Church Growth: What Sherlock Holmes Tells Us
“I never guess. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. Not least of all for his penchant to deliver such insightful lines as that quoted above.
Some may look at Holmes and suggest that his egotistical nature (not to mention his fictionality) disqualifies him from any serious discussion about life, not to mention the Church.
I have to disagree.
I think the Church has a lot to learn from Sherlock; especially when it comes to theorizing and interpreting data.
There’s a theory out there that goes something like this: churches ought to grow.
But somewhere, in the course of human history, that modified to read like this: good churches grow.
Except, the idea that good churches grow still doesn’t seem fully accurate, does it? The theory, while unspoken, is deeply held and, I think, now reads something like this: better churches grow, and the best churches are large.
I’m not sure if this was a slow and subtle change, if it was fast and rapid, or if it’s always been a theory that’s out there. Any way you slice it, though, it doesn’t matter.
When’s the last time you heard that theory from someone? (Okay, maybe not so directly, but in a definite passive-aggressive sort of way. A, “Wow, look at how big that church building is and how many cars are in the parking lot,” kind of way.)
There is a prominent pastor that I follow from a distance online. He posted a photo of himself and another pastor on Instagram and captioned it in the following way: (name) is a podcast listener leading a small but growing church through change. So good to meet him today.
It sounds great.
A face-to-face connection between virtual acquaintances can bring much to the table; new ideas and fresh hope, to name a few.
But why on earth mention that this individual leads a “small but growing church”? What does the size of the church have to do with anything? Does it truly matter whether it’s growing or not?
It matters only if the internalized and generally accepted theory states that better churches grow and the best churches are large.
When’s the last time you internalized the theory that better churches grow and the best churches are large?
How did you feel when you compared that mantra to your churches attendance patterns?
I’ve seen people fall into this trap first-hand: it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing our identity and worth as a church, as a pastor, as a child of God, and as a human being is tied up in the attendance numbers of our church.
Let me ask you a variant of that last question. When’s the last time you internalized that theory and felt superior as a pastor or leader of a larger church?
When was the last time you had a conversation with your elder board about growing your church and reaching new people? (Okay, reaching people far from God is the language we use, but it amounts to the same thing. Growing churches are better and large churches are best.)
When was the last time you discussed the idea of an increase in any capacity? (Probably every strategic meeting you call to order.)
Almost every conversation we have in our churches has to do with size.
Let me correct that.
It all has to do with size and our current size not being good enough.
Why? Because better churches grow and the best churches are large.
Consider the facts.
We examine year-over-year attendance, year-over-year giving, year-over-year baptisms, etc. and each of these numbers is only deemed healthy if there is an increase over time.
In the Church, size matters. Period.
(Insert mic drop here.)
It’s true, though. The North American Church has a size issue. And it’s not as cut-and-dry as you might think. It’s not as though we can say that large churches have sold out to the emotional high of a crowd and the celebrity of the super-pastor while the smaller churches are the ones that have kept it real.
It’s not that simple.
I mean, listen to the pride in those words. The thought process goes something like this: Because we are a smaller church, we are more grassroots like the early Church. Because you are a larger church, you aren’t like the early Church at all and, therefore, have sold out.
The same thing can happen in the other direction, too. The line of thinking can be like this: Because we are a larger church, we can have a greater impact in this world and for the Kingdom of God. Implicit in this thinking is the separation of us (larger) from them (smaller). Ultimately, what happens is a thought like this: because you are a smaller church, your Kingdom footprint is less and, therefore, inferior.
Okay, so we aren’t always so vocal or direct with our thoughts, but they are simmering beneath the surface.
They happen because we are people.
They also happen because of data.
That’s right. We form our theories because of the data we track.
Let’s return to Mr. Holmes for a moment and ask the question he begs us to ask: What data substantiates our theory that better churches grow, and the best churches are large?
The Single-Variable Theory. (Alternate Heading: Up and to the Right)
From all of my work in and with the church, conversations with pastors and church leaders, and interactions with members of various churches, I have concluded that there is, predominantly, one Biblical reference that has created our theory.
Acts 2:41b reads,
“…and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (NIV)
And there it is.
The sole variable we measure our performance against. In statistical jargon, we would call this a univariate theory. For our purposes, I’ll call it the single-variable theory.
It’s not the only New Testament reference to growth, but it is the most prominent.
Here are a few more, though.
