The principles of measuring spiritual impact outline some potential ways forward. However, it bears repeating that “tearing down is easier than building up”. The problems with measuring spiritual impact are obvious. Possible solutions are much more tenuous. These too I will outline as principles that will need to be adapted to a local context.
The Anti-Hypocritic Oath
Collect no data that does not benefit the local body of believers.
This is obviously a play on, and strengthening of, the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm”. In light of the many dangers associated with measuring spiritual impact, an organization should be able to state positively the benefits to the local body of believers. Two different actions would be hypocritical in this context. First, to prioritize data over the spiritual impact that is the purported goal. Second, to require metrics from projects that they don’t (and wouldn’t) collect from their own ministries or families. This one, admittedly high, standard puts the good of the project squarely at the forefront.
Process-based metrics are embedded in good discipleship.
The biggest source of information that an organization has is in its regular contacts with leaders and beneficiaries. This is where change is happening! Are we emphasizing the process and following up? Good disciple makers are. Wise disciple makers are collecting that process-oriented data systematically. I can’t stress this enough. Three to five simple questions that you discuss during every meeting provide a wealth of valuable data that is relatively easy to verify over time. Questions like – “Who are you praying for now?” “Were you able to share about your faith with anyone this week?” These kinds of question fit the next dictum precisely.
Measure things that are intrinsically valuable and costly to fake.
There are very few things in this world that cannot be corrupted by faulty motivations. Fasting, prayer, giving, attending worship all can and will be corrupted by faulty motivation. However, there are things that are intrinsically valuable, (almost) regardless of motivation, and these are worth measuring. Especially when the cost of faking the metric is greater than the perceived non-spiritual benefits of faking.
For example, measuring the ability of an oral Bible storying group to retell a story accurately and self-correct is a great measure. Both the required memorization of Scripture and the skill of self-correction require large investments of time and effort. Both are also valuable skills. This combination of intrinsic value and high cost make the metric likely to: 1) benefit the group and 2) be indicative of real spiritual impact. Measuring a group’s ability to apply what they have learned in ways that were not taught is another example. Both could be “faked”, but the group would have to really process the material to do so. Net gain in a way that is different than church attendance, which is, in most circumstances, passive and not costly. A record of serving the poor in a tangible way is another example of a “fake-able” metric with and inherent value and a high cost in time and effort.
Develop Indicators Locally
Spiritual impact is seen in changes in the capacities and behaviors of community members. Since the ultimate goal is the growth of local churches, it makes sense to involve local leaders from the beginning. The history of missiology is littered with examples of missionaries focusing on changing things that were considered irrelevant locally, thereby greatly reducing the impact of the church until local leaders took charge. For example, John V. Taylor writes that the central concern of Ugandan pastors and converts in the early church in Uganda were primarily concerned with slavery, poverty, and learning humility. Missionaries were focused on polygamy, leading to a gospel that felt irrelevant and a quenching of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Lesslie Newbigin said it this way, summing up decades of experience and worship:
Who has the right to decide the ethical content of conversion at any time or place – the evangelist or the convert? The place where the virus of legalism gets into the work of evangelism is the place where the evangelist presumes that he or she knows in advance and can tell the potential convert what the ethical content of conversion will be.The Open Secret
It seems best then to work together with local pastors to think through the 2 to 3 breakthroughs that they want to see in the next 5 years and what those changes will look like. Then the responsibility for identifying progress is local.
Supplementary – Measure Knowledge
Changes in knowledge is a relatively easy thing to test. It is not itself a great measure of spiritual impact, but it is often a necessary precursor to spiritual impact. Understanding that the Bible says that God loves the poor comes before the more difficult task of believing that fact or living in accordance wth it. Replacing misinformation with truth and and ensuring that the truth underlying belief / behavior changes and then testing for comprehension is perfectly valid and valuable. Unfortunately, too many organizations act as if increase in comprehension is equivalent to increase in faith, evidently forgetting that demons understand many things (James 2).
Supplementary – Ask about Motivations
“Why do people go to church?”
“Why do you (or why don’t you) go to church?”
These are easy questions to ask and provide answers that are impossible to verify. However, you don’t need to know if something is true for it to be valuable. Sometimes it is enough to have insight into what people want you to think. These kinds of questions respond well to triangulation – depth through focus groups and then breadth through questionnaires.
It is clear that there is still a lot of work to be done here. It seems that there are a few metrics that will be generalizable. But developing a measurement strategy in a location seems to require careful consultation with the local body or risk undermining the spiritual impact it wishes to measure. Of course, all bets are off in a restricted-access context. We will examine those issues next time.