“How did we do?” It’s a question we’re being asked everywhere we go. Every company wants me to rate their customer service representative. I walked into the bank for a routine transaction, but I’m being asked, “How friendly was our staff?” I order less than $10 of tea online, and the question appearing in my inbox is not about the tea itself but, “How would you rate the delivery of our product?” I guess they want me to talk about the packaging. I am kind of a connoisseur of cardboard boxes. I give someone my contact information at the church welcome table, and by Sunday afternoon I’ve got a text message asking, “How did we do?” What, do they want me to rate the worship team, the coffee, the sermon illustration, or the fellow who took too long on the announcements? Offer too many assessment opportunities and you’ll encourage a consumer mindset at church.
If you start criticizing how well I’ve been washing the dishes, I might have a meltdown right there in the kitchen because no matter where we turn, we are being assessed. It’s not just snowflakes who desire safe zones. We come to church, hoping that maybe this is one place we will simply be loved, but then the preacher opens the book and reads, “For the time has come for judgement to begin at the house of God.” It’s true that our understanding of love must deepen, but it’s also true that people have endured hyper-assessment in the world all week long. The person who walked into church five minutes late and sat next to me might have undergone a gruelling performance review at work last week.
My no-judgement friend quotes Jesus out of context, telling me to “judge not,” so I fire back a volley of verses that say things like “test yourselves … unless, of course, you fail the test.” But rather than turning assessment into yet another flashpoint, why not prayerfully consider the following questions: How and why should we evaluate ourselves? How often should we scrutinize the details of our church life? Who should assess this or that aspect of ministry? At some point church leaders are going to want to know the opinions, preferences, and judgements of the congregation. People end up voting with their feet, but we’d like to receive wise and loving feedback along the way.
I’d like to offer three suggestions concerning church assessment. First, because the church is not a collection of products and services but rather an organism – the people of God – assessment must be holistic. In the context of evaluating his ministry in Corinth, Paul doesn’t cite financial reports or attendance statistics or baptism records. It’s difficult to quantitatively summarize the work of the Spirit in a church. The people are themselves the summary: “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3) So rather than assessing your church with a survey of fifty multiple choice questions yielding a three-page report of findings which allow the leadership to have an excuse to make the changes they wanted to make anyways, it might be better for the elders to dedicate an entire meeting to earnest prayer for each member, each family, each small group, and each ministry team.
Secondly, frequency really matters here, that a once-a-year assessment of anything at church is probably sufficient. Let more than a year go by, and you, the leaders, are probably not being responsible. Assess every week or even every month and I fear you will nurture a climate of judgement. Imagine that you are a musician on the worship music team, and every week at rehearsal the first question is, “So, how do you think things went last Sunday?” That might colour the entire meeting. Suddenly the focus is on the sound booth that botched intro, or the complaints we received over that one song. Much better to begin with a prayer of thanksgiving, a brief Scripture, and a reminder that we are here to prompt the rest of the church to worship a holy and awesome God. We justify weekly assessment of worship services by saying that we are pursuing excellence. If technical excellence is what we’re primarily after, then OK. But if the Corinthian people were the proof of Paul’s ministry, if changed lives are the rubric, then constant critique may produce a trivial excellence. I’ve known churches that were well-oiled machines but where I didn’t feel I could breathe, where I worried that if I made a mistake, I might break something. Let the folks in the entertainment world worry about ratings going up or down; we have our eyes on something Survey Monkey cannot measure.
Third, for healthy assessment, consider asking a trusted outsider to lend a hand. This doesn’t have to be a professional consultant. Offer to have two volunteers from your leadership be the outside observers at your sister church and have their designated volunteers come evaluate your church. Give them a list of seven things to comment on. And solicit their overall impression. You don’t have to treat their opinions as if they are prophetic, but their perspective might prove invaluable. You could give them a one-sentence aspiration statement for each part of your service and ask whether they thought you were living up to it: we want our welcome to be warm, friendly, and to point upward to God right away; we want the tone of our service to be reverent and joyful, feeling more like a large family gathering than a concert or a seminar; we want the sermon to be intelligible to our non-Christian neighbour and convicting to our long-term member; we want the climax of the sermon to be more about Jesus than anything else; we want the congregational singing to be fervent and substantive in its lyrics. Your trusted outsider could report back, “Honestly, the climax of that sermon had more to do with politics than with Christ, and when it came to singing, most people were kind of mumbling their way through even as the sound system’s volume was cranking higher. But the welcome was wonderful, the conversations afterward were genuine, and I’m hoping that our youth group can join yours on that mission trip you were all talking about.”
Theological colleges, such as RTC, sometimes seem to be driven by numerical assessments. Students receive marks on nearly every task. Their overall score goes up or down depending on their performance. They are tempted to believe that their academic success, or lack of it, reflects their personal value or their usefulness in the hands of God. But if we were to jettison marks and grades and scores, the motivation to work hard and strive for excellence might evaporate. Each of us needs clarity on what excellence looks like. Assessment can be a gift that humbles us and encourages us. My concern here is that when a theological student graduates and begins serving the church in some formal capacity, they might experience culture shock. No longer will they receive a report card with high marks for academically erudite exegetical papers. Instead, they’ll receive strange comments from real parishioners who were doing their best to understand the sermon. Assessment in church is going to be different from assessment in school. And it should be. After all, church is a place primarily of grace, a place where we are fundamentally accepted because of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us. Judgement and evaluation have a place in church, but wisdom is needed. May our assessment recognize whole people, not merely numbers; may its frequency reflect our long-term stewardship, not an anxiousness desiring immediate affirmation; and as a connectional church, may we be there for our sister churches, seeking and receiving honest feedback. Please give this article a five-star rating. Or drop me a line and tell me how I did.