For some time now, the gold standard for measuring church growth has been Average Sunday Attendance (ASA). Go to any clergy conference and you'll hear rectors tossing out their ASAs with great bravado. The assumption, of course, is that size matters and bigger is better. Though, if their ASA is dropping, you'll hear the classic corollary: "It's not about the numbers."
In reality, ASA as a standard unit of measurement is a relatively recent phenomenon. For generations "communicants in good standing" was the normative measure of a congregation's size. The national canons of the Episcopal Church still use this term, though it's fallen out of contemporary usage.
Sec. 2 (a) All members of this Church who have received Holy Communion in this Church at least three times during the preceding year are to be considered communicants of this Church.
Sec. 3. All communicants of this Church who for the previous year have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, are to be considered communicants in good standing.
It was only until more and more parishioners started signing up for what I like to call the "one or two Sunday a month plan" that ASA became a clearer measure of congregational size. For instance at my own parish, St. John's in Hingham, MA, our ASA was 245 last year. Of course in a given month we would see a lot more than 245 people -- while there is a core group that attends every week others come once or twice a month. Using ASA gives the best "snapshot" of the number of attendees on an average Sunday.
I've been thinking a lot about what isn't included in these numbers and I keep coming back to online ministry. Just as online relationships are real relationships, online ministry is real ministry. Parishes that put effort and intentionality into social media and online communication with parishioners and others are reaching many people beyond the number recorded in the service register each week.
Even when people can't make it to church, they read or listen to sermons online, they're inspired by spiritual links in the weekly e-news, they feel connected to the community through pictures or videos posted via social media. These are all ways that a parish reaches out and touches people who identify themselves as "members" of the community.
But many parishes, through official channels as well as the personal online ministry of their clergy (social media, blogs, sermons, things like, um, Lent Madness), reach many people well beyond the local community. This is also a critical part of ministry to the wider community -- keeping God in the public conversation -- which I believe all Christians but especially clergy have a responsibility to uphold.
The thing is, it takes a new congregational mentality to support this type of ministry. It's not always quantifiable and the parish doesn't "benefit" in the traditional sense. So it takes an open-minded congregation to recognize that this is all ministry -- especially when it impacts those who will never officially join or even step foot inside the church building.
This is a new model of being the church and it naturally brings pushback from those with a more traditional, congregational, consumer-driven mindset. "Why waste time on Twitter when you're mostly reaching people who will never pledge to the parish?" I sometimes hear. Or "He has time to write his monthly syndicated newspaper column but he can't visit Edna in the nursing home more than once a month?"
My congregation is likely sick of hearing me say, "We are called to share the gospel, not hoard it." It's one of my mantras for ministry. But sharing the gospel means doing so in creative ways that transcend the way we've always done it. It means reaching out and sharing the Good News with others even if they will never become members of our own local tribe. As Christians, one of our mandates is to sow a lot of seeds. The internet allows us to do this in ways and in places never before imaginable. And just because we can't quantify or monetize this approach doesn't mean we shouldn't engage it.
So this is a call to push past the opposition you may encounter and continue to share the Gospel of Christ with reckless abandon. The Church is changing, the methods of communication have changed, but the essence of Christ's message endures.
Amen amen, a thousand times, amen. My neck hurts from nodding my head in vigorous agreement.
I think judicatory obsession with analytics is deeply flawed for another reason: the "long sales cycle" involved with faith formation and the expression thereof. In reality, years may elapse between the time a trusted friend says, "please come with me to my church" and someone shows up; even more time between visiting and perhaps considering regular attendance.
The fixation with onsite body count also excludes those who cannot attend either because of physical limitations or scheduling conflicts (e.g., shift workers).
But you already know all this and your faithful readers probably do as well!
This is so true. One example: our little church in Connecticut gets prayer requests from people around the country via email, phone calls, and Facebook messages because of our online presence. Our healing team faithfully prays over these needs and considers it a joyful part of ministry.
It's good to be the Church.
"Judicatory obsession with analytics" -- well put. Not just the diocese but parish leadership and clergy all feed into this as well. And Carolyn, online prayer requests are not spam! So glad to hear your parish takes these seriously.
Are we perhaps returning to an earlier age with a modern "digital" spin. I have always been amazed when looking through 19th century books on theology that they were often written by incumbents of small parishes who saw their writing as a part of their ministry of "outreach" along with the cure of souls in their parish (many of whom were housebound, or only showed their faces in church once or twice in the year). We extoll the "Holy" John Keble, but fail to recognize the small church he served where he himself swept the snow from the walk so his people would have dry feet when they came to worship. I guess all this is to say, that the "unseen" ministry - digital or otherwise - may be more important than the ASA that we post in a report.
I started doing an intentional prayer walk that was only supposed to be on Friday's and it has grown to a 7 day intentional prayer walk at 6;30 p.m. PDT with online prayer requests and a daily blog. We have to reach out to the differently churched. Think out of the box and into the cyber world. Connections are being made. We are making a difference in people's lives! Thank you Fr.Tim!
FLAT JESUS has helped too as some people have been known to return to the Cathedral to see if I am really going to wear FLAT JESUS around my neck until the cord frays and breaks. Hey ! Whatever it takes...Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks. Thanks to Chris Gannon at St. James, Birmingham MI.
