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 . . .

Take Westboro Baptist For Example . . .

sucevita-2I don’t mean to pick on Westboro Baptist Church, but they seem to be an easy
example to use in making my point today.

Why does Westboro Baptist Church exist?

  • To serve as “the mouth of God” (their website) and to be a prophetic voice to a culture of increasingly “soul-damning, nation-destroying filth“?
  • To attract international attention for the sake of celebrity?
  • To fulfill a single family’s spiritual needs?

Again, this post is not about WBC or their mission statement.  The question is essential for any church:

Why does our congregation exist?

  • Because we are friends and we like to hang out together?
  • Because the Presbytery/Diocese/Association/Conference thought there should be a church here?
  • Because there are broken people in the neighborhood and we’ve been called to serve them?
  • Because we need this community to nurture our own spiritual lives?
  • Because we are an historical institution that deserves saving?
  • Because our pastor needs a job?

As congregations discern how to be the church in these days of Spiritual Climate Change, many of us are trying to both determine why we became a congregation in the first place (i.e. consider our roots) and what the future holds (i.e. rethink our mission for these days).

I was admiring the gorgeous windows of a church building recently and when a member asked me what I was thinking about (my facial expression apparently expressed awe), this conversation ensued:

Awestruck Me:  I was just thinking that someone must have really loved Jesus to have given these windows  to the church.

Church Lady:  Oh it wasn’t about that at all.  Rich industrialists were competing with each other to show off how many windows they could buy and have installed with their names on them.

AM:  (sigh)

The churches that will thrive in the 21st Century and beyond with the the congregations that 1) know why they exist and 2) exist for holy purposes.


Image is from the Sucevita Monastery – one of the painted monasteries of Romania.  According to this websiteThe churches were founded, in most cases, as family burial places of princes and high nobles.”  We can’t assume our churches were ever about God.

Embracing Spiritual Climate Change

It’s been a week since I’ve posted for assorted reasons, not necessarilyClimate Change connected to the following:

  • We’re in the throes of March Madness.
  • I’ve been traveling quite a bit.
  • Fred Phelps died.

As well, it’s snowed not once but twice since the first day of spring here in Chicagoland.  Climate change?  Perhaps.  Probably.

There are still climate change deniers, but for the purposes of this blog, I’d like to point out that there are also spiritual climate change deniers.   I believe they are a benevolent bunch.  They mean no harm.  And yet we need them to stop it.

The brilliant Diana Butler Bass often writes and speaks on such topics as spiritual climate change and she points out that – unlike the weather which can change from minute to minute – climate changes subtly.  Icebergs melt slowly.  Weather patterns shift slightly.  El Niño is a wily little dickens.

Years ago, I was invited to participate in a group of biggish church pastors, even though the congregation I served was comprised of less than 200 souls.  The Big Church Pastors had more than just people.  They had money and time – the money to keep the Constantinian Church going for a little more time.  I was already seeing the melting iceberg after working like crazy to be the best pastor I could possibly be based on everything I’d learned in seminary in the 1980s.  (Even then, we were learning to serve a church that no longer existed.)

Upon mentioning this impending change in the spiritual climate to my clergy group, one of my colleagues literally patted me on the head as if to say, “There, there.  Rob Bell and Brian McLaren are interesting but they aren’t talking about our churches and our people.”

I’m grateful that my mainline colleagues have now noticed the melting icebergs.

While climate scientists warn us of pending global destruction, spiritual climate change is a good thing, if you ask me.  It’s true, there are Inconvenient Truths about the 21st Century Church that Pew, Putnam, Phyllis, Gallup, Reggie McNeal, Barna, and – of course – Diana have pointed out.  But spiritual climate change is moving us closer to what God intends for the church.  For example:

  • Just as the protester pictured above declared that “It’s time to clean up our acts” when it comes to government and industry, we in the institutional church have long needed to clean up our acts.  From sexual misconduct to financial misconduct to hypocrisy to everyday idolatry, we have long needed a good scrubbing.
  • Speaking of idolatry, we in the institutional church have loved many things more than we’ve loved God.  We love our camps, our stained glass windows, our pipe organs, our Sunday School traditions, our buildings, our women’s groups, our pastors, and our hymnals more than we’ve loved God.  This makes Jesus slap his hand to his head.
  • We in the institutional church need to remember why we exist.  Do we exist to please ourselves? (“But I love the old hymns.”  “But I love Vacation Bible School.”  “But I love it when men wear ties to  church.”)  Or do we exist to make disciples of all nations and to love God and neighbor?

