I have spoken before about the Protestant obsession to measure our ministries by shallow, external metrics which value growth over flourishing. If I look at the prophetic announcements about what it looks like for God’s reign to come, and if I like to count things, then maybe I should start counting the number of weapons beat into agricultural implements, and the number of blind who receive sight or the number of dead people raised in Jesus’ name. But it seems to me that the measure of the coming kingdom is less about the metrics of church growth and conversion than it is about signs of God’s reign. When John the Baptist sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the real deal, Jesus did not reply with numbers of baptisms or followers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:4-5). These are some of the indicators that God’s reign has come to earth.
A mass exodus or mass influx of people tells us something, and it may be important for us to keep track of these things so we can address the situation, but we must not be too quick to assume what growth spurts or nose dives say about our community. One church in Madison a few years ago had a large bump in attendance. It turns out a church across town had a messy, divisive fallout and many of the disgruntled members migrated together to this church. In this particular case, the massive growth of one church was actually a sign of illness in the larger community of faith. The pastor of the growing church wisely called the newcomers to a meeting. He challenged them to go and be reconciled with the leadership of the church they had left, wanting to maintain the unity of the Body as best he could.
Signs of kingdom health might include baptisms or number of people involved in church communities, but likely it will need to include observations about individual and corporate life over time and signs of health like the levels of stress (“my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:30), economic sufficiency (“There was not a needy person among them,” Acts 4:34), and quality of life (“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10). These things are challenging to quantify but give a clearer picture of the health of a church than simple growth or decline.
Any church planting mission working in communities where there is poverty, domestic abuse, drug use, materialism, violence, poor sanitation, racism or any variety of obstructions to kingdom flourishing must also pay attention to these indicators outside the church as well. Kingdom people provoke the kingdom around them, like leaven imbedded in flour and water. A Pauline approach to mission is shortsighted without the ministry of James, who addressed an entirely different set of issues that are critical to God’s kingdom righteousness, or Barnabas, who accomplished similar church planting outcomes as Paul but used a different set of values to carry out his mission.
Let’s be careful not to embrace a vision of health for our churches and ministries which hinge solely on hands raised in an alter call, butts sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, or the size of our staff. Let us, rather, seek to catalyze the signs of God’s reign—which not only include people coming under Christ’s redeeming work, but also the “increase of his government and his peace.” (Isaiah 9:7)