Is Your Church Successful?

How can church leaders determine if an activity or event is worth the effort & resources it takes?

How do you choose what to repeat & what to discard?

Is there a tool that can guide you as you try to improve programming?

One word: assessment.

A group of ministers are sitting around a table at Applebee’s, talking about their churches.

Chad asks, “How is your church doing, Steve?”

Steve responds, “We’re doing great!  Our average attendance is up 15% over last year.”

A few minutes later, Jeff works into the conversation: “We’ve had ten more baptisms this year than we had this time last year! God is truly blessing us!”

And a few minutes later, Tony notes, “Our giving is over budget for the third consecutive year!  God is so good!”

After the meal, as they drive away, Chad thinks: Steve’s church has experienced attendance growth because the other churches in town are going through splits.  If the other churches were healthy, …  And Tony’s church is in a small, stagnant town, with a declining population.  How can anyone expect his church to grow in attendance?  And half the people in Jeff’s church lost their jobs when the auto factory shut down.  Is it fair to expect …”


Is your church succeeding?  How do you know?  Is your church succeeding at the right things?  (It’s possible to succeed at the wrong things, which is its own kind of failure.)  Again: how do you know?

Churches traditionally define success in terms of baptisms, Sunday school attendance, attendance growth in worship services, consistent giving against budget, etc.  These things may or may not be important (hint: they ARE important), but they measure only a fraction of what makes churches healthy and “successful.”  They’re least common denominator definitions, that don’t go deeper than the surface of what it means for a church to succeed.  These are the things we measure because they’re easy to measure.  But not all success is so easily quantified.  In fact, the most important things are often harder to count.

It’s like we’ve defined success in terms of one phrase from Matthew 28.19-20 (“go and … baptize”) while ignoring the rest of the verse (“make disciples, … teaching them to obey.”)

Or it’s like we’ve defined success in terms of one phrase from Hebrews 10.25 (“let us not forsake meeting together”) while ignoring the rest of the verse (“so that we can encourage one another.”)


Years ago, I heard Lloyd John Ogilvie say, “Whatever we care about, we measure.”  If we care about things beyond baptisms and giving against budget and worship attendance, then we need to find ways to measure them.  And we can: there’s a set of tools from the world of higher education that can help.  In the college world, we refer to these tools as “assessment” or “institutional effectiveness.”  The entire process is about deciding what outcomes your students should meet, establishing programming designed to enable them to reach those goals, and then measuring how well they succeed.

Say you are in the business department at a college.  Periodically, you and the other business faculty ask yourselves the question, “What do we want our graduates to be able to do when they graduate?”  One possible answer would be: we want our graduates to be able to make an accurate interpretation of a corporation’s annual financial statement.  That’s your desired outcome.

Then you strategize about programming.  What skills and knowledge are involved in being able to read an annual financial statement accurately?  In what classes will we teach these skills that build our students toward the desired outcome?  And then: how will we determine if they’re actually able to read a corporation’s annual financial statement accurately?

After considerable discussion over coffee, you and your colleagues decide:

1.     We will teach skill X in class A.  We will teach skill Y in class B.  And we will teach the basic vocabulary for reading annual financial statements in class C.

2.     We will then measure students’ abilities to read annual financial statements in a capstone management class.

3.     In that class, we measure their achievement of this designed outcome by giving students the actual annual financial statements from three corporations and asking them to rank the corporations in terms of financial health.

(Do you see the process?  Determining desired outcomes è implementing programs that build toward those outcomes è measuring the degree to which the outcome is met.)

THIS PROCESS CAN BE TRANSFERRED TO YOUR CHURCH.  Beyond baptisms and average worship attendance and giving against budget: what do you want to see your people doing?  Greater involvement in missions?  Getting out of debt?  Participation in marriage enrichment retreats?  Participation in marriage enrichment retreats leading to an increase in reported marital satisfaction?  ALL OF THOSE THINGS ARE OUTCOMES.  ALL OF THOSE OUTCOMES CAN BE MEASURED.  And your church can design and implement programs that build toward those outcomes.

