Ministry Models and Measuring “Successful Impact” – Present Validity Doesn’t Ensure Future Value

Summary: In the debate between whether we should embrace and celebrate all kinds of ministry methodological models, I can only say “yes” to a “both/and” approach in the present. But, as a student of cultures and strategic foresight/futures, I’m not so sure this holds up in the long run. When I consider futurist factors affecting these opposite-paradigm models (like mega-church and missional) operating in the present, I have go to with “either/or.” Not all ministry models with present value have future validity. So, yes, I can celebrate them now for how the Spirit is using them in the Kingdom in the present – but no, I don’t embrace them as holding similar impact in the forthcoming and vastly different cultural future.

Calculating Present Validity versus Future Value

At Dr. David Fitch’s blog, there’s a big debate going on about whether we should have an either/or approach to certain contemporary ministry models, or accept them all with a both/and welcome. If I look at the present, then I’m torn. I can agree that large-scale churches may make sense and fit with their cultural context *at this time.* However, we’re in the midst of major changes in global paradigms, dominant cultures, generational dynamics, and many other trends that are driving social transition. As Dr. Fitch says, “the market for option 2 [mega-church, supernova leaders] is shrinking.”

So, if I look at the future, then I get kind of queasy. I know that what may “work” and “fit” today may very well also have a short shelf-life left before it is obsolete. And I refuse to leave strategic foresight for the future out of my present equations about future value of what may be currently valid as a ministry model. So, it may be a provisional “both/and” for now, but definitely an “either/or” for the future.

Yes, it’s valid to serve those from a traditional mindset using ministry methodological models that conform to their conventional, modernist norms. However, if we want to steward well into the future the resources God’s given us, I believe we have to go beyond questions of what’s working in the here-and-now, and consider the dynamic currents of change we find ourselves in and where they are probably taking us. In that light, it’s counterproductive to embrace a both/and approach that suggests any/all models are perfectly fine. They are not! We don’t want to start up or maintain models that are automatically obsolete in a few decades, do we? Or is that not even a question about the future and stewardship that we’re asking …?

Quantitative and Qualitative Measures of “Success”

As an advocate (and researcher/developer) for measurements of positive personal and social transformation, I can understand the keen interest over figuring out what models do work, and which ones will continue to work or should be discontinued. However, if you’re actually able to follow through and measure impact – – for mega-churches, missional enterprises, and anything in between – – I hope you will go far far beyond simple quantitative totals for dollars, attendance, and activities for the churches involved, and conventional population demographic totals for the surrounding cities. Such numbers are relatively easy to calculate, but how much do such QUANTITIES really tell us about the QUALITY of what’s happening? And add a fourth dimension of time to the equation, to morph these models and foresee how things could play out in the future. For instance:

  • What are the worldview dynamics in those demographics?
  • Are the surrounding regions more dominated by modernist-paradigm people (and thus more inclined to traditional ministry models), holistic-paradigm people (more inclined to missional models), or what?
  • What evidences are there that the organization can outlast the global paradigm shift we find ourselves in the midst of?
  • Are the training programs and funding formulas we use bias people toward ministry approaches with spiritual DNA that means terminal illness from conception?
  • Are the conventional pushes toward rapid numerical “growth” placing burdens on ministers to heavy for them to bear, near impossible to achieve, and even if reached that does not necessarily mean quality growth happened?

Four Key Qualitative Questions

In the framework I’ve been developing to measure “successful impact,” I use four key mega-questions for discerning qualitative impact (each with a series of other questions and tools to get more detailed evidence that yield data that demonstrate the real answers):

1. How *suitable* is it for the group of people we have, and are we using all of our resources well?

2. How *sensitive* is it to both our cultural context and to maintaining biblical standards?  (Does it both resonate with the local cultures while also resisting wherever those cultures are anti-biblical?)

3. How *survivable* is it when compared to unavoidable changes, both in external culture (global and local) and internal dynamics and demographics?

4. How *sustainable* is it beyond the current generations in leadership and with current patterns of resource usage?

I suspect a lot of church and ministry leaders who use plug-and-play program-based models and/or mega-church models think they can answer yes to all four questions above. But I have to wonder, especially about their probable (3) survivability and (4) sustainability. For instance:

SURVIVABILITY

If it is accurate that the market for modernist mindset people in American churches is a demographic in decline, then there is definitely a limited shelf-life for modernist organizational models. I’ve suggested 2031 as the date to calculate by. That is when the last of the Boomers (born 1964) can retire with full benefits for Social Security at age 67. Modernist organizations will be in dire trouble if they have not already transferred their legacy and leadership to next generations by then. And next generations are most probably NOT modernist, linear, analytic thinkers, so if current modernist leaders expect the same ministry models to coast on through for 100 years, they are fooling themselves.

And when there are major changes in the global economy, what happens to the contentional/attractional churches and ministries that were built larger based on “economies of scale” and commuting? For instance:

  • What happens to the numbers of commuters who attend when gas goes over $5 per gallon?
  • What happens when electricity from non-renewable sources double or triple?
  • What happens if religious non-profits no longer receive tax breaks?
  • What happens to church finances when the Boomer generation requires huge amounts of resources for end-of-life care?

SUSTAINABILITY

Meanwhile, both the idea of “big footprint” leaders and that term itself make me queasy about their organizations having overlarge negative impacts. Specifically, for those who’ve been watching the growth of social innovation movements for a while, the probable emerging standard is triple or quadruple bottom line: Create outcomes that benefit people, planet, profits, and personal/social transformation AND that do no harm.

So, can mega-churches with mega-buildings and perhaps multi-campuses:

  • Demonstrate that they equip and release God’s people to use their actual spiritual gifts, and not just slot them into program roles that anyone could fill?
  • Can they demonstrate that they maintain a reasonably small “carbon footprint” to their activities, and that their buildings and the commuting and their activities don’t overuse or abuse natural resources?
  • That they steward people’s spiritual journeys toward maturity (and have a biblically comprehensive description of what “maturity” means, how it occurs, and how “maturity” is demonstrated)?
  • That they don’t merely expend resources to provide benefits their communities, but invest resources to build assets that bring multiplied impact?

And so, back to the original question of what say we to this both/and or either/or about ministry models? Honestly, mega-models and missional are something I can live with in a both/and sense – – barely now, but not forever, and definitely not for much longer. As best I can foresee, megasaurs are on their way to extinction, and missional mammals will likely take over the next eco-systems.

P.S. On a technical note, I would add that using the conceptual framework and assessment tools from Willow Creek’s Reveal study won’t work in measuring “successful impact” for both mega-church/program-based ministries and for missional enterprises. The Reveal tools were designed to measure “success” in their distinctive (and primarily linear-analytic) paradigm and ministry models (universal application programs); they have validity only for ministries that use similar paradigms and models. Missional enterprises tend to use a more nonlinear-holistic paradigm and ministry models that are more contextual instead of plug-and-play. So, it’s a problem of trying to use evaluators of apples on oranges, or vice versa. For some help in understanding evaluations for fruit that might work well on both applies and oranges, see this post that details Assessing Ministry in Emerging Cultures.

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