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You can always count on your students to bring you back down to earth.

In the seminary class I teach at Central Baptist Theological Seminary on Missional Imagination, we challenge students “to think, imagine, innovate and lead in ways that foster ministry startups and nurture established ministries that are missional in nature.”

At least that is what the course description says. Another way of describing our goal is helping students to reimagine Christian ministry as part of the “missio Dei” – the mission God has given to the people of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Of course, it takes a whole semester to unpack this concept, but eventually someone will ask a question or write a paper that includes a statement like this: “Although missional ministry is often slow and may not have quantifiable results, the truth of the matter is those who are funding the ministry will always want to have a visible and measurable outcome as proof that their dollars are put to good use.”

In other words, what is the ROI (return on investment)?

Churches in 20th-century America generally had two measures of a successful church: nickels and noses (although sometimes stated in less delicate terms). How much is being contributed? How many attend on a Sunday?

These metrics have continued into a century where many churches find fewer individuals passing through the doors and fewer dollars placed in the collection plate.

Both of these measures are important. We do want people involved, and we do want the financial resources to pay the bills; however, are these the only ways to measure effective ministry?

A starting point is to adjust our paradigm or frame of reference. In his book, “Missional Renaissance,” Reggie McNeal suggests three shifts for a missional church.

1. From an internal to an external focus

Much of the effort expended in the 20th-century church was about maintaining the institution as an end in itself.

This is characterized by the member in a declining congregation who says, “I just want my church to be here to bury me when I die.”

From a missional perspective, one might say instead, “I hope that people will remember how this church was an influence for good in this community.”

Rather than thinking of church development, we should think about community development.

2. From program development to people development

The genius of the 20th-century church was based on an industrial model by which we could produce more active church members through a standardized approach to Bible study and training. The idea was, “One size fits all.”

The missional approach recognizes that everyone comes to Christ in his or her own way, and disciple formation must be customized.

We don’t all start at the same point in our Christian journeys, and our uniqueness determines how we can best grow and serve.

3. From church-based to Kingdom-based leadership

The 20th-century model was based on a denominational brand. If you went to X church, you had a pretty good idea what it was all about because of the sign outside.

There was a time in our culture when some car buyers were less interested in transportation than in owning either a Ford or Chevrolet because they knew what they were getting. In the same way, you chose your church by the brand. 

The Kingdom was divided up into little fiefdoms. The current trend to take the denominational tag off the sign or declare a church as “nondenominational” or “interdenominational” has only amped up the competition.

The missional church recognizes that each church is unique and has something to offer in the larger work of the Kingdom of God. God has placed it where it is for a special purpose.

If we adopted McNeal’s paradigm shift, we might start using metrics such as:

  • What percentage of our church’s budget is invested in community ministries?
  • How are our buildings being used to serve those who are not part of our fellowship?
  • What partnerships are we developing that benefit those in our community?
  • How are we helping people develop their personal relationship to God?
  • What opportunities are we offering to help those in the church discover their gifts?
  • How are we equipping church members to serve each other and those outside the walls of the church?
  • How do we encourage and support those who serve outside the walls?
  • How are we developing structures of accountability for Christian growth and service?
  • How many partnerships are we developing with other churches, faith groups and community organizations to meet community needs?

While other effective metrics certainly exist, the above examples are attempts at measuring long-term impact for the Kingdom of God.

So, how does your church measure success? Give it some thought.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Harrison’s blog, Barnabas File. It is used with permission.

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