With the following illustration, Alan Hirsch offers a different way of gauging a churches effectiveness:
In some farming communities, the farmers might build fences around their properties to keep their livestock in and the livestock of neighbor farms out. This is a bounded set. But in rural communities where farms or ranches cover an enormous geographic area, fencing a property is out of the question. In our home of Australia, ranches (called Stations) are so vast that fences are superfluous. Under these conditions a farmer has to sink a bore and create a well, a precious water supply in the Outback. It is assumed that livestock, though they will stray, will never roam too far from the well, lest they die. That is centered set. As long as there is a clean supply of water the livestock will remain close by.
The essential difference is between measuring Influence instead of simply membership and/or attendance. The bounded-set, as Hirsch calls it, draws a clear line between those on the inside (i.e. members and regular attenders) and those outside. The centered-set, on the other hand, measures how many people are in some relation to the ministry of the church and gauges the various relative distances from the center values.
Though I do not see these grids as being mutually exclusive, as if one must choose one or the other, I do find Hirsch to have provided a helpful distinction.
In our church, for instance, we have some precious members who do not regularly participate in any of the Life of the Church. They come occasionally to any number of things, including infrequently to the Sunday morning worship service. To assume we are having an active influence in their spiritual growth would be, at best, presumptuous. On the other hand, there are people who are not members of our church, nor even attenders, but who are being actively influenced through ministries of counseling, discipleship, mercy, etc. While these folks are not part of the quantifiable membership, they are nevertheless beneficiaries of the mission of the church. In many ways some of these folks are closer to our center-set than are some of the irregular members.
So again, as I think about it, I see both of these grids as being beneficial. In fact, I would hope to see growth on both gauges. We long to see our influence expand, and realize that many whom we influence will never become part of our congregation. Some are members of other churches, and therefore should stay there and bless the people in those churches. But we also should be laboring, and praying, for those who are not part of a particular congregation to become connected to some expression of of the visible church – hopefully many with ours.
So, I don’t see that we need to make a choice between these two ways of measuring our congregations. I think we ought to use both. But, I guess, since relatively few are aware of Hirsch’s Ranch, we would be wise to spend our energies to cultivate and cast the importance of the centered-set.