Six verses later we read,
“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, NIV)
Move forward two chapters, to Acts 4, and you read:
“But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4, NIV)
These references, and others like them, didn’t create the theory so much as reinforce it. We view Acts 2 as the launch pad for a theory of bigger is better, and we strengthen that argument with the additional reference to church growth found in Acts 4.
The body of believers grew in critical mass.
If we were to graph their attendance, it went up and to the right.
(A total side note: we don’t usually reference the size of the nation of Israel, do we? It’s funny how we start counting in Acts 2 but could care less about how large the people of Israel were. I thought they were God’s people, too. I find it interesting how we assume the people of God in the New Testament are totally different than the people of God in the Old Testament. But I digress.)
And so, because of these passages, growth has quietly become the measure of church success today.
As a result, there is only one variable of interest: attendance. Sure, it’s not the only variable we track, but all the variables we track, over and above attendance, have the same measure of success: up and to the right.
It is so deeply embedded, too, that we have found holier language to disguise our Single-Variable Theory. I think we can do this in several ways.
1. Instead of attendance numbers, we refer to the number of baptisms.
The language we use can often sound like this: “Look at what God is doing! This year alone, X number of people have had their lives transformed and taken a step of faith and been baptized.”
It’s a new way of speaking about the same thing. Fundamentally, we require more baptisms year-over-year to validate our success. It’s a new way of saying, “Growth is better and bigger is best.”
Up and to the right wins again.
2. Instead of attendance numbers, we speak about engagement in church ministries.
The language of choice is something like this: “We have X number of people in attendance on a regular weekend, but, more importantly, we’ve seen an increase in small group engagement of 33%. This is a beautiful thing. We believe that life transformation happens in community. So that number, a 33% increase in small group engagement, represents more people experiencing life transformation.”
Once again, it’s a new way of speaking about the same thing. We require more engagement in order to prop up the theory of bigger is better.
Up and to the right wins again.
3. Instead of attendance numbers, we ask for people to tell their story.
It’s a powerful thing to hear someone’s story. We get to experience the work of God’s Spirit in their being. Believe me, I’ve choked up hearing some of the radical shifts God has made in the lives of people. Peace when all was chaos. Redemption when they felt worthless. Restoration when all was fractured.
These are things of beauty. They are stories that need to be told. However, as pastors and church leaders, we aren’t often content with hearing one story. We want more. It validates our activity as a church. It validates our identity as successful pastors and leaders.
Up and to the right wins again.
All of this comes from the recording, and veneration, of a single variable. Out of a deeply rooted desire to see God’s activity in this world, to inspire people’s faith, we trot out that variable to prop up a church theory that says: better churches grow, and larger churches are best.
We twist facts to suit theories.
What the Data Really Shows.
For just a moment, I need to speak clearly to what attendance data (and any data like it) really shows us.
In its entirety, attendance data tells us one thing: how many people showed up.
That’s it. That’s all.
Deep down we all know this. But, man, don’t we wish it could tell us more? Oh, absolutely, we do. I wish it could!
- I wish it could tell us how many people are genuinely experiencing the divine in our church building.
- I wish it could tell us how effectively we are introducing people to a life of freedom, joy, and peace.
- I wish it could tell us how many people have had a spiritual awakening because of the music, teaching, dramatic, and artistic components of our services.
- I wish it could tell us how many people are beginning to embody the Fruit of the Spirit.
- I wish it could tell us about the flourishing of the Kingdom of God, here and now.
But it can’t.
The attendance data we track has the power to tell us only one thing: how many people showed up.
That’s underwhelming, isn’t it?
Yeah. But it’s vital we understand this. The power of the attendance number is wholly encapsulated in that statement. It tells us how many people showed up.
So what can we actually glean from gathering and analyzing it?
Attendance data tells you how to operate on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. How many seats do we need? How many parking spaces are appropriate? Do we require and can we afford a new staff member? Do we need to add additional services, venues, or campuses? How many cups, spoons, forks, and plates do we need? You know, those kinds of things.
I like to call attendance statistics operational data.
It’s what that data helps you with—operations.
To wish for more information from attendance numbers is a divine impulse. To infer more is reckless.
So, why on Earth do we infer more?
Because we want the Kingdom.
Mr. Holmes and the Kingdom of God.
“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise, your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.”
– Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
Let’s consider the facts.
