Future of Church: Measuring the "Effectiveness" of a Hybrid Ministry
Your church's top two success measures likely involve attendees and donations, or, to be a bit crass, "butts and bucks."
Don't believe me? Check out your congregation's annual report. Notice the data on attendance/membership. Notice the data on giving. See any other graphs? See any other numbers? Most likely, you do not.
Finances and attendance have long been the indicators of an "effective" ministry because they provide a proxy for "growth." If both numbers are going up and to the right, we have a growing ministry, and by the standards of the capitalist West, that's a good thing, right?
There's only one problem: donations are down. Attendance is down. Giving will continue to dwindle (thanks in part to the Trump tax law), membership will continue to fall. Sure, some churches will manage to be a temporary outlier. They'll find a way to increase their attendance, and drive up their giving - but this will come at the expense of other neighborhood churches. As Nona Jones tells us in her book on social media ministry, their success will be the demise of other congregations in their hometown.
If you're a member of the clergy, do yourself and your church leadership a favor: divest yourself of these success measures. They'll only wear you down, they'll only demoralize your community. These are the success measures of the "Christendom" church, when our surrounding culture created Christians for us, when the American way meant attendance in a building at a set time each and every week. These measures cannot guide us into the church's future. But what can?
If the future of church is to be a strategic blend of the online and the offline, with the objectives of collaborative service and faith formation, then attendance and giving are relatively meaningless. They can help to plan a budget document, but aren't much good beyond that. After all, how can you extrapolate an intent to live a life of faithful service from a stack of dollar bills? How can you find a commitment to missional collaboration by tracking the quantity butts on a bench?
It's clear that the future of church needs a replacement set of "success" indicators, "KPIs," or measurement tactics. For those who are curious what could replace revenue and retention, I would offer the following suggestion: the future of the church is about extending an invitation, then equipping for service. The future of the church is about creating a culture of collaboration so that all can participate in God's global mission. To that end, we have to arrive at a set of measures that somehow quantify inviting, equipping, and collaborating.
In a digital age church, inviting, equipping, and collaborating happen in a hybrid of the virtual and the face-to-face, through a blurring of distinctions between the online and the offline. To measure the effectiveness of the hybrid church, then, we must start by understanding the extent to which the online and the offline can be integrated in the life of a faith community. There are three concepts that allow us to do just that: coverage, quality, and connection.
Coverage measures the breadth of digital integration within a church community. For every act of service, for every act of worship, and for every conversation, there needs to be a digital invitation. Coverage, then, is measured by the percentage of church happenings that could be simultaneously accessed both online and offline. Was a worship service livestreamed? Then it met the requirement for coverage. Did a board meeting have a Zoom link? Then it has coverage. Coverage happens when we make an intentional effort to invite collaboration, especially collaboration that takes place through a screen.
Quality analyzes the depth of digital integration. For every opportunity to connect digitally, we need to understand whether the connection was seamless and easy. Quality is a subjective measure of integration, displayed on a sliding scale of low to high-quality experiences. If a worship service was livestreamed, but the camera was at the back of the sanctuary and the audio was patchy, the quality was low. If a Bible Study provided a conference call dial-in, and used a Jabra or USB microphone to improve the audio quality for those joining remotely, the quality was high. Quality happens when we focus on hospitality, on treating those who join our life together through technology as equal collaborators in the mission we share.
Finally, connection looks at the degree to which technology was actually used. Connection is a quantitative measure that resembles but is not synonymous with attendance. For every piece of blog content we created in support of a sermon series, how many read it? For every sermon we posted to Wistia, how many watched? Connection-based metrics, which look at raw engagement metrics, are still useful in the hybrid church, because they can tell us where our digital invitations are going unseen. If we find that our digital presence is going unnoticed, we might find that we have some further work to do in defining who we are called to be, and what we are called to do, in this digital age.
These three concepts have at their core three questions. In everything we do as church:
Did we make digital collaboration possible?
Did we do everything to make digital collaboration a high-quality experience?
And did anyone actually participate digitally?
We can learn a great deal from these questions. They can help us to live into our new normal, to reimagine Christian community in a digital age. But they can't help us if we continue to ask the old questions. They can't help us if they go unasked.
Hybrid ministry in an eventual new normal will be quite different from the church we experienced in February 2020. Accordingly, we need to measure "effectiveness" differently. In doing so, we might just find that what we're after as church has nothing do with "effectiveness," and everything to do with service: collaborative, inclusive service, open to all, in response to God's eternal call.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes."