Metrics (measure it, or else)

My first glimpse of why metrics matter came on a golf course when my playing partner showed up angry.

His church had just held their annual property cleanup day. He was the only man who came. It seems participation had been dwindling for years. Last year it was three, this year it was one.

If any leader had been paying attention to those numbers, they would have changed something — perhaps recruiting personally rather than relying on a bulletin blurb.

Measurements tell you when a program needs refreshing, when growth is happening and needs supporting or when decline is underway and things need to change. Without metrics, leaders fly blind.

This is what happened 50 years ago in mainline Protestant churches. The tide shifted, easy growth gave way to falling numbers. No one noticed. No one was monitoring the trends that needed to be noticed. Official numbers became increasingly unmoored from reality.

Leaders shunned outcome-based decision-making and chose, instead, the delusion of desire-based decision-making, grounded in resistance by longtimers, nostalgia and blame. People planned programs that had worked before and felt betrayed when they didn’t work again. People felt pushed to show loyalty by participating in activities that had run their course.

Here’s a prime example: Churches kept flogging Sunday worship long after Sunday worship stopped attracting people. That single delusion has crippled mainline churches. But without data, no one saw it happening; and without data, they couldn’t justify changing course.

What needs to be measured? Average Sunday attendance is popular but meaningless as a metric. Instead, measure how often people attend. Measure how early they arrive and how long they stay. Look for changing patterns. Measure how many first-time visitors you have and track them. Learn especially from those who don’t return.

Get beyond Sunday. You won’t find a better future by perfecting Sunday morning. Measure how many small groups you have and how regularly people attend. Measure interest in different kinds of groups. Measure response to mission activities. Measure giving as it relates to household income. Don’t just raise funds for a budget; understand stewardship as a ministry.

Measure indicators that reveal whether or not people’s lives are being transformed. Do you see different personal decisions being made, such as dads spending more time with their children, new ideas being offered, new leaders emerging?

Measure age distribution and gender distribution. Measure your contacts with the outside world. Measure your email distribution lists, and track whether people actually read what you send them. Get a strong customer relationship management tool to track people as they connect or fail to connect with your church.

The best metrics are kept consistently and accurately and for years on end. You want to spot trends. One-time measures tell you little. Use surveys to amplify data.

I’m not sure mainline churches will ever recover from the trends they didn’t spot in the 1960s. But we certainly don’t need to keep making that same mistake.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.