Note: I did NOT say changing TO the metric system! This is not about arguing the virtues of centimeter and deciliters over the arcane English distances and amounts. I already have a functioning grasp of using the other side of the ruler. I know how to calculate area and circumference. What I am no longer as clear about is how to measure ministry.
A number of years ago I was confronted with the reality that I struggle to connect with adolescents (I know this comes as a surprise to all those people who continue to describe me as being rather adolescent!). I was leading a Confirmation Camp, who purpose was to engage young teens in the spiritual questions of life. It was at best a miserable week. I had one young man who was a consummate bully and I had to pull him out of the community in order to assure that he did not ruin the experience for those he selected as victims. That was just the largest example of a series of mishaps and disappointments that clouded that week for me. I couldn’t see how any participant could have survived that week and come away with anything like a holy or spiritual experience.
Years later I was back at that same camp, having coffee with that summer’s staff. I told this story of the most miserable week of camp I ever had when one of the counselors looked at me with disbelief. She said, “I was at that camp and it changed my life. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that week!” Obviously the metrics I was using did not measure everything that occurred in that week long ago.
This comes to mind because I think a lot of churches are using the wrong metrics. We count people in the pews, and dollars in the plates or on the pledge cards. We count it as success when one or both increase and use it to diagnose malady when they don’t. I think the accusation of the non-churchers is accurate when they say we are obsessed with numbers.
Instead of filling seats and meeting budgets, what if we measured our attempts at fulfilling our purpose? How have we offered to our culture a positive alternative Christian spirituality? How have we embodied the radical hospitality of Christ for our neighbors? When did we seek a deep understanding of our spiritual neighbors of other faith traditions? Who (besides ourselves) have we engaged in conversations of meaning and hope?
These metrics are less quantifiable than butts in pews or bills in baskets. Nonetheless, I think as we seek to go boldly onward through the fog they are far more important. Butts and bills are about maintenance. How and When and Who are about being faithful to our calling: why are we here as a community and how are we living that out? We desperately need to change the metric system.
A few years ago I was the pastor of a beautiful old church in Omaha, Nebraska. It was built in 1888 and had weathered the years very well. It stands as a great example of Romanesque and Neo-Gothic architecture and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks. The congregation, though, struggled over the years.
One morning we were out sprucing up the yard and the trim when one of our neighbors wandered over. It was pretty much a “Whatcha doin?” conversation. We replied that we were getting the church ready for our Fall Rally day. I was devastated by our neighbor’s response: “This is a church? I thought it was a museum!”
The “Outward Mission” component of the Urban Abbey is an antidote to museum syndrome. People go to a museum every so often to view exhibits of things that have happened in the past: art, social events, music, archeology, dinosaurs, and occasionally religion. They quietly walk through and read the displays (or more often these days they listen to the pre-recorded narrative on individual headphones), learn about the past, maybe buy something in the giftshop and then go get lunch. But museums struggle to engage in a conversation about what is happening today, much less tomorrow. Outward Mission gets us out into our community and our world where things are happening today and hopefully tomorrow.
Here are the warning signs of Museum Syndrome:
- People are expected to come to you. If all you do and the only ministry people can engage with is in your own building, you might be a museum.
- The art on your walls is more than ten years old. If you have nothing new to display, you might be a museum.
- Every item on every bulletin board talks about something that has previously happened. If you have no new activities to announce, you might be a museum.
- The reading of scripture in worship is all about what God has already said or done. If the Spirit is not in some way still speaking and still challenging you, you might be a museum.
- When gathered for conversation or prayer, all the talk is about us. If your own aches and pains, issues with your building, your own likes and dislikes about each other or the pastor or the janitor are all that you talk about, you might be a museum.
The idea is that there are no docents in the Urban Abbey. Part of the concept that the Urban Abbey exists out in the community is that we are charged with finding people who are seeking deep meaning in life. They are not charged with finding us. We have no docents, we have ministry agents. Outward Mission means that we go to the world. There are more than plenty of places to see fossilized bones. I believe there are people hoping to find signs that life is indeed worth living. They are hoping to find others willing to engage in conversation and struggle together to explore that. It’s all about today and tomorrow. If all your energy is directed at yesterday, you might be a museum.