Karl Vaters 3: Measuring Success in a Small Church

The following is from Chris Bolinger’s fall 2015 interview with Karl Vaters, whose 2012 book The Grasshopper Myth has led to a twice-weekly Christianity Today blog and frequent speaking engagements…in addition to his many responsibilities as the pastor of a church of around 200. That church is in what Vaters calls the Megachurch Central region of southern California, and emulating the church growth practices of his larger neighbors led him to doubt his abilities and even his calling as a pastor.

The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.


Bolinger: In the book, you discuss how you struggled with a recommendation that you redefine success. Tell us about that.

Vaters: I was sitting in a Christian counselor’s office, getting some help, trying to figure out what was wrong with me and my church, why I was broken, and why I was mad at God. After I had spent a couple of sessions verbally assaulting this poor man with all of my frustrations, I asked, “What’s the answer? What do I need to do here?”

He responded, “My assessment immediately is that you need to figure out how to redefine success.”

When he said it, I wanted to punch him in the nose. What I thought he was saying was, “You’ve been trying to jump 10 feet. You can only jump eight, so lower the bar to eight, jump over that, and call that success.” That to me was the definition of redefining success. So I told him that.

He said, “That’s not what I’m saying. If numbers are on your left and success is on your right, then you’ve got to figure out what success looks like in a non-numerical way.”

I said, “What do you mean by that?”

He replied, “That’s what you need to figure out. I don’t have an answer for you. Everybody’s answer is different. But you’ve got to figure out what success looks like outside the numbers.”

Over a long period of time, we talked about it a lot. We got to the point where I discovered that, in the church, we don’t have a product to sell or a service to offer like a restaurant does or a book store does. We don’t have products on the shelves or tables to turn. Our “product”, for lack of a better name, is relationships. We are in the business of helping people love God and love others. That’s our “product” – it’s love.

Love is impossible to measure, so we use numbers as a substitute, to try to help us understand if we are helping people love God more and love others more. At a certain point, we have to understand that we will never be able to quantify that completely. There are some things that can help us, that can stand in as secondary substitutes, but we always have to realize that when we’re in the church numbers are always a substitute and never the final answer, because you cannot measure love.

Bolinger: One number that is easy to use is commitments to Christ, or baptisms of believers. In my church, we put a flower on the altar every Sunday when someone has come to Christ that previous week. But we don’t have any measure after that. You’ve come to saving faith – and that’s terrific! – but many people like me did that a long time ago, and we all need to be growing in our faith and deepening our relationships with God and with others. How do we measure that? How do we put flowers on the altar for that?

Vaters: I’ve never heard that idea: a flower on the altar for every person who gives his or her life to Christ. What a great way to acknowledge that! I think that’s fantastic. And numbers matter. We do need to keep track of things, because numbers can alert us to problems as well as give us indications of success. Numbers are helpful. They’re just not the entire package. We have to stop acting like numbers are the entire package.

It is critical for us to know the number of people who have made a first-time confession of Christ. The higher that is, the better. The number of baptisms: the higher that is, the better. The number of people who finish our discipleship courses: critical to know that; the higher, the better. Our attendance: critical to know that; the higher, the better.

But we have to realize that, when we’re counting conversions, what we’re really counting is how many people raised their hands or filled out a card – whatever your church’s process is. Not every one of those is a legitimate conversion. We can’t know which ones are and which ones are not – it’s God’s job to separate the sheep from the goats. Counting conversions is not a perfect accounting.

When people are baptized, we have to realize that it’s not an accurate count of every single person who actually became a disciple of Christ. It’s a count of how many people got baptized. A high percentage of them legitimately have become followers of Christ, but not every one. We don’t know which have and which haven’t, so the only number we can go with is the number of baptisms.

When people finish with a discipleship curriculum, all we can count is how many people finished the curriculum. We hope that a large percentage of them actually have been discipled, but the only thing for which we have an accurate number is those who finished the curriculum.

When we compare the number of people who got saved to the number of people who end their lives as fully devoted followers of Jesus, we know that there is massive drop-off. Our numbers are never completely accurate. They need to be kept, but we need to recognize that they are incomplete.

Bolinger: Let’s say that I am a small-church pastor at a church where all of the numbers, such as attendance or giving, are fairly flat. We feel that the church is healthy, and we feel that we are getting more effective, not less. We’re at an annual meeting or a board meeting. What are some measures or qualitative indications that we can use to demonstrate that we are, in fact, getting more effective at ministry and that there’s no cause for alarm?

Vaters: I did a blog post called “23 Non-Numerical Signs of a Healthy Church”. That’s a good starting point.

One important thing to note is demographics. A typical unhealthy church looks like its community used to look back when the church was founded or during the last successful pastorate. A healthy church looks demographically like the community that it is trying to reach. Another good sign of health is teams instead of committees. A committee talks about doing stuff; a team actually does stuff. A church that is heavy on committees and light on teams usually is an unhealthy church.

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