By the numbers: vital signs that keep churches healthy
Current Missional Vital Signs reports capture attendance at regular weekly worship services, such as this one at Faith UMC, Fort Myers. Photo from Faith UMC's Facebook page.
A task force is discussing adding attendance at special services, such as this Christmas Eve service last year at Shepherd's Community UMC, Lakeland, to the figures collected in MVS reports. Photo from Shepherd Community's Facebook page.
LAKELAND – Reporters from 95 percent of the churches in the Florida Conference diligently gather numbers for the Missional Vital Signs (MVS) chart each month, but many often wonder if – and how – the information makes a difference to their congregations.
"People in churches sometimes think numbers are just going into a big, black hole," says Janet Earls, congregational vitality specialist for the Florida Conference. "We want them to know we do care and we are looking."
Discussions are underway to simplify the explanations for the measurements and add a few other indexes in 2016. Currently, the monthly reports include five measurements: passionate worship, radical hospitality, intentional discipling, salty service and extravagant generosity. These measurements were chosen from the 2007 book "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations," by Bishop Robert Schnase, to monitor the health of churches.
"We plan to add a column for special services — something that congregations have been requesting — and another for evangelism," Earls says. "There is a difference between saying yes to Jesus and then joining a church and becoming a fully committed member."
Rev. Dan Prine, pastor of Edgewater UMC, Port Charlotte, believes special services go hand-in-hand with evangelism.
"I think it's very important to track special services because it is another point of contact with people," he says. "For a lot of folks, that is the only time they come to church."
While increasing membership is a primary goal, Prine says it should not be a congregation's only focus.
"It's not just about how many we have attending, but how many we are bringing into a relationship with Jesus Christ," he says. "It's not just about building the kingdom of Edgewater, but about building the kingdom of God."
Online worship is another area that is being considered for tracking in the future. A task force will be looking at ways to measure online worship numbers for inclusion in MVS reporting.
"Through the gift of technology, we can reach thousands more people," says Mark Reynolds, pastor of Shepherd's Community UMC, Lakeland. "It is a trap in our thinking to think a church is just a building."
Reynolds and a group of volunteers built live-streaming into worship services at their church. Since January, Shepherd's Community services have been viewed in 60 different countries, including China. In addition, the YouTube podcasts of his sermons have had nearly 14,000 views since July 2012.
It's not just young, tech-savvy people that Reynolds' messages touch, though. The idea behind live-streaming began when a church member in his 70s video-recorded Reynolds on an iPad.
"The church is small and we were thinking about marketing," remembers Reynolds. "We wanted to get the gospel out into the community, so we uploaded it to YouTube.
"We like to think big," he adds. "We want to reach thousands of people and make them disciples for Jesus."
Those kinds of efforts are encouraging to Earls and her team, who hope to see churches become less inwardly focused and become true partners in their communities. MVS measurements help the conference monitor a church's health, as well as that of the entire denomination. As the new year approaches, the importance of collecting the data accurately will be re-emphasized.
"We want to celebrate when churches are doing well, but we also want to be able to notice when a church is heading toward crisis," Earls says. "We can proactively reach out with tools and resources when we see a red flag."
While a decline in worship attendance indicates a serious problem, other MVS measurements are just as vital to keeping a congregation healthy.
"One big flag is no new professions of faith," explains Earls. "That means a church is not evangelizing and does not have a discipleship program."
She refers to Gil Rendle's book, "Doing the Math of Mission: Faith, Fruitfulness, and Metrics," when explaining that it's not just about the numbers but rather good stewardship. Rendle points out that people who are seeking the church want help in being disciples.
With the MVS monthly reports, the Florida Conference can see how to use its resources to help support churches that show warning signs of trouble.
Prine likens MVS measurements to the vital signs for a human body.
"I can be healthy, but if my blood pressure is out of whack, there is a problem," he says. "I think it’s important that we are all aware of the numbers, not just pastors, but also the church leadership. We need to look to see if things have dropped off and what needs extra attention. If we don't, we could miss warning signs that could sneak up on us later on."
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.