Just Say No to Church Programming (Unless . . .)

Can We Be The Church Without These Programs?

Can We Be The Church Without These Programs?

Program Size Churches” were all the rage from the 1970s and beyond, and some congregations continue to self-identify as Program Size Churches. Bless them.

Many more congregations seem to be lamenting that they were once Program Size Churches (worship attendance over 150) but now their numbers reveal that they are (merely?) Pastoral Size Churches (worship participation of 51-150) or even Family Size Churches (worship participation of 0-50.)  I have a couple of problems with all this:

  • Counting heads in worship is no longer the best indicator of congregational health.  I know a congregation with a tiny Sunday morning worshiping community but over 100 show up for a community dinner each weekend.  I know another congregation with about 400 in worship but they struggle in terms of financial commitment in spite of being part of a wealthy suburb.
  • A Busy Church Calendar is not necessarily indicative of spiritual vitality and growth.  Very often they are self-congratulatory events to show that we are “active.”

Let me explain.

We Church People like programs.  You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever been part of Church World:

Book Groups.  Speaker Series.  Chili Dinners.  Pancake Suppers.  Movie Nights.  Parents’ Day Out.  Mission Fairs.  Yard Sales.  Bake Sales.  Plant Sales.  Car Washes.  Pot Luck Dinners.  Strawberry Festivals.  Panel Discussions.  Music Programs.  Quilting Bees.  Bell Choirs.  Vacation Bible School.  Silent Auctions.  Cake Walks.  School Supply Collections.  Health Kit Collections.  Mitten & Glove Collections.  Blessing of the Animals.  Easter Egg Hunts.  Congregational Picnics.  Carol Sings.  Mission Trips.  Yard Raking.  Wednesday Night Live.  Sunday Night Suppers.  Flamingo Flockings. Wine Tastings.  Circle Meetings.  Brown Bag Lunches.  Confirmation Classes.  Film Series.  Parenting Classes. Barbecue Chicken Dinners.  Youth Sundays.  Christmas in April.  Tutoring Teams.  Men’s Fellowship.  Contra Dances.  Ice Cream Socials.  Youth Choirs.  Puppetry Teams.  Christmas Pageants.  Holy Land Trips.  Interfaith Conversation Groups.  Mothers’ Groups.  Fathers’ Groups.  Kids’ Club.  And – of course – Bible Studies.

When I read a Church’s Annual Report, it seems as if congregations rate themselves based on how many of these programs happen each year.  More = better.  But why do we schedule, plan, promote, and implement church programs?

I know a church that debriefs after each big event, asking themselves:

  • Who was transformed?
  • Whose life was changed?
  • Were relationships strengthened?
  • Was it joyful making it happen?
  • Was new leadership equipped?

Sometimes the last thing we need is another program.

A church colleague who works with the youth recently shared that the parents of those youth want More Programming.  They want to see a schedule of activities. They remember their own Youth Groups fondly with weekly programming and events.

The problem is that 1) she only has six kids in her youth group and they all live in different suburbs and go to different schools and 2) they are already over-scheduled and 3) they really just want to connect with an adult who is authentically interested in them and will help them figure out The Meaning of Life – or simply if it’s okay to be who they are.

The worst kind of programming – in my estimation –  involves going, sitting, hearing, and leaving with new information.  But nothing changes.  No souls have been transformed.  No cultures have been shifted.  No vision has been cast.

The Program Church is Over.  The Relational Church is Essential in 21st Century ministry.

For the record, some of the best ministers I know do what they do best via programs.  But the difference is that the purpose of their program planning is about building relationships between each other and God.  It’s not about college-application-resume-building or making the elders feel like the staff is earning its money because the calendar is so full of stuff to do.

Especially during Lent, you’d think we would slow down a little.  But alas . . .

9 responses to “Just Say No to Church Programming (Unless . . .)

  1. Nice. Exactly where my head has been lately. Thank you!


  2. So grateful for you, Jan. Thank you, from this very small but passionate Family Church!


  3. yes! thank you, it is all about relationship!


  4. Amen…Gonna “borrow” the Program Church is over; the Relational Church is Essential
    Much better said then my smart-alecky article about How to Kill a Programmatic Church…http://pres-outlook.org/2012/11/how-to-kill-a-programmatic-church/


  5. Fresh out of a church board meeting where one program after another was proposed. I left with a headache. We are a small church who has a difficult time getting folks to participate in the programs that already exist. Where is the man power and where is the budget to support? I love these people, but we need to figure out how to develop relationships without implementing yet another program.


  6. Our church is beginning to move toward one that involves itself in community programs and problem areas and not so much on church memberships and programs. We find that being out into the community to church is being recognized as a doer of the word. For example: On Ash Wednesday we did “Ashes to Go”. We put ourselves outside the church at 2 difference locations and offered Ashes to anyone who wished
    them. They came by cars and some walking. We are near to UofA. We had almost 200 people participate on that Wednesday.


  7. A couple of weeks ago, in the small (membership: 50) church I serve, one gentleman complained that we have no programming, In the four months since I’ve arrived, I’ve added one Advent meditation discussion pre-church (attendance: 0), a weekly Bible study (average attendance:5), and one Wednesday night Lenten service (attendance 11). We serve a monthly freely community meal, in which about 10 people are involved. Our Sunday worship attendance during this very cold and snowy winter has raged from 15-25. The congregatonal care committee jeeps proposing events which no one signs up to staff until the last minute after a cancellation is announced. And a lifetime member told me recently that she doesn’t feel as if she has any real friendships as church. I am with grandma — we need to find ways to nurture relationships rather than pursue programming. But how?


  8. I love the debrief questions,


  9. I agree with what you say. One piece I would add, however, is that something needs to be measured. You mentioned the church with low worship attendance, but a lot of people at a community dinner. That shows life. Obviously, some things are easier to measure than others. Worship attendance, $$$, easy. Relationship, transformation, not so easy. But we can figure out a way to qualitatively measure those things, even if we can’t quantitatively measure them.

    Our worship attendance is lower than it was a year ago. I don’t think it’s healthy (and to be clear, I don’t hear you saying that it is) to sit back, keep doing things the way we’ve always done them and feel alright about it because worship attendance is down everywhere.

    Very few places can have kickass worship services, programming with all the latest speakers/authors, and transformational relationships. But each of us needs to find that core strength and build on that. Seek the signs of life in the place, plan, implement and evaluate.

    Thank you for your post.


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