I could go on and on, but you get my drift.  Bring on the storms.  Let the winds of the Spirit blow down the doors.  Welcome turbulence.  Embrace the fog.

This is a good thing.  Scary, perhaps, but very good.  I love serving the church in this mess.

Youth Groups for the 21st Century Church

Starting today the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference is happening inPYM-vertical Chicago and I noticed a theme in my conversations over registration.

(Note:  Once again, the informal conversations are often the best part of any church conference.)

New Friend #1:  We met.  He introduced himself as one of the speakers.  And then he said this was the first conference during which he has actually been allowed to speak.  After being invited to other youth conferences in the past, he has always been dis-invited after conference organizers read his book.

New Friend #2:  We met.  He said that he works on a church staff but he might be getting fired soon.  He said that – although the youth connect well with him – the church leaders are concerned that he is not a good influence on them.  He spends a lot of time talking with the youth members, but “he isn’t teaching them God’s One Way.”

Old Friend #3:  We caught eyes in the lobby.  She said that the youth in her church live so far apart and there are so few of them that she can’t exactly do “programming” like the kind that happened when their parents were in youth group.  So she meets up with the youth occasionally and they talk about Things That Matter. Nevertheless their parents want “programs.”

I’m wondering a couple of things:

  • Are we grown-ups aware that their kids are already getting lots of programming (school, sports, lessons) but there is most likely not a lot of deep authentic conversation that builds trusting relationships?  What adults do our kids talk with about painful/scary/curious matters if they can’t talk with their parents?
  • Are we afraid to expose our kids to other perspectives on issues with which we disagree?  Where does a young person go if she/he has questions about sexuality and other personal matters if the church’s stand is to limit what’s okay to talk about?
  • Do parents realize that – although kids get lots of information about sexuality via social media and popular culture – they don’t have many options for learning healthy, faithful, and true information?  If schools are limited in what they can teach and parents are assuming that “their kids already know everything” why isn’t church teaching about sexuality and body image and how to get to know someone better in a healthy relationship?

Most of the youth conferences I know about are fun.  But they are also limiting in terms of what’s acceptable to talk about and say out loud.  A scared teenager who wants to talk about scary things will not do it in a congregation in which she is afraid she’ll be shamed.  A young man will not disclose his deepest fears within the context of a church culture that threatens to banish him if his questions are considered outside the orthodoxy of that church.

In other words, we need this conference.  Imagine a church in which the kids are safe to say anything and know they will still be loved unconditionally.  That’s not just progressive; that’s Christ-like.

Artisanal Church

imageMaybe you’ve heard of Giulietta Carrelli and the story that started the artisanal toast movement in California.  Check it out here, especially you Sermon Illustration Foragers out there.

Pastoral Cheese in Chicago is a local favorite in the creation of artisanal cheese.  Nobody makes artisanal chocolates like Christopher Elbow in Kansas City.  And artisanal cupcakes are everywhere – but the best are in Georgetown.

Can artisanal church be far behind?

Considering what makes something “artisanal” would make us a better church, if you ask me.  Ponder this:

  • To be artisanal is to be created recognizing the origins of everything needed to make it happen.
  • To be artisanal is to be crafted by hand, piece by piece. (No mass production here.)
  • To be artisanal involves more simple yet practiced skills.
  • To be artisanal implies slow and natural fermentation or blending.
  • To be artisanal often means being trendy.  (See Artisanal Toast  example.)

I believe the future church will be more artisanal.  

  • There will be an intentional recognition of the early Church Mothers and Fathers and how they were the church together.
  • Worship will be increasingly crafted for a particular context and time.
  • Energy will focus on perfecting simple practices like hospitality and prayer and connecting with the community.
  • It will be slower and more deliberate.  No hit and run evangelism.  Relationships take time.
  • It will be chewier, richer, more intense, more delicious.
  • It might be trendy (and who doesn’t want lots of curious people to show up?) but mostly it will be real.  People might notice because it’s a new thing, but stay when it changes their lives.

