Last weekend I was at MO Annual Conference (United Methodist Church), and we spent a lot of time talking about how to be better leaders and get more successful churches. There were, admittedly, different ways of talking about success - based on numbers of members, numbers of people in attendance at worship, based on number of programs offered, amount of mission work done, etc. I certainly don't know which one of these is the "right" way to look at it.
This weekend I'm in Iowa at the Habitat for Humanity AmeriCorps Build-a-thon. Almost 600 AmeriCorps members serving with Habitat affiliates all across the country will be working together this week on a variety of projects, from new construction to exterior repair and painting through A Brush With Kindness. Today was a day mostly of hanging out and getting to know one another better, so I found it fascinating to listen to people's conversations. Inevitably they would ask each other which affiliate they were with, and if they didn't already know something about the location, the next question was often, "so how many houses do you guys do each year?" The similarities of these two recent experiences just shocked me, although as I write this I'm not sure why I didn't see it before.
I've worked with Habitat for 3 years, and have had some relationship to AmeriCorps for all of that time. Likewise, I've been in the UMC for more than 10 years and attended more than a couple of annual conferences. We get so hung up on the numbers, sometimes I think we don't give credit for the work that's being done even in the smaller places that aren't building 50 houses a year or doing multiple international mission trips. The fact is that there are people who need help in every kind of community all over this country - from urban cores to rural areas, both the church and Habitat affiliates are helping to meet those needs. So why do we look down on those who "only" build one or two houses a year or who "only" have 30 people coming to church on Sunday morning. Do those 30 people not count? Why do we assume that if your numbers aren't growing that there's no growth happening in the congregation? Are the two families who got their houses not better off than they were before? I wonder if we can find some other way to measure success, or if we can stop measuring it all together and let it be a subjective thing. Just like our economy, can it realistically always continue to grow?