FIRST-PERSON: How's your church doing?
GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP) -- I made an unusual number of visits to the doctor(s) this year. Nothing unusual going on except I had neglected normally annual things for too long and had to catch up with the labs and scans and pokes.
I knew I weighed more than I should but it wasn't real until I was standing in the hall in the clinic looking at the scales. It seemed I could hear a judge's gavel as the very young woman behind me called out the number. Hard facts are facts whether we face them or not. With the help of a small army of medical professionals I have faced mine this year.
It's not always fun to face objective appraisals of our health or work. Maybe that is why it has become so difficult to get some churches and their leaders to examine and report the statistics of their own ministries.
State conventions in general struggle to get our churches to report basic information on an Annual Church Profile. It is pretty basic, too. At one point the ACP seemed to rival the U.S. Census report -- baptisms by demographic, mission training attendance grouped in six categories, music ministry by age-graded choirs and much more. Most current reports now list fewer questions, such as membership, worship attendance, Bible study average, baptisms and giving. Pastors or church administrators could complete the information in short order.
But why should you?
Facing the facts
As in my story of doctor visits, it is beneficial to know how you're doing. It's not enough to feel fine or to think you're in better shape than "that guy"; what do the facts indicate about how you're doing? But it's just numbers, you might say. Sure, but whether that number is the number of people you've been privileged to baptize this year or an indication of high blood pressure, numbers stand for something that we should consider important.
Benefit from analysts
The SBC has a number of people who study how we are doing at our most important tasks. Not only are they assessing the trends of our denominational groupings of churches, they are also able to help you see trends in your own ministry -- even to help you seek reasonable solutions. You could do it yourself but it is hard to be objective about your own work. You could hire someone, but they'd likely ask for much more information than the ACP's basic questions.
Be honest with your sister churches
We do not control one another but we are connected in our Great Commission work. You have a row to hoe and the church down the street does too. Are you making progress? Do you have something you might add to the understanding of another church facing the same challenges? Is there a reason you'd dread another pastor or church knowing how your ministry fares? I know one pastor friend who considers such reporting to be immodest or distracting and he will not participate. That's his conscience and I leave it to him, but I also know of at least one case of a pastor who stopped reporting because his ministry was declining and he wanted to move to another place. Is it easier to report your stats when the trend is up? Are you at peace with the heart behind any self-conscious pride?
Feed your analysts
From a denominational perspective, the more information we can gather about the progress of our mission together, the more on-target our efforts will be to help churches. We know anecdotally how churches are doing and we have reports from some quarters that suggest needs, but the picture is less hazy as we have more reports.
Build an effective and relevant denomination
The work denominational employees are about is a response to what churches have directed, enabled and suggested by their specific needs. It's your work, then. If you want it to succeed, help those who serve your church know what needs to be done. A church or regional collection of churches whose numbers are all down suggests a completely different situation than a church whose baptisms are way up and Bible study numbers are leveled off or declining. Seeing signs of more and less health in a church prompts your servants to reach out for more details and to offer help or encouragement specific to your church. The help will be increasingly less relevant if we aren't directed by facts to areas, or churches, in greatest need.
The fact that church reporting has become easier (you can mail your answers in, you can register them online, you can give the information by email; folks can even call you and fill out the report over the phone) but still has declined in percentage suggests that making it easier is not the issue.
As is the case with some other aspects of denominational life, I've heard it said that the denomination is irrelevant, that it adds little of value to a church's ministry. That is more likely to be true if we have no report from the churches. Simply reporting can be a first step to accessing expertise and resources that could change the direction of the reports you make in coming years.