(RNS) The go-to number in American religion is “ASA” — average Sunday attendance. Or as an irreverent colleague put it, “Fannies in the pews.”

It’s a meaningless metric, but it’s easy. Open the doors on Sunday, wait for the stragglers, then dispatch ushers to count the house.

Parishioners listen to the homily during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. on Sunday, May 20, 2012. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Parishioners listen to the homily during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. on Sunday, May 20, 2012. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Entire methodologies for church development have been built around this number, as if fanny count dictated how a church should behave.  Problem is, ASA isn’t a useful measure of quantity, and it says nothing about quality.

A much better quantitative measure would get at “touches,” that is, how many lives are being touched by contact with the faith community in its various Sunday, weekday, off-site and online ministries —and then, for a qualitative measure, asking how those lives are being transformed.

Those are difficult metrics to track, of course, and that’s why many congregations stick to ASA and shun the harder work of measuring outcomes and impact.

Now consider how many useless metrics we use to chart our nation’s course. Politicians fixate on the federal deficit, for example, because it’s an easy number to fling at opponents, even though it doesn’t truly measure the nation’s economic well-being.

Same with the official unemployment rate — which measures one small flow in a deepening pool of economic despair.

Same with the “approval ratings” that give shallow insight into popularity, but say nothing about quality of leadership.

Many investors cling to the Dow Jones industrial average, even though averaging prices on 30 blue chip stocks says little about stock market trends. Business leaders look at earnings per share, while ignoring the research-and-development pipeline, innovation, customer service, employee turnover and capital spending.

Politicians and edu-crats force public schools to measure performance through standardized tests that yield simple PowerPoints and talking points, while they ignore actual learning, as well as readiness for adulthood, teacher morale and return on investment. A one-day test, the SAT, is misused as the key to college admission.

We stick to meaningless metrics for two reasons. First, they are easy to make, and lazy leaders love the easy.

Second, simple metrics make good weapons, whereas complex metrics that actually say something require subtlety and in-depth analysis. If you want to smite an organizational or political foe, draw a simple chart showing decline in one metric. To fight back, cite another metric that looks better.

They sell people short. Most of us can deal with complexity — we raise children, after all. We know from firsthand experience that an A in history pales beside a grasp of history. Or that being on the plus side of a simple unemployment statistic doesn’t mean we feel usefully employed or confident about our futures.

We know the real truth beneath the numbers used to peg us, such as our credit score and family income. We know our truth lies elsewhere. We wish people cared more about that truth.

In the end, we lose confidence in the metrics and in the leaders who wield them. In the church world, where I work, inadequate metrics means leaders were flying blind as the world changed, and failed also to see systemic changes inside the bubble.

I think citizens are quite capable of understanding an economic world deeper than partisans’ scare tactics. Politicians apparently want to keep us ill-informed. Like an usher counting fannies, it makes their work easier.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)



    • I agree with “useless article”… Reading it reminded me of when I was in another business and hired a consultant to help solve any identified problems with the organization and all I got was a restatement of the problem(s).

  1. Mark Simmons

    The average church attendance metric is NOT useless–it is insufficient. The insufficiency was the main point of this article and on that we agree. I would go on to say that average church attendance is not the most useful metric either, but it is still useful.
    - Banks, lending institutions, denominations REQUIRE this information, so you have to be able to provide it
    - We can learn a lot from attendance trends, I suspect the main problem we have with the average church attendance metric is that most churches don’t like what it is telling us

    BTW, on that last point that is quite common in all organizations and walks of life. If we don’t like what the metric says, we have a tendency to ‘solve’ the problem by getting rid of or ignoring the metric.

  2. I would love to know what metrics you would suggest to measure outcomes and impacts. Numbers do have faces and each of those “fannies in the pew” do have a unique story and are at a different place in the spiritual development. “ASA” can be a useful first step and is usually derided by those who are not getting any new fannies in the pew.

    What metrics would you suggest to measure spiritual maturity? I really have been giving this some serious thought as to what we should be measuring but as you say there are no easy solutions. Give me some suggestions of what to measure! In the last six years our ASA has gone from 450 to 1650 and I use those numbers to make a multitude of decisions but I also what to find a way to measure if are being successful in growing deeper not just wider. Thanks.

  3. Check out “Effectiveness by the Numbers: Counting What Counts in the Church.” Published by Abingdon and available on Amazon. I am clearly biased, but I HAVE spent a lot of time thinking (and writing) about this subject.

  4. Attendance is an limited measure of church effectiveness, but normally it is one of NUMEROUS snapshots of a church’s health. As well, calling the Dow Jones Industrial average “simple to compute” reflects a vast misunderstanding of what it measures over time. It is not a perfect measure, but what is?

    Complex or “nuanced” metrics often are too complex to be calculated efficiently and equally misunderstood (see GNP, DOW). Their misuse provides more fear and confusion than clarity. While I share Mr. Erich’s yen for more complete data, pretending limited metrics are useless is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Waiting on perfect metrics and ignoring the ones you have is far worse leadership than using a metric that tells a story, even if the story is incomplete.

  5. I do not agree completely with the arguement. Numbers in worship are useless as are some pastors. But in counting Sunday School attendance for instance one might find a more useful metric. The idea of a Sunday School is closer to the fundamental church anyways and add in a few surveys would help out or talk and listen to Sunday School teachers that could be a useful dynamic. Although I do believe i wasted my time in reading thee article. (Sunday School or Small groups are interchangable in this reply.)

  6. Tom, i disagree with the terminology you used that ASA is meaningless and useless. We use those numbers for a variety of purposes that help us greatly. Counting heads is not a bad thing and can be a big benefit. However, with that said, we don’t focus on ASA and dwell on it, we just use the data collected to help us make better decisions in many things. I do agree with you that the appealing aspect of ASA is it is easy and quick and takes very little work. We should also be tracking other metrics like changed lives and spiritual growth and salvation. Thanks so much!

  1. [...] A much better quantitative measure would get at “touches,” that is, how many lives are being touched by contact with the faith community in its various Sunday, weekday, off-site and online ministries — and then, for a qualitative measure, asking how those lives are being transformed…. Read this in full at http://www.religionnews.com/2013/06/04/commentary-mindless-metrics/ [...]

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