What are the metrics for a church’s success? For decades now, pastors have joked about the three B’s: bodies, buildings, and budgets.

  • How many people attend on Sundays?
  • What’s the state of the building program or facility?
  • Are there enough funds coming in to keep everything going?

The more evangelistically minded add a fourth B—baptisms.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance church leaders have placed on these metrics, to the point that as long as attendance holds steady while the buildings are well maintained and the offerings aren’t in freefall, the church looks good from the outside. Programs continue. Funds come in. Occasionally, one might ask harder questions, like “Are lay leaders in our congregation more concerned about making budget than seeing baptisms?” But for the most part, these B’s offer a metric for a church to use in gauging their growth or decline.

Inadequacies of the 3 B’s

But what if the three B’s were never a great metric for understanding the health of a local church?

What if the B’s were, too often, a way for us to paper over serious problems below the surface in our discipleship process (or lack thereof)?

And what if, now, God has used a global pandemic to blow the 3 B’s to bits?

Budget? Recent research shows that many churches are holding strong here as people continue to give, but everyone is bracing for the effect of declining funds as the fallout from job losses and salary reductions spreads across the country.

Building? Most of us haven’t seen the inside of our church’s building for nearly two months now.

Bodies? Measuring attendance isn’t what it was before, when we counted people who showed up to a service on the weekend. Oh, some pastors have switched over to counting the number of people tuning in for a livestream or video recording of a worship service. But what constitutes a “view” is simply if someone has engaged for three seconds or more when on Facebook and Instagram. For YouTube, it’s 30 seconds. A “view” doesn’t actually show you how long someone has engaged with an online service; nor do the numbers work if you don’t consider families watching one livestream together. Simply put, there’s no way to accurately measure a church’s reach online.

Rethinking How We Measure

The 3 B’s have been blown up, leaving church leaders disoriented. Some feel concern because there are no objective numbers to measure whether or not they’re doing a “good job.” Others feel relieved; the B’s had been in decline, and now the measurements are shifting into other areas.

A few assume that once the pandemic is over, we’ll go back to the 3 B’s, just like before. But that’s unlikely to happen. The budget won’t be the same, and neither will the attendance—probably for a long time. To compare one’s numbers after the stay-at-home orders are lifted to the weeks before the pandemic (or to the same weeks last year) won’t work.

Maybe this sense of disorientation is a hidden gift from the Lord. Perhaps we’ve relied too long on numbers in order to judge our success, and we’ve not paid attention to aspects of discipleship that we can’t easily quantify. Surely it was a mistake to assume that a church is faithful if the pastors keep gathering the same or a growing number of bodies in one building to hear one message, as if pastoral communication is the end-all of church success, without much emphasis on the connections taking place between members throughout the week. Surely something is wrong when church members are apt to notice a dip in offerings faster than they take note of an empty baptistery.

The opportunity before us is to rethink the ways in which we measure congregational health. It doesn’t mean numbers don’t matter; they do. Numbers represent people. Jesus left the 99 for the 1. But we shouldn’t assume more of a number than what it actually represents.

  • Fifty baptisms a year is a great number—if it represents a church’s growth through conversion after personal evangelism. Fifty baptisms doesn’t mean as much if 45 of those individuals are no longer attending church anywhere a year later, showing little to no fruit of genuine conversion.
  • A church can grow quickly, and the numbers can represent a genuine work of the Spirit in applying the gospel to people’s hearts. A church can also grow quickly through turning the gospel into a self-help message of inspiration, or through programs that draw believers from other churches.
  • A church can struggle to make budget, while being extraordinarily faithful in reaching people who are financially disadvantaged, or who are at a stage of life where funds don’t come easily. Meanwhile, another church can have millions of dollars of reserves and consistently be over-budget, while the sanctuary sits half-empty every Sunday, and no one is reached for Christ.

My point here is not to prescribe exactly what these metrics should be as we move forward. I don’t have all the answers. But I’ve been pondering the types of questions we should be asking ourselves about our church:

  • How many members do we have in our discipleship training, whatever it may look like?
  • How many people volunteer or are a part of our outreach/evangelism training?
  • How many of our young people demonstrate a passion for missions or engage in short-term or long-term trips?
  • What are the signs that members are active in serving one another?
  • How many of our members are really known by our pastors, staff, and lay leaders?

The global pandemic is a great time to rethink our metrics—to make sure we don’t grow overly discouraged or encouraged by certain numbers. Just as we’ve had to find new ways to minister during this season, we’ll also need to look to better metrics by which to measure health and growth.