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When my family lived in Clemson, S.C., our next-door neighbor was an 85-year-old woman who was the epitome of southern gentility.
Mrs. Turner had lived in Clemson for most of her life and in the South all of her life. She was old enough to have some personal memories of the Civil War passed on to her by her family, and the effects of that war still played on her view of the world.

Mrs. Turner was a wonderful neighbor. Even as an octogenarian, she kept a full garden in her back yard – nearly an acre or so – and was always bringing fresh vegetables over to us.

What’s more, with her charming southern drawl she would share with us marvelous stories of the history of Clemson and South Carolina. My wife, Lisa, particularly loved to hear the wistful tales of her “lilies-of-the-valley parties,” given each year on the occasion of the blooming of those delicate flowers.

One of the interesting features of her home was the doorway that led to her basement. On the wooden doorframe there were a number of marks and initials, where each year she had measured the height of her children and noted how much they had grown.

She loved pointing that doorway out to us; it always seemed to elicit a story or two about her family. Mrs. Turner was a great gift to us in many ways because she did seem to have a sense of history, which buttressed her understanding of the present.

Mrs. Turner taught me a lot of things, but one blessing in particular was the reminder that we all need people in our lives who help us see how we are growing. And that is especially true in the life of the church.

We used to have specific standards by which we measured growth. Most of those had to do with numbers – an attendance count every Sunday and a record of the money given. Or, as one of my seminary professors used to call it – “The Bodies and Bucks Report.”

Those standards, by the way, shaped so much of how we conducted church and how we evaluated church.

That’s why the “old” Southern Baptist Convention used to have campaign slogans like “A Million More in ’54” and the “new” Southern Baptist Convention calls themselves “Great Commission Baptists.”

However, those slogans and campaigns have lost a bit of their edge with the recent downturns in attendance. Church demographers continue to note the decline in nearly all of the major denominations.

For instance, studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have stated that Protestants in America have slipped below the 50 percent figure for the first time ever.

This is startling when one realizes that just 40 years ago Protestants made up two-thirds of Americans. And even more troubling is the fact that more and more people are answering “none” when asked about their religious preference. What that means for us is still up for debate.

What do these numbers really mean? And more important, how do we measure spiritual growth?

How I long for some system like Mrs. Turner’s marks on the doorpost, one that was easy to recognize and gauge. Looking to Jesus and the early church, one sees a varying combination of statistics and spiritual depth.

On one hand, we note that Jesus spoke sometimes to crowds of thousands – 5,000 men were counted at one feeding, meaning there were probably three or four times that many people present, counting women and children – and there was Luke’s report of the 3,000 souls added at Pentecost.

On the other hand, Jesus’ ministry was not consumed by numbers. His was more focused on the one-on-one campaign, urging individuals, in C.S. Lewis’ terms, “further up and further in” to the Kingdom.

So where does that leave us? How do we measure growth?

Well, I suppose keeping track of attendance and finances is important. But what about that more seemingly elusive aspect of how one is growing spiritually?

How do we talk about that with each other without guilt inducement or one-upmanship, but with genuine care about how we are growing in Christ Jesus?

We should look at the numbers in regard to attendance and finances, but, more important, we should engage in the practice of spiritual discernment that pushes us to consider how we are growing as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Mike Massar is co-pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La. A version of this column first appeared in UBC’s weekly newsletter, The Window, and is used with permission.

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