The Language of Participatory Church: ROI


Next in my series of blog posts on the language of participatory church, I have to talk about ROI (return on investment).

Bruce Reyes-Chow recently proposed this on Facebook (slightly edited by me): “In social media, as in church, worth should not be solely measured by the number of followers, friends or members but by the quality of the relationships that are built through each.”

Reggie McNeal has been talking for a while about “changing the scorecard” for how church ministry “success” is measured — moving from the old traditional BBB model (Butts in the pews, Buildings, and Budgets) to a missional model that prioritizes discipleship and relationship.

Measurability (Or Lack Thereof)
The challenge to Bruce’s proposition, of course, is the difficulty in which to actually measure “the quality of relationships.” McNeal has helpfully suggested three missional shifts in how we measure “success” for our religious/faith communities:

1) from internal focus to external focus — how much time/energy/resources are spent on maintaining the structure? and how much is actually used for “blessing” the broader community? making the world a better place?

2) from program development to people development — this is where we talk about “discipleship” and ask, how well are we “making disciples” of Jesus? (instead of the McDonald’s question: how many billions served?)

3) from church-based to Kingdom-based leadership — what are the leaders of our religious/faith communities focused on: maintaining the current religious system (which there’s a lot of built-in incentive to do)? or embodying/enacting God’s dream for the world?

I think there’s much more work that needs to be done on McNeal’s missional shift item 2: people development. The old language of “discipleship” and “disciple-making” has been well documented (especially by the evangelical movement), but the truth is that there’s a real need for the notion of “disciple” to be re-imagined and re-thought for a new era. Per McNeal’s own argument, “disciple” has become more synonymous with “consumer of religious goods and services” than it has with “follower of Jesus.”

But then how to do measure how much someone is a “disciple”? Or, if you’re thinking in exclusive terms, how many people are “true disciples”? Alex Absalom, of 3DM, is working with a megachurch in Ohio to help move them toward a missional communities model. He shares their measurement for ROI in this video: “How many people do we have in discipling relationships with us?” or, in other words, “How many people do we have actively wanting to follow Jesus?”

I think these are helpful questions, but a cynic might say, “You’re still counting butts (‘in discipling relationships with us’)!” That’s not enough of a shift. In his book Practicing the Way of Jesus, Mark Scandrette talks a lot about “experiments” in life-change and gives (in the supremely helpful second half of the book) suggestions for how to evaluate the success of these experiments: “A good experiment is specific, measurable and realistic, and includes asking when, where, and how often it will be performed. It’s important to have a place where you track and record your daily progress, like a spreadsheet.”

It may sound cold and analytical, but Scandrette’s 40-day “Experiments in Truth” (and others like it), which are usually done in community, as part of a group for accountability and support, have shown proven results.

Don’t Believe?
This is where I have to invoke social media marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk once again. (Seriously, go watch his keynote here — again — now, for the first time!) Gary V. has taken to routinely mocking those who ask him, “What is the ROI of social media?” His response: “That’s basically like asking, ‘What’s the ROI of the Internet?’ When you hear someone saying, ‘I don’t believe in social media.’ That’s like someone saying, ‘I don’t believe in the Internet.’ … And if you bet against the Internet in 2012, you’re going to lose.”

I have my disagreements with Gary on his assertion that social media is completely synonymous with the Internet, but playing off his thoughts in this video, I’d suggest that asking “How do you measure ‘discipleship’?” is like asking “How do you measure spirituality?” or “How do you measure Christ-likeness?” There’s no definitive way to measure it, but we all know it when we see it. A true believer is a true believer, and a Christ-like soul is a Christ-like soul.

And Gary’s point about ROI is also key to this discussion. To wit: If you bet against the missional shift in 2012, you’re going to lose.


Is it really best if we just say, “There is no measurement”? Or are there measurements for “discipleship” that are worth keeping/recovering/re-imagining? What can our religious/faith communities learn from the shift from ROI to #RonR (return on relationship)?



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Posted on 01-04-2012


  1. Rachel Bastarache Bogan says:

    January 4th, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Thought-provoking, Steve. I’m reminded of a quote I saw on Twitter the other day: The Great Commission tells us to go and make “disciples,” not “plant churches.” I think too often in the West, we desire results quick because we want numbers to prove that we’re actually accomplishing something. Yet looking at the ministry of Paul, and reading between the lines of his letters to the various churches he started, I think he sometimes felt they were going backwards instead of forward in becoming more like Christ. But that didn’t stop him from exhorting them in how to be like Christ, and letting the Holy Spirit do it’s work.

    It’s true that we know “real” believers when we see them. I think that if the Church focused on truly growing disciples of faith and stopped worrying about proving ministry value by the “numbers,” then we’d see a rise in Biblical community, service and worship in the Church.

  2. Roger Strom says:

    January 4th, 2012 at 10:35 am

    A helpful discussion. I think the three missional shifts are important questions for the church as it seeks to be a community of Christ in the world. I am uncomfortable with using business models when we evaluate church. I think the values behind business models are incompatible with Gospel values. Which makes trying to rejigger them to work for the church a non starter. I am inclined to think that, in the end, business models will always lead us away from Gospel values. Frankly, I think that it has been the use of business models that helps create some of the church’s problems with having a missional focus.

    I agree with you, Steve, that trying to measure “Christlikeness” is quite problematic. I think we are better off abandoning “measurement” for something else (what specifically, I don’t know). One other thing, “true believer” and “Christlike soul” I find to be problematic in describing followers of Christ. In my best moments, I might hope to be described as one of those, however, my journey with God is much more complicated, sinful and in need of grace. I think that the use of the word “saint” could be more useful. Not as describing perfect christians, but rather to refer to our efforts to be faithful and open to God’s presence and activity in our lives.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Steve.

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