Icon (Close Menu)


Innumerable printer cartridges have been used up and billions of electrons inconvenienced in the effort to explicate what is arguably a monumental shift in the relationship between Christianity and Western culture. This has been taking place over the last several decades, at least, but seems more recently to be gaining momentum at an exponential rate. The privileged position that Christianity had enjoyed, first in Europe and then in the Europe-influenced societies of the Americas, has been effectively lost in all but a few scattered pockets. The Constantinian synthesis has run its course. Quite possibly, the primary challenge facing the Church in the coming years, dwarfing all other challenges, will be how to navigate this new and unfamiliar territory, how to exist — and, indeed, thrive, one hopes — in a post-Christian environment, one without an assumed hand-in-glove relationship with secular society.

The problem is, it’s been so long since we’ve had to do this that we’ve forgotten how. There is very little by way of received wisdom or “best practices.” We can get a few ideas by examining evidentiary fragments of catechumenal praxis that might be traceable to the third century, but, in the larger context, that’s pretty meager fare. For most practical purposes, the task before us is more akin to discovering fire or inventing the wheel. That prospect is, to say the very least, daunting. It will require us to cast aside the mental maps that are so familiar and comfortable. They are obsolete, no longer corresponding accurately to the territory they purport to represent.

So we’re talking about new practices, new routines, new habits. And we in the historic “brand name” churches are certainly tightly fused with our practices, routines, and habits. One of these is a propensity for record-keeping. In Britain, for instance, where parish structures — institutional as well as physical — are both quite ancient and relatively intact, historians and genealogists are grateful every day when they find well-maintained parish registers that go back hundreds years and tell us of baptisms, marriages, burials, and other detritus of ordinary life.

This penchant for record-keeping was inherited by the Anglican Christians of the Eastern seaboard who formed the dioceses that came together to constitute the Episcopal Church in the 1780s. In time, it became customary to gather the data stored in parish registers and send them on to the diocese and the national church. The annual Parochial Report became an occasion of acid stomach for clergy for whom administration does not rank high in their areas of giftedness and for treasurers who never made their peace with deadlines. This information was studied by bishops and diocesan staff members and any number of committees, commissions, agencies, and boards created by General Convention. It became the basis for considered opinions about the overall health and vitality of the church. We grew accustomed to measuring the church by means of objective numerical data. In other words, we created a culture of “ecclesiometry.”

Until fairly recently, the categories that measured membership were considered the most telling. They have been labeled in a variety of ways; in the current system, they include only “Active Baptized Members” and “Communicants in Good Standing.” In the closing years of the previous century, however, those responsible for drawing inferences from crunching numbers got wise to how the system could be gamed by savvy clergy, who would retain names of people on the rolls whom they had not seen in many years, but it entitled them to a larger diocesan convention delegation and other perks.

So the category of “Average Sunday Attendance” (ASA) gained currency as a more helpful measure of congregation health than number of members. In combination with financial giving statistics, ASA has been used to evaluate and make decisions about where a parish is in its natural life cycle, how long it might remain viable, and whether its ordained leadership is doing an appropriate job. When I was in parish ministry myself, I was wont to refer to the Service Register, where attendance statistics were recorded, as my Self Image Book. For good or for ill (mostly the latter, I suspect), ASA was how I measured my effectiveness as an ordained leader.

ASA, along with its complementary twin, Average Annual Giving (total plate and pledge divided by ASA) are not going to disappear next week as important measuring sticks of church health. But as we embrace the transition out of Christendom into, well, whatever comes next, attendance and giving will be re-contextualized and understood differently. A concern with attendance and giving is, in many ways, reflective of the environment that we are leaving behind, an environment in which certainly not everybody went to church, but most everybody had a particular church that they did not go to. In the world to come (no, not that world to come, but the one presumably more imminent), those among whom we proclaim good news will be (indeed, already are) mostly blank slates when it comes to Christianity. Or, if they have any opinions at all, they are probably based on misinformation about what Christians believe and do. In such a world, the attractional model of mission — the right kind of music and the right kind of preaching along with an inviting childcare facility, attractive signage, and, in the case of Episcopalians, red doors — will give way to an apostolic model, wherein Christian disciples are sent into the places in the world where the need for the gospel is most evident, where the soil is most fertile.

