The metric system never really caught on here in the United States. Most all of us learned it in school, and though we are reluctant to admit it, it is a much better system. A thousand millimeters makes a meter, and a thousand meters makes a kilometer. Could conversions be more simple? But using the metric system is like having to speak the Spanish I learned in high school — it’s difficult and unnatural for me. It doesn’t matter if I have a hard time remembering how many feet are in a mile; I like the ease and comfort of what I’ve always known.
When we talk about how we measure health or success in our Southern Baptist Convention, we also have a system of measurement that we find quite comfortable. Amidst all the information we record on our annual church profiles, there are three main measurements that seem to define church health: number of members, number of baptisms, and number of dollars given to the Cooperative Program. Any church with an upward trajectory in these three units of measure is labeled ‘Missional’ and the pastor is automatically qualified for upper echelon leadership in the SBC. This is just how we think. It doesn’t matter that this system isn’t exactly biblical and that it frequently hides an underlying pandemic of unregenerate membership. These units of measurement are comfortable, easy to track, and they are what we’ve always known.
The truth is that we need a new denominational metric. We need a more biblically defined way of measuring church health. Real metrics of individual spiritual health and congregational health can be somewhat subjective, but I believe Scripture does provide us with some outwardly measurable traits that accurately reflect true faithfulness. As much as I dislike reducing biblical principles to ‘lists’, here are some suggestions for biblical metrics that more accurately gauge church health.
(1) Redefine ‘NUMBER OF MEMBERS’. In biblical terms, a church member is a baptized believer who, at a minimum, actively attends the weekly worship gathering (Heb 10:25). In our current context, unless someone is infirmed or homebound, they should average a minimum of 75% attendance to be counted as a member. The idea of non-attending or inactive members is completely unbiblical. Thus, we should take our 2008 Resolution on Church Membership and make it binding for reporting purposes — only those who attend an average of three out of four Sundays a month should be considered members.
(2) Introduce the metric of ‘DISCIPLE’. Biblically, a disciple is someone who is faithfully following and growing in Christ, but there is much in this definition that is too subjective to accurately track. However, in terms of outwardly measurable metrics, a disciple would be someone who actively attends worship each week, who actively fellowships in a small group Bible study each week, and who actively participates in at least one area of congregational or evangelistic service (Acts 2:41-47). This level of participation is easily taught and measurable, and it is what we should be training every member to be.
(3) Narrow the definition of ‘BAPTISMS’. I know of Southern Baptist churches who inflate their baptismal numbers by treating baptism as a rite to be performed every time a member rededicates his or her life to Christ. Also, when someone comes to us from a different denomination where they were not immersed post-conversion, we baptize them scripturally when they become members. I support this practice, but we must acknowledge that their baptism comes as a result of shuffling sheep between churches. If we are going to track baptisms as a sign of evangelistic effectiveness, we should limit the reported number to those who are truly new believers identifying with a church for the first time.
(4) Report a true ‘MEMBER/ATTENDANCE RATIO’. Following a proper definition of membership, a mark of church health would be a true ratio of membership to attendance. When we consider adult evangelistic prospects, children who have not yet made professions of faith, and other visitors who may attend, a healthy church should have a weekly attendance number that exceeds the number of members. On a denominational scale, our weekly Member/Attendance Ratio is roughly 16 million/6 million. It is pitiable to think that on any given Sunday, we cannot account for over 10 million of our members! An accurate and healthy ratio for our current context, measured according to how the terms have been defined above, would look like 5.2 million/7 million. At the individual church level, this ratio would tell us whether or not a church is truly reaching outside its own membership.
(5) Report a ‘BAPTISM/DISCIPLE RATIO’. When a church is reporting their number of evangelistic baptisms each year, they should also be asked to provide a Baptism/Disciple ratio from the previous year. For example, if First Baptist reported 30 evangelistic baptisms at the end of 2013, when they are making their report a year later, at the end of 2014, they should answer this question: “Of the 30 persons you baptized in 2013, how many of them are currently attending worship, fellowshipping with a small group Bible study each week, and serving in at least one area of congregational or evangelistic service?” In this example, if 23 of the 30 people that First Baptist baptized in 2013 are actively involved and serving a year later, then their Baptism/Disciple Ratio for 2013 would be 30/23. This metric will help us measure whether or not a church is making disciples rather than just converts.
(6) My final suggestion for new metrics of measurement really comes down to what we emphasize as a denomination. I truly believe the age of the mega-church is waning. So instead of building mega-churches according to a forty year old model, we should emphasize planting new churches. On our annual profiles, each church should be asked to name the church plants they initiated as well as those they assisted during the year. Healthy churches are also marked by a stronger ecclesiology, so each church should be asked whether or not they have a New Member Class that is required for membership, whether or not they practice congregational church discipline, how many new leaders were ordained into congregational service, and how many were raised up and sent into full-time Christian ministry. In terms of missions, we should continue asking how many missions partnerships a church has, how many mission trips were undertaken during the year, and the total number of members who participated in domestic and foreign trips.
Though there are other, more subjective factors that are critical to church health, these kinds of metrics are what will shed better light on how we are truly faring as a denomination of cooperating Baptist churches. Current software resources also allow us to track such metrics very easily. Some may reject these ideas because they think that shifting our practices, as well as how we define our terms, is too complicated. In response to them, I would simply point to all the ways we are plateaued and declining as a denomination. By the grace of God, we have gotten many things right as Southern Baptists, but we are far from perfect. There are ways in which we have grown lukewarm, and we are losing ground in this world every day. We need a clearer picture of where our churches are so that we can properly diagnose our shortcomings and apply biblical corrections. As it is now, we are doing the moral equivalent of treating cancer with 19th century medical techniques. It’s time for a new denominational metric.