed and locked their doors, almost nobody in the community would even notice. Is your church’s reputation getting better or worse?

Well, that’s the seven measurements of a growing, plateaued, or declining church. Any one of those indicators doesn’t really tell you much … but taken in specific combinations, it will tell you plenty.