Evaluation: part of spiritual discernment

Monday, 20 October, 2014

Michael Moynagh seeks to reclaim evaluation as a spiritual discipline.

Evaluation has had a bad press in the secular world. Frequently targets are imposed from outside, are not owned by those involved, and privilege some stakeholders (such as funders) over others - often those served by the initiative. Surely we do not want the same culture creeping into the church?

A different starting point is to see evaluation as a part of spiritual discernment. The purpose is far more than assessing whether financial support is justified. It is to discover how the Spirit has been at work.

Evaluation becomes a process of recognising fruitfulness – not merely once a fresh expression of church is established, but at every stage beforehand.

A conversation can be fruitful if you learn something or get to know the other person better. An 'experimental' barbecue can be fruitful even though hardly anyone shows up: a throwaway remark during the evening may give you another idea to try.

Fruitfulness goes beyond the outcomes of your initiative. It includes signs of the Spirit at work during the journey.

As a fresh expression comes to birth, evaluation can be based on the fresh expressions journey.

A serving-first journey

A fresh expressions journey

Often you will not know what each stage looks like till you get to it. Even so, having this map may help you to see the direction of travel and provide a framework for evaluation as you go along. 'God has led us to this point in the journey. Where have we seen the Spirit at work? What fruit can we recognise? Where might we be heading next?'

Discernment becomes a matter of imagining concretely what the next stage will look like. Evaluation helps the team to assess whether these expectations have been met.

The appendix to my new book, Being Church, Doing Life: Creating gospel communities where life happens contains an illustrative list of 'evaluation' questions that a team (or those with oversight of a fresh expression) might ask at each stage of the fresh expressions' serving-first journey. In Being Church, Doing Life I have included both qualitative questions and, for those who like numbers, quantitative ones.

But what happens when a fresh expression nears the end of a serving-first journey? What might evaluation look like then?

You may want to adopt a different framework. You may want to base your evaluation on the four interlocking sets of relationships that should be at the heart of any expression of church and are centred on Jesus:

  • Uprelationships with God;
  • Out: relationships with the world;
  • In: relationships within the fellowship;
  • Of: relationships with the wider Christian family (the gathering is part of the body of Christ).

At the start of the year, members of the community might imagine what growth in the next twelve months might look like in each of these four sets of relationship.

For example, in relation to the 'Of' relationships, the community might agree to introduce holy communion and ask the minister to preside to strengthen its link with the parent church. Members might also decide to listen during the year to three podcast talks in their worship as another way of connecting with the wider church.

Evaluation will be the prayerful process of looking back, thanking God for the fruit you prayed for, recognising perhaps the absence of certain fruit and possibly identifying fruit that you did not expect. Again, in my book I have highlighted questions that a community – or those with oversight of it – might ask in relation to each of these four sets of church relationships.

And a final thought. If fresh expressions start doing this, might it become a model for the rest of the church?

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