Orientation vs Performance: GPS or GPA?

I got a chance to walk a dozen people through a “Moving the Needle” self-evaluation tool last Sunday night, and I was reminded of a couple of things I thought I would pass on to you (because I think anyone who is trying to take a next step or help others take a next step following Jesus will run into some of the same things).

1. People automatically feel pressure to perform.

I began to develop this self-evaluation tool as the Pastor for Adult Discipleship down in Texas, and refined it some more in my ministry in Ann Arbor. It’s not yet ready for public consumption but I am continuing to run experiments to make it better.

Whatever else might change in the tool, I will be sure to keep the key distinction between finding your GPA and using a GPS. Whenever you measure attitude or behavior, you will intuitively get some kind of sliding scale from “Absolute Heathen” to “Fully Devoted Follower.”

Even if you admit that Jesus loves the people on the bottom of the scale, and go so far as to say no one reaches the top of the scale until the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, you still get a bell curve of disciples. Everyone wants to be at least a C- follower (or a little better than the person taking the test next to them) and as long as I can compare myself favorably to anyone else, I must be doing OK. That’s Discipleship GPA.

To try and get out of that sliding scale mentality, I have my tool set up as a series of gauges, like you might have on the dashboard of your car. I’m not grading your engine temperature or even your fuel level. In fact, the intention of the tool is to give you some idea of where you are in six different areas of discipleship and then give you some idea of the direction you are heading.

The express purpose is to find your location and orientation, not to score your competency. Yet even though I tell people this is a GPS, not a GPA, as soon as they start putting pen to paper they feel like they want to do well on the test.

Many of the questions they ask about the tool actually mean: “How can I score better on this??” They want to get it right, even when there is no single right way to answer. In fact, the whole thing is geared toward helping an individual take a next step. So if they think they would have used a different word here or there, I tell them to go ahead and change it on their sheet. If they want to add a new category, fine. I want them to find some way of taking their temperature somehow. Just talking about how you could possibly measure your direction and faith walk gets you thinking about the right kinds of things.

But as soon as you start to measure anything, we always end up in a competitionEven when trying to use a GPS, people automatically feel a pressure to perform. Meet them where they are. Assure them they are doing a good job. And get into the discussion about what Jesus is doing in their lives as quickly as you can. The only way to move the focus off of individual performance is to turn their attention to where Jesus is and where he is headed.

That’s actually the point of the GPS: asking where are you, where are you pointed, where is Jesus, and where is he headed? Even when you frame it as a GPS, American GPA mentality makes people feel pressure to perform. So if you are trying to take a next step, watch it! You are going to naturally think this is all about you, when the point is to find where you are so you can see Jesus more clearly.

2. People are complex.

You can measure some surface behaviors like worship attendance and giving pretty directly. But as soon as you try and get at the attitudes behind those behaviors or the general direction of those habits over time, things get pretty complex pretty quick.

I think we have to measure more than just how often people are in worship or how often they read their Bible at home because the answers to those kinds of questions are inherently framed as GPA rather than GPS. Someone who is anxious to come to worship and is coming more and more and is there at least once a month is at a different place than some who is begrudgingly there every week, never gets anything out of it (and never tries to) and has been stuck in that pattern for 30 years. The second disciple would have a higher GPA, but I’m pretty sure he is not seeing what Jesus wants to give or where Jesus wants to lead.

Of course, behaviors matter, and you would rather have people in worship twice a month than once a month, or three times a month instead of twice. But their attitude and the trajectory of their worship life over time is probably more important than their present behavior.

Not that behavior isn’t important! We want to measure that, too. In fact, I would rather you come to worship even when you don’t want to, than not come to worship because you don’t feel like it. But most of all, I want you to come more and more regularly over time; and I want you to be on the lookout for what Jesus is giving you and doing for you in worship, more and more joyfully and intentionally as you grow. Behavior matters, but because people are complex, attitude and trajectory over time matter even more.

Because people are complex, they also sometimes have trouble putting down on paper where they actually are, at least when it comes to attitude and direction. (Behavior is a little more straight-forward: you just take your real behavior and increase it by the guilt tax and record about 15% more activity than you actually do…)

When it comes to attitude and orientation, complex people can be in more than one place at the same time. One woman at our Sunday night Bible class thought talking about Jesus was both “scary” and “exciting” at the same time and felt conflicted about those two answers being on the opposite ends of a spectrum. I told her to answer both ways. Sometimes we have more than one attitude at the same time. Don’t let nuances of any discipleship tool get in the way of the real goal: to help people see more clearly where they are and where they are headed, so they can reorient toward Jesus and take a small step forward.