1. Attendance statistics tell us nothing about the Kingdom of God. They are incidental.
2. Given this, we need a new way to describe the Kingdom.
3. To do so we must understand what is vital. We need to know what we mean by the Kingdom of God.
Yikes…that’s a big can of worms to open up this late in an article.
Let me give you the executive summary.
The Kingdom of God is all about order.
Yup, it’s all about order.
Here’s what I mean.
In the beginning, God created. Out of chaos, God brought order.
As the Hebrew Scriptures would say, there was a state of תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ. (It’s pronounced tohu vevohu. In English we would say formless and void.)
- God spoke. The order of Creation unfurled at his voice.
- The Evil One corrupted that order and we joined him.
- Since then, he has been re-establishing his Kingdom here on earth.
- One day, that work will be brought to completion and all will be ordered as it was intended to be.
As the Hebrew Scriptures said at the end of Genesis 1, it was וְהִנֵּה־טֹ֖וב מְאֹ֑ד.
In English: Behold, it was exceedingly good.
As we move from this age to the next, God will once again dwell with his people. Behold, it will be exceedingly good.
From exceedingly good, to exceedingly good.
This is the story of God and humanity.
It’s what you read in the Scriptures.
It’s what’s in store.
So what do you do with that, here and now?
Become students of the order. Spend your vital energies learning about and sharing the message of the Kingdom of God
Two Types of Data that Teach the Order of God’s Kingdom.
At it’s most basic, there are two datasets that we can look to in order to understand the ordering of God’s Kingdom.
1. God’s Kingdom by the Book.
The first dataset for understanding the Kingdom of God comes not in numerical form but words. It’s the Scriptures. If you want to know the Kingdom of God, read about it in the Bible.
Read any of the Jesus stories and the topsy-turvy, upside-down, inside-out, radical ordering of the Kingdom of God becomes clear.
Read the Beatitudes. If that doesn’t stop us in our tracks then I don’t think we’ve considered them clearly enough. God’s Kingdom is not like the one all around us. It’s different. It’s backward. It’s upside-down.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” doesn’t sound as pleasing as “I’m rich.”
“Blessed are those who mourn,” seems contrary to the pursuit of happiness.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” sounds ridiculous next to the modern call to arms of “I would bomb the s*** out of them.”
When Christ said, “The last shall be first and the first last,” it’s jarring. It stands the order of the world on its head.
When Jesus failed to hold our sin against us, and instead, out of love, held himself to the cross, it should stand our notion of fairness on its head.
When a dead man came to life, the natural order of things was called into question. A resurrection? You better believe it.
God’s Kingdom isn’t defined how we think it should be. God’s Kingdom, as the Scriptures teach, makes no sense when viewed through the lens of this world. The Scriptures are a dataset of great beauty. Within its pages, the Kingdom of God is painted not in numbers, but in words.
This is why a story is so powerful. It tells us about the way life has been re-ordered. It speaks to an infusion of God’s Kingdom in the present.
They tell us of the exceedingly good coming from tohu vevohu.
From exceedingly good, to exceedingly good.
I could write a whole series of articles on the Kingdom of God (and perhaps someday I will), but for now, suffice it to say, we need this preached. Don’t tell people that if you add a dash of Jesus to everything, like some seasoning, in life will be better. Help them interpret the kingdom of this world by telling them about the subversive, political, topsy-turvy, upside-down, backward ordering of the Kingdom of God. Take a break from a Gospel shrouded in suburbia, and speak of righteousness, justice, and radical grace.
Words are a powerful dataset. They need to be examined, analyzed, and discussed.
For thousands of years, the words found in the Scriptures have radically shaped the Creation. After all, it was words that called everything into being.
But what about a numerical way of understanding the Kingdom? Does it exist? Can it be done?
I believe so.
2. God’s Kingdom by the Numbers.
The second dataset for understanding the Kingdom of God comes not from words, but from the numerical analysis of people and churches. The same way that mathematical equations can represent the physical order around us, there are methods of analysis that can tell us about the order of people and institutions.
And in God’s Kingdom, the order is vastly different. And so the numbers need to be, too.
The question remains, though, what are those numbers?
The truth is, I have the beginnings of a theory.
Let me tell you about it.
I believe that there is a way to map the Kingdom of God, person-by-person, and church-by-church. It’s a way that honours the individuality of the people and institutions that are part of it, while also honouring the collective/communal components of it.
It’s a geophysical map that forges connections not by planes, trains, or automobiles, but by relationship.
