What Facebook Metrics Teach us about Church Metrics

Why De-Metricating Churches is a Missional Concern

On the Internet, there are browser tools that help make for a more enjoyable, utilitarian, or streamlined browsing experience. One such new tool (that Derek White “Geek Preacher” clued me into) is called the Facebook Demetricator. The browser tool removes all numbers from your Facebook account. Per the graphic above (mobile users will need to view the full site), it replaces “33 people like this post” with “people like this post” or “12 comments” with “people commented” or “15 minutes ago” with “recently.” Here’s a demonstration video. It removes all metrics from your Facebook, essentially.

Why would someone do that? Don’t they know that social capital needs to be quantified? Don’t they know that if more people comment then it must be more successful a post? Don’t they know that if I read that someone posted something “five minutes ago” then I need to re-post it quickly before my friends?

The Role of Metrics on Facebook

Theorist/artist Ben Grosser has clued into that Facebook puts all these metrics on our pages for a purpose: to encourage our increased interactions on Facebook. The more times we login and view, the more eyes are on the ads, and the more money Facebook makes. From an interview with Grosser:

I would suggest that the primary question asked by Facebook’s designers when deciding which metrics to reveal is whether a particular count will increase or decrease user participation. Am I more likely to click on a ‘trending article’ if I only see its title or if that title is accompanied by a message indicating that 131,394 other people read it before me? If the latter then the metric is revealed.

Hence, Grosser decided to make a social experiment and remove these metrics, with a deeper purpose than most online utilities. From his website:

Would we add as many friends if we weren’t constantly presented with a running total and told that adding another is “+1″? Would we like as many ads if we weren’t first told how many others had liked them before us? Would we write as many status messages if Facebook didn’t reduce its responses (and their authors) to an aggregate value? In other words, the site’s relentless focus on quantity leads us to continually measure the value of our social connections within metric terms, and this metricated viewpoint may have consequences on how we act within the system.

When the express value of a website is quantity, and they reflect that quantity to encourage a higher quantity of paricipation, then there’s a de-valuing of social connections.

Let’s apply this to the church…but one last line from the interview with Grosser:

What purpose does this enumeration serve for a system (and a corporation) that depends on its user’s continued free labor to produce the information that fills its databases? Where does it lead when quantity, not quality is foremost?

The Role of Metrics in the Church

Imagine you are at a Church Conference and every participant wore a badge proclaiming how many friends they had in that room? Would anyone be content to keep that number at zero? At one, two, or three? Or would they be driven to walk around the space, meeting new people and identifying old acquaintances all so they can increase their public friend count?

That is more reality than imagination at this point in the United Methodist Church. Visit any annual conference and you will see dashboards like Bishop Willimon began that measure money in the plates, butts in the pews, people involved in mission, and professions of faith. If you increase in these quantities, your church is safe from the wrath of the powers-that-be, you sustain yourself another year, and your mission shares (apportionments) go up. Also, you can jump into a different (tier) of churches, meaning higher-quantity-increasing clergy will be available to be sent your way. Quantity increases are matched with quantity increases as the church system reinforces itself.

In other words, a focus on quantity over quality DOES grow the church. It will lead to more people. But their social fabric will be more frayed.

I remember back in 2007 a report surfaced (and was quickly taken offline–but not before I got a copy of it), that was a study of fast growing mega-churches. The research concluded that “the fastest growing churches depend on the least involved,least motivated, and least engaged Christian believers.” The study examined 2,000 American churches of 1,000 members or more – including 28 United Methodist congregations – interviewing dozens of recent members in each. Of the 76,000+ participants, 11% become deeply and actively involved in the life of the church. Approximately 55% (over 42,000 people!) drift away into inactivity within 18 months. The quantity system emerges with a good number of dedicated disciples, but that achievement is dwarfed by those that drink the “Red Bull” version of Christianity and have a high for a few months or years, and then are “let down” and leave.

This quantity system then spills into the way clergy interact with each other. One of my clergy friends at Annual Conference thumbs through his Journal whenever someone is speaking on a topic to the speaker’s church metrics…just to see if they are quantitatively important. Amazing, right?

All in all, I am fearful of what might happen when we allow this obsession over quantity (driven by fears over institutional decline) dictate what our relationships are to one another. Quantity is needed, yes. But to allow it to be the driving concern over all we do as the church, then we turn into Facebook where we do free-or-reduced work for the kingdom with our production capacity (dollars, butts, professions) being what is of value. And that’s not incarnational to me.

So what do we do? Quality over Quantity

The Great Commission (found in Matthew) states that the followers of Christ are called to “make disciples of all the nations.” At certain points in Christian history, we focused on the “all the nations” portion and believed that numerical increase was the way to live out this Commission. But increasingly the practice of ministry has me convinced that the first part “make disciples” is the more operative term in the Commission. Jesus didn’t say “make Christians of all the nations” or “make believers of all the nations” He said “make DISCIPLES” meaning people that don’t just profess Christ but deepen the quality of their relationship with God and God’s creation. Clergy, then, are not to be in the sales department, but quality assurance.

I believe that, oddly enough, if we focus on quality over quantity, we will end up getting both:

  • I suspect that if you focus on the quality of your relationships with your church, then you’ll see the quantity of your interactions start to go up.
  • I suspect that if you focus on the quality of your community, then you’ll see the quantity of their interactions with the church start to go up.

It isn’t going to be pretty. But it is becoming truer across United Methodism:

My friend Anthony Tang wrote during General Conference that while the Southern jurisdictions have more membership in their churches, that doesn’t mean that they are more involved. In fact, dividing membership by worship attendance, the Western Jurisdiction roundly outdoes the other jurisdictions, meaning we have a higher percentage of our congregations actually engaged rather than mere names on paper. And yet the people who preside over cultural Christianity rather than more actively-discipled Christianity are the ones who want more seats at the Table according to the defeated PlanUMC and the Call To Action.

In short, the quantity system would reward the churches with the highest membership; the quality system would reward the churches with the highest discipleship.

It is up to our leadership and those who restructure the church (and the bishops who institute dashboards and metrics without Conference approval or vote) to choose whether they want quantity or quality.

They are not a dichotomy, you can have both, but when your system only measures one, then that’s a clear choice as to which church you want.

Your turn: Thoughts? Welcome to our visitors and please leave a comment below!

 

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Comments

  1. says

    I guess that I look for quality over quantity. Maybe I have been ingrained with the best way to evangelize is to love God and love people, that this push to put people in the pews is going to end up taking us back to attractional models of church. That model may have gotten lots of people into church, but I think that the evangelical church is now paying the price with lukewarm involvement and declining membership rolls, at least that’s my experience. Maybe it’s just anecdotal, but it does seem that most of the American Christian church is beginning to slide this way. I think that there are a few churches that are recognizing this and making more adjustments to help people.

  2. says

    As is oft the case, Jeremy, you offer a provocative post. In addition, one of the pastors in our conference called me out by asking what I thought of your post. So, here’s my answer.

    In general you are on target, and consistent with a growing emphasis in the church in USAmerica on developing people; on investing and equipping them to move deeper in the commitment to Christ (i.e. Mike Breen, Mike Slaughter, Hugh Halter, Alan Hirsch, etc.). At the same time, this investment includes the development of leaders who can reproduce new leaders who develop more people in faith formation and growth. This process is of course the DNA of the Wesleyan movement, modeled much in line with what we saw in the early church.

    At the same time, I’d want to push against some of the polarity that seems to lie underneath some of your assertions. For example, your point that churches must drive up numbers and those that do are kept “safe from the wrath of the powers-that-be” assumes that there is such a wrath being wielded. Though I’m sure we could both find a story or two to show it’s the case, my experience working with conference level folks is that there is not some upper level conspiracy in which churches are being targeted. Instead, there is a significant conversation that is primarily about quality.

    I would insist that this is a “both/and” effort – not quality over quantity or vice versa, but that both are important. It does matter that there is high quality worship, high quality faith formation processes, high quality relational mechanisms (small groups, etc.) high level engagement with the community, a focus on a spirit of generosity, and so forth, but it also matters that a faith community is keeping track of how many people are involved, at what level, etc. This issue is key in the ongoing need to develop leaders. My experience in our Annual Conference and a few other conferences with which I’m familiar is that the metrics are being used to invite conversation with local churches as they consider the quality of their life of faith together and their engagement with the world around them.

    Second, you indicate that it is the responsibility of the church “leadership” (by which I think you mean conference and judicatory levels) to choose between quantity or quality. Again, my previous paragraph points out my insistence that this is a both/and not either/or issue. Additionally, I don’t believe the choice sits at the level of the conference/judicatory. Each local church is the missional contact point of the UM connection and each church must decide for itself how it will live out its call to make disciples (which itself implies metrics) while doing so with quality and integrity. Given the number of churches that are incredibly inward focused, there is plenty of room for every church to take this work seriously. At its best, the connection (DS, Bishops, conference staff) are accountability partners in helping each church live fully into what it says it will do: make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

    Our Annual Conference is using the opening verses of John 15 as the basis for the conversation during charge conferences this year. I find it a particularly appropriate text, as it lifts up both quantity (fruit) and quality (fruit centered in abiding.) I recently posted my own insight into this text on http://www.scituatedrev.blogspot.com on what I believe is the deeper meaning of John 15:5b – that Jesus is saying that fruit is important, but we might as well forget about fruit (quantity) if we aren’t making sure we are connected to the vine (quality) – that “apart from Christ, we cannot even abide at all” (my translation). Does this put the priority on quality? Certainly in the sense of the quality of our relationship with Christ. Does it dictate the quality should supersede quantity in the whole scope of things? I’m not so sure.

  3. John says

    The concern with mega churches seems to be that so few (only 11%) become deeply and actively involved. I don’t know what the survey defined as “deeply and actively involved”. However, when I look at my small UMC, I doubt seriously that we have very many more than 11% (perhaps 1/6 rather than 1/9) “deeply and actively involved.” The Pareto principle holds with a vengeance. So, who is doing the best job in disciple making: a traditional UMC of 100 members with 20% deeply and actively involved (20 disciples) or a mega church UMC with 1,000 members with 11% deeply and actively involved (110 disciples)? I would be much more receptive to this argument if our smaller churches were getting 50% to 75% of members deeply and actively involved. In fact, I would bet that a small church with 75% of its members actually living as disciples would grow without programs or metrics or anything else but the power of the Holy Spirit. When you have that many exceptional, loving, active people in one location today, you would have to nail the doors shut to keep out the folks curious about what could create such a fellowship.

  4. Roger Vest says

    How then would you measure the quality of your disciple making? Dealing with the idea of quantity, the statements “You measure what is important to you” and “every number represents a child of God” both have some merit to them. If we say that you can’t really measure quality this way, then how will we know when we have it?

    Would love to hear responses to these questions.

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