Modern American life is built upon the twin pillars of productivity and consumption. We are all consumers and producers. In our role as consumers, we make decisions all day long about what we want to consume, and how much, and in what color or size or quantity. In our role as producers, we try our best to produce things that others will want to consume. This applies not only to economics and the workplace, but to every aspect of our lives. We have become consumers of education and therefore we evaluate our teachers based on the kinds of grades and test results that the children are producing. We are consumers of news, and thus the news industry has emerged in which journalists are evaluated not only on journalistic grounds but on the salability of the news they report. Absolutely everything we do in our society is evaluated on the basis of how broadly and consistently it is consumed.
The Church Growth Carnival
It should be no surprise then that American Christians look at ministry the same way. The church growth movement exemplifies this at its most grotesque, wherein absolutely everything about a congregation’s life is weighed against the number of people being served and the number of dollars in the bank. The absurdity of this is well documented: Churches that sell lattes in the lobby, extremely popular self-help preachers who barely ever mention Jesus and never mention the cross, worship services that are built to look like popular entertainment, and a revolving door where people exit these churches almost as fast as they join them. It takes only a passing knowledge of the Scriptures to see why this purpose driven, Gospel starved sideshow is inconsistent with the Church’s calling to worship God and set sinners free through the proclamation of His grace.
The Almighty ASA
But even if we reject the Church Growth movement model, parishes and pastors still yearn for some way of evaluating the success of their ministries. Study after study has shown that the Church is in decline across the board. In the Episcopal Church, that decline is more of a free fall. So priests and lay leaders who are out in the trenches, focused on their individual parishes and pushing hard for them not only to survive but to thrive, are hungry for some measuring stick for determining success, some way of knowing if their parishes are on track to survive into the next generation or if all they are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Rectors in particular are sensitive to this. As a full time rector myself, I can attest to that fact. Pastoring is incredibly hard work. A whole lot of energy goes in, and yet it is often very hard to tell whether what you are doing is making any difference at all.
At one time, the number of members a church had was an instructive figure for measuring success, but in the Episcopal Church today, many rectors have turned to the Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) as the mark of greatest interest. ASA, it is argued, measures not only how many people are officially a part of your church, but how many are engaging with your church on a regular basis, receiving what it has to offer. In other words, ASA is a measure of consumption. Every Sunday, we rectors work with the other worship leaders in our parish to produce something called the Holy Eucharist. ASA tells us how many people, on a regular basis, are consuming what we produce. If ASA is up, we must be doing a good job as rectors since people are responding. If ASA is down, we must not be doing much of anything, or perhaps we are doing the wrong things and need to change course.
Many priests who follow this particular bouncing ball would argue that it is nothing like the excesses of the Church Growth movement. They are not trying to tailor make a church to fit people’s whims, but merely trying to ascertain what state the parish is in. It is true that ASA tells a story, which is why it is something worthwhile to track, but the problem is that the story is not immediately apparent in the raw numbers. A parish with a spike upward or downward in ASA has had some sort of change, but there is no evidence in the raw numbers that the change has anything to do with the rector. It could be that the demographics have changed in the neighborhood, or that there have been a large number of deaths or births, or that an affair has been discovered or covered up, or that a new church has opened up across the street, or that the local little league has changed its game schedule, or a hundred thousand other things. The ASA only points to the existence of a story. It doesn’t tell it.
But the bigger, deeper problem is that when we become obsessed with ASA, we commodify and thereby drain the lifeblood out of our proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Living and dying by the ASA is simply another form of the unending hamster wheel of production and consumption that has become a substitute for the Gospel in the modern American story. Priests who fall into this trap start to think of themselves as producers of religious goods rather than as heralds of the Kingdom. Sooner or later, this translates into thinking of our mission as one of keeping the consumers happy so that they will continue to consume, rather than as one of proclaiming the truth to a world mortally wounded by its love of lies. If we are not careful, we begin to think not only that ASA determines our success, but that we actually deserve the credit for what God is doing in our parishes. If the ASA is up, we rejoice because we are so very good at what we do. If the ASA is down, we lament and try to find other factors to blame for our obvious failure. What we never seem willing to do is to allow God to be the one in charge of whether our parishes grow or shrink. Good or bad, up or down, it has to be us, not Him.
The Biblical Model for Success
Does this mean that there can be no measuring stick? No way at all to judge our success or failure? A very clear model exists, but it is not one that is likely to satisfy our consumerist impulses. The roadmap to successful ministry is laid out by Paul in the pastoral epistles. He gives Timothy and Titus clear instructions on how they are to find, ordain, and train up elders (IE, presbyters, priests). And the measure of success for these priests has precious little to do with anything that can be produced or consumed:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season;reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
This is Paul’s constant concern for pastors. When Paul says “be an evangelist,” he doesn’t mean go door to door handing out tracts. He means that if you are a priest who has been entrusted with a parish (or for that matter a bishop who has been entrusted with a diocese), your job is to share the Good News, the evangelium, with the people under your pastoral care. You are to constantly, persistently speak the truth that has been entrusted to you, regardless of the consequences:
Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. (2 Timothy 1:13-15)
If you are truly preaching God’s Word, God may choose to use your ministry to build up the Church and bring many souls to salvation in your midst. But He may also choose to use your ministry as an instrument by which to shame the wicked, force out the false prophets, and cause the institutions of the Church to collapse around your head. Either one is a holy calling if it comes from God. Your concern as a pastor is not with which outcome God chooses to bring out of your faithful preaching of the Word. Your concern is only faithfulness to what has been handed down to you. This certainly requires you to consider how your words and actions may affect the ability of the faithful to hear the truth. Paul repeatedly commends priests and bishops to cultivate godliness in themselves and to avoid controversies that have no bearing on the Gospel. But when it comes to the pastor’s mission, the mark of success is to hold firm upon “the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
Success cannot be measured in terms of outcomes. It can only be measured in terms of faithfulness. For that kind of measurement to work, priests and bishops must come together, under the Scriptures, and give honest leading to one another as to how faithful they are being. Lay people in leadership who wish to understand what is happening in their parishes ought to do the same. This requires a profound commitment to moving beyond the confines of our individual settings and embracing the unity of the whole Church. We can no longer afford to be comfortable with trying to prop up our own congregations or dioceses while ignoring what is happening to the people of God around us. Our task is faithfulness. Our evaluation of our ministries ought to be a discernment process in which we seek to learn how God might be using our faithfulness for the sake of the Kingdom. It is brutally honest and it requires a complete shedding of ego on the part of clergy, but it really is the only way forward. We need to stop pretending that a consumerist model can fix a spiritual problem. Faithfulness may not be sexy, but it is the only thing that can deliver us from our addiction to outcomes.