One might well ask, then, in a world of apostolic mission, rather than attractional mission, what might be the most helpful measure of ecclesial health and vitality? What is the best approach to future “ecclesiometry”? There are probably several, but I would suggest that there is one that is so preeminently significant that there probably isn’t even a close second.

It’s this: adult baptisms.

We are, of course, long past the time when one could presume that relatively few American and European children would reach adulthood without being baptized. Even 25 years ago, such an “escapee” was remarkable for his or her rarity. Not so anymore. So, to the extent that the Church is faithful to her apostolic mission, grown women and men will come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit through a gracious encounter with organized Christian missionary efforts and be led to faith, repentance, baptism, Eucharist, and discipleship in the communion of the Church. Baptism is the linchpin in that sequence, the objective metrical indicator that a deal has been closed.

An increase in adult baptisms will say that the Church has been faithful in forming the baptized into disciples who are equipped to engage apostolic ministry, that is, ministry in the saecula that is no longer Christian. It will be a sign that people are saying their prayers, reading their Bibles, being nourished sacramentally, and forming authentic community because someone who does not come out of such an environment will not last long as a missionary in a hostile world. And, of course, the sort of interior spiritual formation and growth that produces apostolic missionaries begets numerical growth of the sort that multiplies missional effectiveness, but then those who are baptized are already well en route to mature discipleship, which is actually presumed by the vows and promises of the baptismal liturgy itself. Along the way, attendance at Eucharist on the Lord’s Day and the amount of tithes and offerings taken in will be positively affected. But it will be the energy and activity that leads to adult baptism which fuels these favorable indicators.

Christian communities with roots in the Anabaptist tradition, of course, have a bit of a head start on all this. Even if they may not being doing many (or as many) adult baptisms, they at least have an ecclesial culture in which such things are both plausible and normative. The rest of us have some catch up work to do. We have some great resources (here’s where all the information about the ancient catechumenate comes in handy), and we need to live into the Book of Common Prayer (1979) norm of baptism by immersion to really do this well. But that’s another essay!

The image above is “Measure for measure” (2008) by Mason Bryant. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I am wondering how this applies to those places where congregations (and whole denominations) see themselves primarily as social service organizations.Placing the focus on adult baptism redirects thinking towards faith formation as the primary purpose of the Church, and away from a preoccupation with things like “justice” (no doubt justice and acts of mercy belong on the plate of a disciple of Jesus, but one needs to become a disciple *first*).

    I also wonder about those places that have so identified *with* the culture. As the culture has turned post-Christian, ironically, so have they! Baptism can be seen as a radically counter-cultural act. But of course, baptism could also be (has been?) bent into the post-Christian mold.

    ” So, to the extent that the Church is faithful to her apostolic mission, grown women and men will come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit through a gracious encounter with organized Christian missionary efforts and be led to faith, repentance, baptism, Eucharist, and discipleship in the communion of the Church. Baptism is the linchpin in that sequence, the objective metrical indicator that a deal has been closed.”

    If you no longer believe in an apostolic mission, an active Holy Spirit, missionary efforts (that are directed towards faith, repentance, etc), baptism will not be the “linchpin” of anything, just a quaint archaic ritual that lives on in dying communities here and there.

  2. I think the concern for metrics other than ASA and giving are both well-placed and overblown.

    They are well-placed in that there is much more to the health and vitality of a congregation than ASA and giving. Certainly the number of adult baptisms is a much more important indicator than attendance, or even the number of children’s baptisms.

    On the other hand, ASA and giving are not used by consultants as the end-all numbers. Like heartrate and blood pressure, they are indicators, over the years, of general progression of the congregation.

    I don’t think I’m saying anything different from Bishop Dan, just approaching it from a different direction.

