The Story of a Small Church and How to Measure Ministry
by Laura Auten
Most churches I know provide some sort of Back to School Ministry whether it is a school supply drive, a teacher appreciation brunch, free haircut days, or prayers in worship. Back to School Ministry of most any sort is a good way for the church to engage with its community, a way to share the love of Christ, and a way to serve generously.
Peachland United Methodist Church is a small church in the southern part of the Uwharrie District that began an after school ministry about 10 years ago. This weekend they are having a Back to School Bash to kick off the new school year. One of the champions of this ministry is Lisa Davis, a member at Peachland and a member of the Anson County School Board. Lisa tells me that it all began with a vision of three members, Ruth Mercer, Gail Osborne and Connie Thomas. Their vision was about providing parents a break during the week, an evening where they did not have to rush around after work to get homework finished and supper on the table. They wanted a space for parents to have quality time with their children over a delicious meal. In the beginning, children who were already active in Peachland began coming to the church after school on Wednesday afternoons. When they arrived at the church, snacks and activities were provided as well as homework and reading help. When parents arrived to pick up their children, they enjoyed a meal together in the church fellowship hall. It didn’t take long for other children, those not active in church, to want to be a part of this after school group. Relationships were established with the local elementary school. The program blossomed and flourished and was given a name, “Lamplighters.” The adult volunteers shared the love and light of Christ with these children. In turn, the children became light to others in their homes and schools.
Three years ago, the church and school worked out an arrangement for a bus to pick up children from the school and transport them to the church on Wednesday afternoons. Now, they have an average of 30 children, K-6th grade. They could use another bus! Twenty volunteers are involved in this ministry as tutors, drivers and cooks. The church, with the help of a conference grant, has brought Emily Hatley on staff to coordinate this ministry
I asked Lisa if a real difference was being made in the lives of these students and families. She told me that the principal at the school had given a presentation this past spring about effective ways to enhance the education and learning of students. The principal used the Lamplighters program as one of his examples. The school tracked the students who participated in Lamplighters and discovered an undeniable link. Lamplighter students had improved end of grade testing scores, improved reading levels and improved behavior. I call that fruitfulness!
As the church, we are often in conversation about how to measure fruitfulness in ministry. We hold 2 things in holy tension when we talk about measuring ministry:
1. First, we can’t ever fully measure grace, love, or transformation. It is hard to count! Sometimes, faithfulness as a mustard seed or a bit of leaven will not show up on a statistical report, at least not in our lifetime. We do have the narrative portion of the statistical report where we can record what cannot be captured in the numbers. Yet, we may never know the fruitfulness of a single conversation about racial and cultural awareness, a moment of experiencing God’s Word in a sermon, or a single spark of vision given to three women about an after school ministry. Thank God that ministry is more than numbers!
2. Second, we keep count and measure carefully because each number represents a real, living and precious person. Worship attendance, the number of persons serving in mission, and improvement in grade levels are important because of the people that are represented in these numbers. Numbers can also help us as individuals be accountable for our leadership and for testing our own work. Statistics can help us with new ministry directions, to know when a new bus is needed and where individuals need support and continuing growth. Thank God for number informed ministry!
Jesus, I think, does not want us to be obsessed over numbers. Jesus does not want us to find our identity in numbers that describe us. We are more than our age and our weight (really, thank God!). We are more than our average worship attendance. But, Jesus told us that seeds planted in good soil will yield thirty, sixty, a hundredfold, and that one sheep that is lost counts! Paul told the Galatians that we will reap what we sow. We hold these measuring truths in tension. We pray for wisdom to know how to count and what to do with what we count. We pray that numbers will never lead to envy which will poison and divide Christ’s Body. We pray that numbers will reflect truth and provide direction as well as affirmation and blessed assurance that God’s grace is indeed working through the church to make a difference in the world.
Rev. Laura Auten is the superintendent of the Uwharrie District.