And yet, aren't clergy salaries and benefits and prestige tied to the size of the parish? And John Keble, notwithstanding, there are certainly clergy who would not sweep snow from a walkway -- because it's not in their job descriptions.
To quote Madeleine L'Engle, "God didn't say count my sheep, but feed them."
Very true! Online ministry is real ministry! I would add though, with Facebook insights, and other online stats, you can easily tally how many people we are reaching online. For example, St. Tim's has an ASA of 200, but our Facebook reach is 500-5,000 people per week. (I'm an enginerd/scientist, so I cant' stay away from the numbers thing).
Laura, it would be interesting to look at numbers -- like spiritual growth they still wouldn't tell the whole story. But perhaps there's a metric that could be developed that could measure social media interaction (hard to calculate unless there's a click or a retweet), blog traffic, website hits, page views, etc. It would be helpful to know what kind of reach a parish and its clergy/lay leaders has in spreading the gospel online. Quick, someone develop an app!
Wait, NO, no one develop any more apps! Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, lift up the brokenhearted. Let's do that...and use social media to encourage others to do so as well. +
Not being a parish priest at the moment (sounds moe active than "retired"!), I miss the "action" of parish life; the justifications, not so much.
It's real ministry all right, but real ministry frequently doesn't pay enough to even eat on a regular basis. In that respect clergy are generally among the most fortunate of ministers.
It's not exactly pleasant, but we need to not lose sight of the economics of being church.
you could get something like this Facebook "like" counter, but make it a "Souls reached through online ministry" counter instead http://www.designboom.com/technology/fliike-real-time-facebook-like-counter-by-smiirl/
Though I was raised Episcopalian and went to religious school, I'm not a churchgoer now, nor am I likely to become one. I still read a lot of Church-related blogs, check out church webpages, etc., out of curiosity and interest. Online ministry allows me to reflect on and engage with religious and spiritual issues that are important to me. It's not like I'd be going to church if online ministry wasn't happening; I just wouldn't be getting much thoughtful access to these topics at all. Just saying--I know a lot of non-churchgoing 30-somethings who get really into Lent Madness.
I like the idea of the counter of "souls reached"! One indication of having reached someone is when they share something from your website with others. I am working on the development of my parish's website, and I plan to develop ways to poll people in terms of "How did you find us?" "Do you attend any Christian church?" "Did you find this blog/article spiritually helpful to you?" "What topics/spiritual questions would you like to see covered in future blog posts/articles?", etc. Looking forward to Lent Madness in 2014, btw (and to providing a link on our website, of course).
If we are serious about taking the Gospel "Beyond the Stained Glass Windows," then ASA not a good measurement. Our church has 300 members, and as ASA of 200, however, our youth outreach ministry sees 125 "un-churched" teens every Friday night. Our jobs group has 80 every Friday morning for conversation and prayer. Another 100 men and women attend weekly Weight for GOD! programs. Plus, we have a growing Taize Community that meets weekly. None of these ministries show up in the parochial reports. I think we need a new way to measure our "sphere of influence". ASA misses a lot, but worse, it often gives parishes permission to focus only on what happens inside the sanctuary and stay separated from the world.
I do think social media is important for communication, but I don't think it's as valuable as face to face communication. Research say interpersonal communication is 7% words, 40% tone of voice, and 53% body language. Therefore a PERFECT text message is only 7% effective at best. I'm not convinced that social media is authentic community. An excellent vehicle for communication, but weak in relational presence.
Fr. Rob, while I understand how you're applying research statistics on interpersonal communication, I respectfully but vehemently disagree with your conclusions that authentic community cannot be achieved through social media. In fact, I am doing my Doctor of Ministry project on this exact premise. I think you'd possibly have a point if social were just text, but since it includes video and thus is both auditory and visual, it is very much possible to experience all aspects of interpersonal communication through social. The only difference, of course, would be the distance between online community participants; the distance doesn't have to be prohibitive, though.
Furthermore, even if social were just text, the relationship building would be in the quality of the text, not the text itself, just like an in-person relationship between man and a woman develops not simply because of the actions between them, but because of the quality thereof. Body language and nonverbal cues can be overrated when delivered in authentically.
Social media can be very strong in relational presence if everyone involved in the online community are genuinely invested in making the relationship work. This investment is equally important in an in-person relationship. To give greater validation to "traditional" communities over online communities is to ignore the powerful ministry that takes place on the web on a daily basis, much of which has already been alluded to by others in this comment section.
I invite you, Fr. Rob; you, Fr. Tim (excellent article, btw); and anyone reading this to check out my project and share the info with people you think would be interested in participating. http://marcusacylar.com/dmin
With respect, I disagree that ASA is should be understood as a metric of the number of people reached by the church or touched by the gospel. Instead ASA is a proxy for the human capital a church has to do the reaching and touching. It is the analog of the income in the budget not the expenditures.
ASA is also best use as a relative measure. How does your ASA compare to your pledge income? What about outreach ministry per Sunday attendant? The numbers can be to large as well as too small. Churches trying to do more then they have the human capital to support.
ASA, pledge income, time and talant survey; these all are measures of ministry capacity. Whether that capacity is being used effectively is another question and much harder to quantify.
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