Things We Think Matter But Really Don’t – Programs

One thing many stagnant/declining churches share is the sense they should be “doing more.” Yet, when one looks at their church calendar, they are “doing” plenty. Sometimes they need to simply change what they’re doing. More often, the church that says they need to do more actually needs to do less. Let me explain.

Jesus left us with the mission to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything He commanded. Yet, some churches believe the measurement of their ministry is how much they are doing. Somewhere along the line involvement/activity became synonymous with ministry/commitment. Ministry activity sometimes tells a church little else other than how busy they are. It may be a church’s love for it’s community or devotion to growing in the Word that spawns a desire to add programs after program–Sunday morning, Sunday night, Small Groups, Wednesday night, Thursday Youth Devo, Saturday Men’s Breakfast.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting getting rid of all programs, or trying to throw any rocks at churches that run a busy schedule. I am suggesting that many churches need to do less, not more–if making true followers of Christ is the aim. Here are a few reasons why:

  • When Christians are together night and day, they build fewer real relationships with those outside of Christ--evangelism tends to sag.
  • When families are at something church-related all the time, they aren’t usually together very much–this hurts marriages and parent/child relationships. Throw in any extracurriculars for the kids or a job for dad that ends at awkward hours–and the church can participate in a weakening of family life–even as we strive for the opposite.
  • When the schedule is full, there is no room for new ministries. There are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. That won’t change any time soon. If the schedule is full, it’s full.
  • A busy calendar tends to silo participants by age group and geography. Families with young kids have more difficulty making night events (as do Seniors) and keeping pace with a 7-day-a-week ministry schedule. It’s also more difficult for people who live further away to get there at high traffic times (like weeknights). Churches with busy mid-week calendars tend to build a core of people in their fifties or sixties that live close to the facility.
  • Typically, the more programs you have, the less “quality” they are and the more poorly attended they are. See above. In addition, programs require money, volunteer hours, and focused energy. These resources are finite (assuming a church doesn’t grow with transfers in of mature, servant-minded Christians), and every time a church adds something, it runs the risk of being mediocre at most and masters of none.
Begin with a foundation of Sunday worship gatherings and Growth Groups (small groups). From there, begin asking hard questions about each ministry you have. Make sure there is room, resources, and focus for new things–community impact ministries, leadership development, and ministries that help bring people to the Lord.
When it’s time to add ministries, learn to love ministry that isn’t ongoing. It’s targeted, and has an end point–even if the spiritual value behind it does not. This will allow for greater circulation of ministries (and thus more balance over time), a sense of movement/freshness (because there is a steady flow of new ministry being launched), and if it doesn’t work well–you don’t have to go through the painful process of ending it. You can always extend it.
Programs themselves don’t really matter–cultivating life-long followers of Jesus does. Programs can be extremely helpful in this process. However, programs to not a church make, and “involvement” does not a disciple make.
What do you think? Do you think churches need to do more, do less, or do better?
If you want to explore the subject further, I highly recommend the book Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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11 thoughts on “Things We Think Matter But Really Don’t – Programs

  1. We have NO programs.

    We do have a couple of Bible studies during the week (most of the time just once a week)

    I like it that way. Our pastor gets on a kick every now and then for us to start this or that program…but nobody really wants to. We are pretty well burnt out from the day to day activities of our lives.

    I like having NO programs.

    • Steve, to what extent do you think the lack of desire for programs has to do with spiritual health/unhealth? Or, to what extent do you think people might need to be coached to get life in rhythm vs. keeping church programming lean? I’m interested here in why they would be too tired to do anything more…though you can tell from the post I’m a big fan of a lean ministry system. Thanks for commenting.

      • Tim,

        I believe “they” (myself included) are just physically exhausted at the end of the day.

        Here in So. Cal., the commutes to ‘anywhere’ are long. A goodly portion of our congregation drives a half an hour or more to come to church, each way. The younger folks have kids signed up for all manner of sports. Everybody works, except for the older folks and most of them are worn out and tired and feel that ‘they have paid their dues’ (so to speak).

        I wouldn’t know about anyone’s spiritual health. Not even my own. I worship, receive the Lord’s Supper, go to Bible study, do a lot of Christian blogging…but even unbelievers are capable of doing all of that.

        • I forgot to mention that most of us spend a lot of time commuting (usually in heavy traffic) to both work, and to visit family.

          One more thing is that we are not a law driven community. Many churches in our area that have a lot of programs have the lash laid on them to participate.
          You know, guilt trips or inferences that they are not really living up to the Christian life if they don’t participate. If they really don’t want to do X,Y, or Z, then maybe they really aren’t even Christians after all…because “real Christians” will want to do X, Y, and Z. Stuff like that.

  2. I really like the “Simple Church” approach. The hardest thing for churches is getting past the idea that programs are not holy. They’re tools. You need the right tools. most churches I know need to unplug everything but weekend worship and small groups and start over. And guess what? That’s what growing churches are doing.

    • Sean, I totally agree. As I mentioned in the post, it’s easy to mistake programs for some sort of clear outward expression of devotion. There isn’t anything wrong with programs intrinsically, I suppose. However, in excess, or for the wrong motives, etc. Isn’t healthy. It makes you wonder what creative energy might be released if churches could wipe the slate clean and begin thinking in fresh ways about their ministry.