Mission generates outcomes.  Where do outcomes come from? They come from your church’s mission.  You probably have a mission statement; it should be specific enough to guide you as you think about outcomes.  But even if you don’t have a published mission statement, your team can brainstorm periodically about the improvements, the growth, that you want to see in your congregation.  What do you care about?  How can you measure it?

Inputs and outputs.  One of the traps that people fall into when doing assessment is that they confuse inputs with outputs.  An INPUT is the programming that a church offers to achieve a goal or outcome.  “We will offer high quality marriage retreats at the local resort twice a year, with scholarships for the couples who cannot afford to take part.”  That’s an INPUT, what YOU do.  It’s not an outcome.  Outcomes are outputs, what you want to have happen as a result of your action.  Measure THAT.

An OUTPUT would be: “The number of couples participating in the marriage retreats will increase every year.”  That’s an outcome: a change in the behavior of your people.  It’s not a perfect outcome, however, because you want more than participation, don’t you?  A hundred couples could participate and not one of them change their patterns of handling marital stress because of what they learn at the retreat.

Don’t you want your people to go beyond participation and actually learn and put into practice things that will affect their marriages?  If so, then a better output would be: “Couples that attend our marriage retreats will report greater satisfaction with their marriages and greater ability to support one another through stressful situations than couples in our church that do not attend marriage retreats.”  It’s still not perfect, but it’s better.  It’s focused on the result, and on a specific desired result that moves close to guaranteeing that lives are changed through this particular ministry of your church.

How would you measure that outcome?  You’d probably use anonymous surveys for couples in your church.  In the survey, you would determine if the couple had or hadn’t participated in the marriage retreat.  You would then ask questions designed to ascertain how satisfied the couples were with their marriages and how well they supported one another through stressful situations.

Or even better: survey the couples who take part in the marriage retreats before the retreat and then survey them again six months later, and compare the results with surveys of couples who didn’t take part in the retreats.


So again, here are the steps.

  1. Determine what you want the program to achieve.  This is your outcome.  It’s best if you can state the outcome in specific, measurable language.  “The number of couples who took part in the marriage retreat that report using healthy strategies to deal with marital stress will be fifteen percent higher than the number of couples who did NOT take part in the retreat who report using healthy strategies to deal with marital stress.”
  2. Determine what you’ll do to achieve the outcome.  How will you program for this?  Sermons?  Retreats and special events?  Sunday school or small group curriculum?  Devotional materials?
  3. Determine how you’ll determine if your program is meeting the outcome, and to what degree.

Here are some examples of possible church outcomes:

  • The number of families (or number of hours) involved in local outreach / service projects;
  • The number of local service / outreach projects that are generated by the members of your congregation (instead of being generated top-down, from the leaders or staff);
  • The number of people rearranging their lives (e.g., using family vacation time) to participate in mission trips;
  • The number of households participating in planned, automatic giving, and how that number is affected when you preach on giving;
  • The number of young couples participating in premarital counseling;
  • The number of young married couples who, having participated in premarital counseling, can describe ways the counseling benefitted them when asked after 24 months of marriage;
  • The number of members (i.e., not leadership team members) volunteering to organize and host home outreach groups.


How do you want your people to grow in discipleship, learning and applying God’s word to their lives, attitudes, and actions?  How can you measure this growth?

How do you want your people to grow in outreach, taking their relationship with God outside the boundaries of your church into your community and indeed into all the world?  How can you measure this growth?

How do you want your people to grow in ministry, in serving each other and the church and the community around them with their gifts and resources?  How can you measure this growth?

How do you want your people to grow in fellowship, their commitment to spending time together, serving together, being together, becoming more and more part of one another?  How can you measure this growth?

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