It studies the order of people and institutions within God’s Kingdom, and it tells a story about each of them and all of them.
It’s a method that makes use of Social Network Analysis. You can read about it in great detail here, but let me explain, very briefly, what it is, what it can tell us, and a problem that I need your help with.
What it is.
By definition, networks are “a way of thinking about social systems that focus our attention on the relationships among the entities that make up the system” (Borgatti, Everett, & Johnson, 2013).
In plain speak, it is the study of people and the connections between them.
We do this by examining the quality and characteristics of the relationships that tie people and/or organizations together. As we study the connections, we learn things we would never have seen before.
And it’s not strictly about attendance.
It’s about something entirely different.
It’s all about the order.
What it can do.
As I alluded to earlier, this kind of data—these numbers—can tell us things we don’t already know.
Here are a few examples.
Density: this value tells you the percentage of all possible relationships, within a given network, that are truthfully existent.
Let’s say you have five (5) people that you lead within your church. If that’s the case, then there are 20 possible unique relationships between those five people. However, it may be that only 12 of those unique relationships truthfully exist. As such, the density for that network of relationships is 0.6 or 60%. (Divide 12 by 20 to arrive at your density number.)
You might say, “That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t tell us that much, does it?”
Not on its own, but contextually it can have massive implications.
Imagine, for a moment, that your small groups were assessed for measures of density. Imagine that each group consisted of 10 people. It means that there are 90 possible relationships within each group. Now, suppose you ask these groups to identify the quality relationships we surmise they possess. Let’s say each person has one (1) quality relationship. That means there are 10 relationships worth noting. Which means a density measure of 0.11.
That doesn’t seem like a group worth continuing. It seems like a get together over coffee between those individuals would be best.
As such, our analysis might highlight some ineffective practices with your small group ministry. Really? Small groups when everyone might be content with talking to only one other person. Maybe it’s time to shift toward a peer-to-peer model of spiritual growth.
Imagine, now, for a moment that every person suggests they have quality relationships with everyone else in their small group; a total of 90 quality relationships. That results in a density of 1.0. It sounds like a fantastic thing, but I can guarantee that that group will not last for very long. Why? Because there is no room for a new, unique connection. It’s closed off. Not only is it closed off to people, it’s closed off to new ideas. And that results in an echo chamber; a place where a handful of ideas (right and wrong) reverberate unchecked. A group like that will, eventually, snuff itself out.
See what I mean? Measuring and recording something new has a way of telling a story that needs to be told.
And that’s only the beginning.
Let me tell you about one more measurement that Social Network Analysis gives that would be of the utmost importance to a church: centrality.
Centrality: this is a characteristic that each individual in the network possesses. It tells us how an individual’s relative position within the network. Are they close or far from the centre.
In other words, are they connected to a lot of people or a few?
Moreover, depending on their degree of connection and central position within the network, we can begin to identify who the natural and influential leaders are.
Wouldn’t that be a dream scenario? Knowing how people already identify as leaders, so we don’t have to try and figure it out with our gut?
It would also help, the church:
- identify internal candidates for hiring
- understand if the pastor holds too much or too little influence
- plan for pastoral succession
- learn who leads specific groups of people and who connects those groups to each other (these are not necessarily the same people)
- see how information flows
- identify those on the periphery of your church and help them move towards the centre (if they desire)
- and so much more
My friends, these are just a few of the things that Social Network Analysis can tell us. It’s a powerful tool that, to my knowledge, isn’t being used anywhere within the Church.
And that’s the problem I need your help with.
The problem I need your help with?
This kind of analysis requires a dataset that doesn’t yet exist, but it should. And I would love to partner with you to develop that database.
So, I’d like to ask for you to do one thing right now. If any of this has piqued your interest, please contact me. You can do that here. Fill out the form, and leave a short message referencing this article. I’d love to partner with your church in shifting the conversation that surrounds church growth. I’d love to attend to the vital and forget the incidental. I’d love to make the shift in focus that we long for from attendance/growth to health.
You and I both have a divine impulse to see the Kingdom come, so let’s, together, begin to understand how to see it in a better way.
I think it’s essential.
Borgatti, S. P., Everett, M. G., & Johnson, J. C. (2013). Analyzing social networks. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
Giuffre, K. A. (2013). Communities and networks: Using social network analysis to rethink urban and community studies. Cambridge: Polity.