Selling God, Part 1
There’s a fine line between a person living into the Way and a person “selling” God. It seems especially difficult to discern the difference in American cultures where even the well-intentioned often get caught up in standard business KPIs.
What’s a KPI?
KPI stands for Key Performance Indicator, and it’s a way of gauging success. A KPI is the specific category of data that’s being used to answer the question “did it work?” Which KPIs we choose is based on what we think is a positive outcome.
For example: if we create a webpage to raise awareness for LGBTQIA+ organizations, we might use “webpage views” as our main KPI. Since the page was created to raise awareness, it can be argued that more views = more awareness (i.e. getting the information in front of as many people as possible). We might even add a second KPI: time spent on page. That way, we can say that not only are people getting to the information, they’re also spending time actually engaging it.
KPIs in Ministry
It seems logical to say that we should have KPIs in ministry to evaluate how we’re spending resources. After all, don’t we want to be effective in what we’re doing?
Notice the word “effective.” The idea of being effective suggests that we know what the outcome should be. We can’t gauge effectiveness if we don’t know what the results are supposed to look like. If I toss a brick of chalk into a bucket of Coca Cola just to see what happens and you ask me, “Did it work,” I can’t answer yes or no. I was seeing what would happen, so I don’t know what was supposed to happen.
A lot of times, ministries are engaged with relatively clear expectations of what’s supposed to happen, and for many Evangelical Christian ministries, the primary expectation seems to be “our numbers will grow.” We might not phrase it that way, but that’s what it often boils down to.
More attendance to any service or event might be the main KPI, but why does attendance matter? Often, attendance matters mainly because increased attendance correlates with one of two things: 1) more chances to convert someone or convince someone to get baptized or 2) more support through resources or manpower.
Why does support matter? Support is what allows ministries or congregations to continue existing, but what does it mean to continue existing? Again, it often means continuing to engage in whatever ministry endeavors they were already doing, which often circles back to maintaining or growing numbers.
Jumping into ministry with any of these postures can lead to a circular logic; we grow so that we can keep ministering so that we can keep growing, etc. “Ministering” gets lost in the expectation of growth, and we start to lose sight of the “why” of growth or the reality of discipleship. Ministry becomes a means to itself rather than participation in God’s love. Or, worse, God’s love becomes a slave to the numbers KPI of “evangelism.”
“It’s Not About Numbers”
I hear Christians say this all the time. It’s not about numbers. It’s not about how many people we baptize every month or how many seats we fill. It’s about the ministry; it’s about loving people with the love of Christ, or something to that effect.
I’m not saying that Christian ministries are always about numbers, but even when growing one’s own numbers isn’t the goal, numbers are still often involved. How many care packages were we able to put together and deliver this year? How many people did we reach with our social media accounts? Etc.
How often can we really say that a ministry effort isn’t about numbers? This is one of the places where that line gets blurry between participating in God’s mission (which I called “living into the Way”) and selling God.
The dissonance is usually easier to see when numbers dwindle. It’s easy to say that it’s not about numbers when we have a solid core congregation and a steady flow of cash and other resources to keep a ministry afloat. The real test comes when the accounts dry up or the core members move or pass away. Those are usually the times when people start to worry and numbers start to creep back into the conversation.
Doomed From the Start
Letting go of KPIs — letting go of what we think is supposed to happen — can be really uncomfortable. It can leave us feeling like something is doomed from the start. American Christians are often thoroughly capitalistic, so it’s hard to imagine not emphasizing how much money we’re making as part of “success.”
Theoretically, we can go in with a posture of uncertainty; we’ll do what we can to love people for as long as we can, and if it fizzles out, so be it. Unfortunately, that’s a really uncomfortable existence for most people, so we do little things to make ourselves more comfortable or appealing to visitors.
We dress “professionally.” We invest in an “experience” — lights, cameras, and action. We say the “right” words and avoid the “wrong” ones. We talk about whether people are “ready” for change rather than nurturing it. We use KPIs to convince ourselves that we’re “doing good for people,” so it justifies these other things; better to cater a little to those who support the ministry in order to keep helping others.
If you’re having trouble understanding why those sorts of things are problematic, you can still see my point. When it comes to ministry, it’s often difficult for American Christians to separate living into the Way from stereotypical, business-oriented success.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with ministers wearing suits, pastoring congregants in ways that are comfortable, or raising funds to keep ministry practices going. The question is, how are we imagining “success?” Are we doing our best to live into the Way, or are we resigning ourselves to selling God and calling it ministry?
How Much Is “Enough?”
How much is enough when it comes to loving/helping/ministering to/being present with people, etc.? If I give resources to a person in need and then have nothing left for the next person, have I done enough? How about a congregation: if we can help ten families keep their utilities on this winter but ten other families get their electricity shut off, were we “successful?” If a ministry partners with a city’s homeless shelters but not with domestic violence shelters, have they failed?
These hypotheticals don’t even begin to address “spiritual,” emotional, or psychological aspects, like faith, trauma, or mental health. How much is enough when it comes to ministry?
We Could Always Do More
The conservative circles in which I was raised often implied that people could do more, but it was often implied in a way that pressured people to increase their self-sacrifice in unhealthy ways. It was often used as part of selling God. You can give a little more. You can show up more often. You can sacrifice more of your time and energy for “the church.” You can host more, smile more, lead more, submit more, read more, pray more, etc.
In part two, we’ll consider a different posture toward the idea that we could always do more and the question of “enough.”
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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on November 23, 2022.