Any measurement tool will necessarily simplify. Be willing to let complex people be complex, and then let the tool do its work. The point isn’t to get the tool right (more performance pressure!). The point is to follow Jesus.

3. Burden is our natural heart language as sinners.

I think every time I have used any version of a discipleship self-evaluation tool, at least some people feel pretty guilty about their results. No matter how many times I say this is about orientation, not performance, writing down my attitude and behavior when it comes to following Jesus still brings some sense of personal failure.

Last Sunday, when the group was finished, I asked them in general about their experience taking the evaluation. The first person who responded was a woman who slapped her own face–she didn’t say it was a slap in the face, she actually slapped her own face!

Now a wake-up call is not necessarily a bad thing, and whenever you do any kind of evaluation, the Law is at work. Of course there will be some sense of guilt or shame, because we are always sinners. But we are not only sinners. Whenever you work with anyone (even yourself!) on taking a small next step following Jesus, you are going to have to get past the poor, miserable sinner mindset. Of course, theologically, they are (and you are); and of course as blind, dead, and an enemy of God, you can’t take even a small step forward following Jesus.

But that’s kind of not the point. Even that way of talking is getting back to the realm of performance and GPA: of course none of us could ever have a high enough grade point average to earn God’s favor. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take out this GPS and talk about where you are in your faith journey, where you are headed, and where Jesus is inviting you to take a next step.

Jesus didn’t just die for the sins of the disciples, he also invited them to follow him. Even after the resurrection, when Jesus dealt with Peter’s three-fold failure, the punchline was still, “YOU must follow ME.”

I’m convinced that this invitation to follow Jesus is at the heart of the promise in the Great Commission: “I will be with you always... not to stand over your shoulder and grade your performance, but so that you can look around and find me and follow me, again and again, as often as you get turned around or lost or confused. I will be with you always… follow me.

No discipleship tool is ever supposed to merely pile on more guilt and shame. Burden is the natural heart language of sinners, and we make everything about performance, even Gospel invitations. (I can follow Jesus better than you can! In my whole class, I’m the best at not rejecting the promise!) So we will naturally experience any evaluation as burden. But guilt and shame can’t help us move in the right direction.

If you want to get unstuck, honestly take a look at where you are, and then start looking for ways Jesus is inviting you to take a step forward. Of course forgiveness is a natural part of moving forward, but the point is not to hammer people over how they have failed (that’s GPA thinking again); a GPS is value-neutral, it tells you where you are and maybe which direction you are heading. Feeling bad about where you are is a real experience, and guilt and shame need real forgiveness. But you can’t always only focus on your sinfulness.

In fact, carrying that burden makes it harder to move forward. So give people–even yourself–lots of grace. Forgive sins and ease burdened consciences whenever necessary. And then try to help people see some small way Jesus is gently and persistently and lovingly trying to get their attention.

And while Jesus getting your attention is sometimes uncomfortable, it is also fundamentally good news: Jesus loves you and is leading you and has something he wants to give you. That’s awesome.

Featured image credit: dashboard photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels


  1. When you’re on a bicycle, going uphill, it’s sometimes really hard to keep the front wheel from going this way and that as you pump hard to stay upright, much less keep moving. The GPS reading changes oh so slowly, and not always in the direction you’re intending. Even when you’re grateful for the bicycle you’ve got, and for how far you’ve been able to go, some sections of the route home are just hard.

    1. You are so right, Conrad! We should expect some sections of the route home to be hard, and we should expect our direction, when viewed from our perspective on the ground, to be all over the map at times, especially when we are peddling uphill.

      And I think we hold that reality together with the joy of the ride, the adventure of discovery, the thrill of coasting downhill sometimes, too. This discipleship thing is hard work, and it is also supposed to be the most fun you have ever had.

      Add to that dichotomy the truth that, while I am actively engaged, I’m not actually in control of my own journey, and I certainly don’t have to perform at a certain level to make it home. All of a sudden, this following Jesus thing gets kind of complex…

      That’s why we need each other: we need other people to help us hold onto both “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” AND “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do…” (Php 2:12-13)

  2. Brother, so great. I am using in my message on Sunday….”Why Work? : Work Takes Work” is my title. Also will share this with our Board. We continue to wrestle with Dashboards that are truly helpful and stimulating!! Thanks for this post.

    1. Jeff, I love that you are actually wrestling with dashboards that are helpful and stimulating! I don’t think there is a single right answer, but I think we as Church should be exploring more and better answers to the problem of measuring, encouraging, equipping, and defining what it means to follow Jesus, one small step at a time.

      Keep up the good work!

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