The Metrics of Mattering

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Derek Penwell

Interviewer: What metrics do you think best measures [sic] the fact that you’re doing work that matters?

Seth Godin: I think the only one I care about is: Will people miss you if you are gone. Interview with Seth Godin

Measuring stuff, it seems, is our great cultural preoccupation. Click views. Polling data. Sales figures. Miles per gallon. Grams of fat or carbohydrates. Attendance figures. Financial performance. Twitter followers. Facebook likes. Klout score. The rate of global climate change.

Apparently, you cannot know how well you’re doing unless you have numbers that situate you in relationship to others doing the same thing. Companies pay a lot for this kind of quantification. It’s difficult to know how much to charge for a commercial without knowing the size of the audience it’s going out to. Nobody builds a new franchise until the potential customer base is surveyed. Pharmaceutical companies balk at investing in new medicines until they have an accurate numerical picture of how many people are likely to need the medications (read: buy them).

That’s how it works, right? How do I know how much something is worth until I can attach a number to it?

Congregations, formed as they are by the culture in which they find themselves, tend to worry about metrics the same as everybody else. I mean, how could they not?

The industrial revolution couldn’t have unfolded the way it did not only without inventors and engineers, but without accountants and economic forecasters. Somebody had to keep track of the numbers. And now, in the midst of the information age, we quantify everything.

So, it’s no wonder that congregations feel the need to measure their effectiveness by metrics that can be seen on a spreadsheet.

But the problem is, in our haste to measure everything to know its value, we are just as likely to measure the wrong thing—or perhaps, to measure the right thing but to learn the wrong lessons from those measurements.

Membership, attendance, budgets. These are numbers that are easily counted. It takes no particular skill to tally these figures. The temptation, absent any true metrics, is to believe that the bigger the number, the more success is present.

What we rarely stop to consider, however, is how success as followers of Jesus should be defined.

After all, it’s tough to imagine Jesus—who regularly ran in the opposite direction of the crowds, who died (largely) abandoned and alone—looking at the membership roster or the attendance figures as a way to gauge success.

It’s difficult to come up with a scenario in which Jesus—who talked about selling everything and giving the proceeds to those in need, who blessed the poor and the hungry—looks at an oversubscribed budget and says, “It’s clear by these numbers that you’re doing everything I could possible ask of you. Well done, my good and faithful servant . . . enter into the joy of your master.”

Now, dear reader, you might be ready to object that nobody thinks those numbers are the only thing that’s important in being a faithful Christian community.

Perhaps. But let me ask you two things:

  • First, if membership and attendance and budget aren’t the most important things in being a faithful Christian community, why do congregations expend so much energy keeping track of them, and then expend even more energy obsessing about the numbers they come up with?
  • Second, if membership and attendance and budget aren’t the most important things in being a faithful Christian community, then what is? And how do you measure it?

I think Seth Godin’s idea about the metrics of mattering is something the church ought to think long and hard about: “I think the only one I care about is: Will people miss you if you are gone.”

I say it’s “something the church ought to think long and hard about,” because if you’re going to measure how it is you matter, you’re going to have to do a great deal of thinking about those to whom you matter, and what exactly is the nature of that mattering. And then you’re going to have to figure out how it is you’d go about devising a metric to measure it. That kind of metric is a hell of a lot harder to devise than the one concerned only with counting bodies and dollars.

But if you do happen to figure out how to measure how much you matter, you’re going to be a lot closer to looking like Jesus.

via Articles – [D]mergent

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

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