When I first met him, he was hiding beneath a desk and barking like a dog. He would growl and lunge as if he might bite anyone brave enough to come near him. An eleven year old boy, he was putting on this particular show to demonstrate his dislike for the standardized state test he had shredded all around him. I was working in a non traditional school for special education students with emotional disturbances and severe behavior problems. This young man had been with us for a week. He was finally coaxed out with food, one of the keys to any young man’s heart, but he never did complete that test.
Over the next few years Jack (not his real name) and I began to form a bond. He was a good kid with an awesome sense of humor. He enjoyed video games and was wildly obsessed with Star Wars. We began copying characters from that movie onto all of his school work and it gradually became more and more interesting to him. I bought a video game for the computer which tied those films into math problems and he played it whenever he got the opportunity. We differentiated his instruction to include time playing Star Wars Monopoly and other things which would engage him academically, yet still be interesting enough to hold his attention.
Jack began to grow and mature in other ways as well. He began to be less fearful and a little more open to new people. He began to gain a little confidence in his abilities academically. His social skills improved almost daily. His grades also began a gradual climb. In a little over two years he was able to attend classes with his non disabled peers. He loved science.
In a few years, Jack left my junior high class and went to high school. Not only did he pass his classes, he passed that standardized state assessment which had reduced him to a feral state only a few short years before. For the first time in his life, he felt like a success. My staff and I felt pretty successful ourselves.
Unfortunately, my state did not agree with my assessment. My school participated in a program which offered incentives to teachers based on student performance in the state standardized test. Although Jack had passed for the first time in his life, he was not considered a success by my state due to the fact that he took a modified test. In a little under three years this child had gone from feral barking to participating in the general education setting. He had grown from eating pieces of shredded tests to passing the same test on his grade level. This was all great, but it did not qualify in our incentive program.
Now before you decide that I’m just some bitter special education teacher who didn’t get a check, hear me out. I say all this to point out that one of the problems with our school system today is that we are too focused on the measurables. It needs to be something that can be tested. It needs to be able to be empirically proven in some form. If you don’t have data to back up your hypothesis, then it’s irrelevant. It’s all about the measurables. Jack’s life change was not measurable. His growth, maturity and social skills couldn’t be tested with a number two pencil. Jack still dealt with enough cognitive delays that he had to have a modified test and special accomodations in order to be successful. This, according to some in our state, made his progress insignificant.
I see the same philosophy alive in our churches.
Churches today are searching. Some are searching for ways to reach people who are searching. Some are searching for ways to remain relevant in today’s world. Some are searching for ways to remain faithful to the tradition and foundational faith that they have always known. In their searches, many are looking for ways to determine growth, or relevance, or faithfulness. In our searching, we too have become dependent on the measurables.
We focus on how many we have in attendance. We focus on how many we have in small groups. We focus on how much money we have collected. We focus on how many were saved in a given time period. We focus on how much we devote to this program or that program.
We focus on measurables.
Things that are easy to define, easy to categorize and easy to see. Then we use these measurables to determine the success or failure of our particular movement or affiliation. They may not like to admit it, but when most pastors, ministers, or church workers get together the question inevitably arises, “So, how many do you guys have these days?” or something like it.
It’s not really anyone’s fault. How else are we going to determine success if we have no way of measuring? How are we going to appreciate what is working and what is not unless we find some way of measuring? We must have measurables, right?
The problem is that we are in an immeasurable field. We are serving an immeasurable God. The Spirit of God will not be confined to numbers and figures. And, as demonstrated through the story of Jack above, life change is not measurable through traditional means.
I talked to a pastor last week who was relating his own struggles and triumphs. He told me about being bogged down in budgets and meetings and measurables.
“But you know what saved me?” he asked. “Changed lives.”
He began to relate the story of a ministry of healing that his church had begun. A ministry that encompassed reaching out to families that had been broken by divorce. Ministering to people who were walking through the valley of grief. Starting a program to help recovering addicts find fulfillment through God. This is what made the difference. His church had finished a building program not long before, but that is not what “saved” his ministry. Changes in lives, renewed hearts, healed spirits. None of which are measurable in a traditional way.
I was raised in a very traditional church. One that prided itself on reinforcing the differences that separated our church from every other denomination in town. We were constantly taught to be different. One of those fundamental things we were taught from an early age was that church was not a building. Church was the people. We could say we were going to worship, but not going to church.
Maybe it’s time for churches to refresh that lesson a little bit. The church is not defined by size of the building, size of the gym, manner of worship, status, numbers, or any measurable.
Church is about changing lives through the power of Jesus Christ.
Jack, my student, had his life changed. Because that change didn’t fit neatly into a predetermined educational box, however, it wasn’t fully recognized.
Churches today are also becoming so wrapped up in the measurables we can see, that we are missing the Spirit of God at work everywhere around us.
It’s time for us to take a step outside of the measurable box we have created and take a hard look at what we are doing.
Who knows? You may be pleasantly surprised at the immeasurables that you see.
*originally published in “Wineskins”