Sunday, April 27, 2008

Evangelicals and Externals

This post is a "musing" that is not so much a finely-crafted essay as it is an online journal entry. (Edited 10:47pm)

I've sometimes bemoaned the fact that we evangelicals tend to over-emphasize externals when it comes to evaluating "ministry effectiveness." We want to know how many people have actually "prayed to receive Christ," how many attended the service/meeting, or how many have participated in various programs, for example.

I've also found myself lamenting the overemphasis on externals when it comes to spiritual formation. When we want to know whether Joe is "growing spiritually" or "walking with God," we ask about frequency of "quiet times," problems with sexual sin, frequency of attendance at Christian activities, or whether they've completed some educational curriculum or another.
Are these two areas connected, and if so, what is the connection?

I think that the two areas may actually be driven by different factors. I think the first area of "ministry success" is measured externally because of the "free-market church" phenomenon here in the United States. Churches have to justify their existence and compete with other churches based on "effectiveness." In this way, a church is no different than a business. So external metrics make perfect sense.

But what about personal spiritual maturity? Why is it conceived of almost solely in terms of behaviors? I don't know the full answer, but here are some possible ones: (1) This is in part driven by the "ministry success" idea -- we need to know how many people are growing and how much; (2) This may be driven by spiritual superficiality. That is, we start with externals becuase they are good indicators of internal maturity and growth, but then we have no idea what might be beyond the behaviors. Once a Christian is having quiet times, going to church, not involved in illicit sexual activities or drugs, and doing all the other things good Christians do, then we think that's "as good as it gets." We simply have no spiritual vision beyond this; (3) We aren't comfortable with ambiguity or unverifiability.

So, I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't measure these things at all, or that looking at behaviors is unnecessary for helping people grow spiritually. I am suggesting that we need to go beyond these measurements and ask ourselves why they have been the (sole) focal point of evangelical ministries for so long. What would be a better way to "measure" the spiritual health of churches and individuals?


Anonymous Curtis said...

Good post. This is something I've thought about for a while. I agree about these externals, but how do we determine if we're moving in the right direction (either personally or as a church)? I guess that's where I get stuck.

9:30 PM  

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