    We are a church that says that the “Holy Eucharist [is] the principal act of worship on the Lord’s Day.” If regularly attending the principal services where the worshiping body is gathered, then it follows that it is might be helpful to count to see whether we are gaining or losing worshipers. But, of course, that is only the beginning. We must go on to maturity in the Body of Christ.

    Worship attendance and giving are nothing to brag about; they are invitations to delve deeper into the spiritual vitality of a congregation.

    Yes, in an increasingly post-Christendom country, the number of Adult Baptisms will grow to be a more and more significant indicator of health. But, if those people are not being nourished with the Bread and Wine of Christ, we will be failing our duty to feed the flock of Christ.

  3. There is a fundamental shift in the way people experience belongingness to a Church, and ASA misses a lot of information which reflect missional effectiveness. I still believe it’s important, but if that’s all we focus on, then we are vulnerable to false paths as we lead the parish towards fulfillment of the Church’s ministry. Adult baptisms are an interesting metric. I like metrics that measure not just membership but also heat. So hear are the metrics we are collecting currently in the hope of developing a more useful index: Visitors submitting visitor cards, households declaring their parish membership in our welcoming rite or by other public means, Facebook likes, Enewsletter registrants, Enewsletter opens, Number of folks in bible study per week, number of folks in small groups per week, number of children in Sunday School, number of adults in adult forum, number of households supporting parish financially, and a few others I can’t remember. And of course the standard parochial report things. I conceive of these as a dashboard that reflect both membership but also the trajectory of the parish in the task of embedding the gospel.

  4. Craig, I think your metrics are excellent. I like the idea of “heat” that reflects more than the cold ASA and giving. Anybody can attract a crowd. Building the Body of Christ is more about Heat than Attendance.

  5. Metrics are important, and unavoidable.

    The problem is we are often unaware of how the skew our thinking. We get warped because we focus on what we have chosen to measure, while that with is not measured or, more often, unmeasurable, get ignored.

  6. I certainly certainly do not have “the answer” to either the focus on record keeping or what the statistics have to say about our church community in 2017. Here’s what I think I “do know”; we spend all of our time and energy collecting data on who’s “attending church” and what’s happening “inside” the church, while we spend ‘NO TIME” in accessing “what we do as the church in the world” in terms of collecting that data and accountability.

    The last words we proclaim through the mouth of the Deacon (if we’re fortunate to have one) is… “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. And that usually is the end of that. I mean what happens from Monday through Saturday is never “accounted for”. Why do we “account” for so much of what goes on inside of the church for a very few hours during the week, while never seeking a “report back” from the people as to what goes on “outside” the church when we are “loving and serving the Lord”?

    Where is the church register “for the back of the church”? The one which would allow us to “record” our acts of love and service throughout the week? Or, why do we only ask for our gifts of money in the offertory collection, and not give the faithful an opportunity to include their works of charity and service in the world to be included in the offertory? (“I visited the sick on Tuesday, I fed the poor at a shelter on Thursday, etc)

    We pray in The General Thanksgiving… “And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory throughout ages. Amen.

    Having a way to acknowledge God’s grace in our lives through service, is a record worth keeping as a church. We wait for Jesus to come to judge the living and the dead, AND we can be prepared for that judgement each week as we give a report back to Him in thanksgiving for the gift of service.

    Here’s my last thought… as a Christian who has learned that following Jesus is living a life opposite of the life we have a tendency to live; “the last will be first”, etc. I believe that living into the intention of serving Christ “outside” of the church, and giving an account of that service when we meet on Sunday, will eventually in God’s time transform us and our attendance.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

Anglican Mysteries

If you’re on the hunt for some summer reading, my reading in the past ten years commends the...

Global Perspectives on Universal Brotherhood

Fratelli Tutti A Global Commentary Edited by William T. Cavanaugh, Carlos Mendoza Álvarez, Ikenna Ugochuwku Okafor, and Daniel Franklin Cascade Books,...

A Ministry of Christlike Service

A sermon for the ordination of deacons, given at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tennessee, June 1, 2024 Today is...

Only One Future

The story of the Episcopal Church in the modern era is usually reckoned in terms of presiding episcopates,...