When Baptism Metrics Mislead

Are we truly reaching the unchurched, or just chasing numbers?

There was an important article for church leaders in the latest Harvard Business Review (HBR) on how tying metrics to strategy is not always the best practice.

Here’s the big idea. Something like Apple’s “Think Different” strategy, or Samsung’s “Create the Future” endeavor, would naturally be judged by the amount of sales of new products. As the HBR article puts it, “If strategy is the blueprint for building an organization, metrics are the concrete, wood, drywall and bricks.”

The problem?

“A company can easily lose sight of its strategy and instead focus strictly on the metrics that are meant to represent it.” In other words, there really is no strategy in play, just a concentrated effort to take the metric supposedly linked to strategic success and do everything you can to raise that metric. The business term for this is “surrogation.”

So a company can have “delighting the customer” as a strategic objective and decide to track their progress through customer survey scores. And while those surveys can give important feedback, employees can “start thinking the strategy is to maximize survey scores, rather than to deliver a great customer experience … [and] there are plenty of ways to boost scores while actually displeasing customers.” (Can you say pop-up-windows, follow-up emails and robocalls? Or being begged for a “10” rating because anything less than a 10 is a failure?)

Here’s why this is important for the church.

Let’s say your strategic objective is to reach the unchurched. Your metric, understandably, might be the number of baptisms you perform. But soon, the metric becomes everything. You don’t really have a strategy to reach the unchurched; your focus is solely on increasing baptisms.

Why is this flawed?

Because you can focus on increasing baptisms and never make a dent in the unchurched population. Even more distressing, you can even increase the number of baptisms in your church and not reach the unchurched.

For example, if you are truly after the unchurched, the following baptisms wouldn’t even count as relevant metrics:

Toddler Baptisms. Toddler baptism is when a baptism is performed on children age five and younger. This is the fastest-growing segment of baptisms for most Southern Baptist churches and the only category that is growing. This is theologically distressing, as no child of this age has any business being baptized. But wherever you stand, you certainly cannot count them as reaching the unchurched.

Rededication Baptisms. These are baptisms that are performed on people who have already experienced baptism, but simply want to go through it again (and in some cases again and again and …). This is theologically scandalous. If baptism is anything, it is a once-for-all event. Only when someone truly wasn’t baptized as a believer should they re-enter the waters. It is not a sacrament designed to mark spiritual growth or ongoing maturity or seasons of renewal. So again, if you allow this (or do not screen for this), it is not reflective of reaching a non-Christian.

Baptizing Our Own. By baptizing our own, I mean baptizing those who are children of families within your church. This is a wonderful event and should be celebrated as a kingdom victory, but you are not reaching an unchurched family. You are reaching the children of the churched.

Baptizing the Sprinkled. Some might disagree, but I would argue that re-baptizing someone who made an authentic public profession of faith through baptism (notice my wording here, I’m not talking about infant baptism), but was, for example, sprinkled instead of immersed, is not necessary. Even if you deem it so, it is not reaching the unchurched and should not count as a metric for doing so.

So if you subtract all four of these categories, how many baptisms do you have left that reflect a true metric for reaching the unchurched?

Does the word ouch come to mind?

All to say, metrics are an important and needed dynamic to hold any strategy accountable. But too often—particularly in churches—it becomes a misleading substitute for actually having a strategy the metric is meant to measure.

The solution is two-fold:

1. Actually have a robust, carefully thought-out strategy, and don’t confuse that strategy with your metrics for that strategy. For our example, that would mean an actual strategy to reach the unchurched.

2. Have a combination of metrics designed to measure your strategy’s effectiveness. I would certainly include baptisms, but I would only count those baptisms that were truly performed on those who were previously unchurched non-believers.

At Meck, we do not baptize a child before they are in the second grade, and for children second to fifth grade, they have to take a class with one of their parents beforehand to ensure they understand what they are doing and have made an authentic decision for Christ. Adults who are baptized have to respond to various questions about their faith, including their testimony, to ensure that we are administering the sacrament with integrity. This includes whether they have ever been baptized before.

Another metric you could throw into the mix might be tracking, through your membership or newcomer’s classes, the faith background of your new attenders. How much of your growth is actually coming from the unchurched through that metric? We ask everyone who attends our “TeamLife” class (translation: our exploring church membership class) if they are currently a member of a church, as well as if they have been actively involved in a church over the past year. Such questions help us to know whether we have someone who is at least functionally unchurched.

But regardless of the metrics you use, the lesson remains:

Don’t confuse metrics with strategy. And depending on the metric,

… with success.

Read more from James Emery White »

This article originally appeared on ChurchAndCulture.org and is reposted here by permission.