Clearly this kind of church sounds like many we might know and love.  But there will be more of them led by creative leaders who could be making cupcakes or cheese.  But they’ve decided, instead, to make church.

Teaching Culture Shifts the HBS Way

Harvard Business School famously uses the case study method to teach future imagetitans of business.  They aren’t the only ones, of course.

As I’ve written in this blog before, I’ve noticed that:

  • Seminary professors often have little to no experience as parish pastors.  (Imagine teaching people to be doctors who were not practicing doctors themselves.)
  • Seminaries are not teaching students how to navigate our congregations from a 20th Century to a 21st Century culture.  See Wednesday’s post.  (Some classes might talk about the fact that church culture has changed since the 1950s but they don’t teach future pastors how to help churches make the shift from – for example – a church that does mission to a missional church.)

We, in the church, might look to our friends at Harvard Business School for ideas on how to teach Cultural Shifting.  In fact, the case study method would be helpful in many facets of training future pastors.  For example:

  • HBS has their Great Negotiator case studies. (e.g. George Mitchell negotiating peace in Northern Ireland.)  Seminaries could use case studies on negotiating the exit of a beloved church staff member who needs to go.  How would this go in a 20th Century Church Culture compared to how should it go now in a 21st Century Church Culture based on missional, disciple-making principles?
  • HBS uses case studies on entrepreneurship. (e.g. “Design Thinking & Innovation at Apple”)  Seminaries could use case studies on the how-to and how-not-to initiate entrepreneurial community projects.
  • HBS uses case studies on creating community.  (e.g.  “Threadless & The Business of Community“)  Seminaries could teach case studies involving Annual Chili Cook-offs and Ice Cream Socials.  What really creates authentic community and what simply fulfills our institutional needs/traditions?

Dealing with real church cases would help seminarians learn leadership strategies for their own adventures out in the parish, especially in the areas of Church Staffing, Stewardship & Budget Planning, Liturgical Revitalizing, Leadership Structuring, and more.  And maybe this kind of training could also be offered to those already in parish settings as a post-seminary continuing education opportunity.

We need training for Real Life Ministry.  Sharing our Real Life Situations helps train professional ministers for dealing with the shifts in church culture.

It goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that these case studies would also call upon students to integrate what they are learning about theology, Bible study, history, and worship.  What do you think?

Image is from the Schwartz Art Collection of the Harvard Business School. Details here.

What If Wednesday: What If Seminaries Taught Culture Shifting?

imageSeminaries have been described as General College for Professional Ministry. Students take Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Theology, Christian Education, Practical Theology, Pastoral Care, and Preaching. This track has not changed much in the past 50 plus years.

As I – and many others – have written, seminarians are being trained to serve churches that no longer exist.  Or at the very least least, we need seminarians trained to do 21st Century Ministry which is totally different from 20th Century Ministry.  Again, this is old news.  But I believe that . . .

Seminaries need to teach future professional ministers how to shift a congregation’s culture.  

Last weekend, I worshiped with a congregation I love.   They are currently being led by an Interim Pastor, so they’ll soon be electing a Pastor Nominating Committee who will search for their next “permanent” pastor.  After worship I lunched with several over-80 year old members who love their congregation and wonder what the future holds for their church.  “What can we do to attract a good pastor?” I was asked.

The answer is complicated.

If they want someone to do ministry the way it’s always been done, then I have two responses:

  1. Your church is going to die.  My guess is that it will die within 10 years.  I’m regretably certain that it will be gone in 20 years.  I don’t mean to sound harsh, but crunch some numbers and see what you come up with in terms of your membership and your budget numbers.
  2. You can easily find a chaplain of any age to preach, teach, visit, marry, baptize, and bury to serve you until you die.

If they want someone to lead them into the next 50 years, then I have one answer:

  1. You need to call a pastor who is an expert in shifting your congregation’s culture.

The problem is that most of our pastors have no idea how to do this.  What if we taught this in seminary?  (I have ideas why we don’t but that’s for another blog post.)

Imagine equipping a new (or seasoned) pastor in the tools needed to help a congregation discern:

  • How does the neighborhood see them?  (Maybe they are invisible.  Almost certainly they are not The Church On The Corner that everybody notices and respects.)
  • Who is in their neighborhood?  (Have they noticed that they might not speak English?  Have they noticed that the neighbors don’t look like them?  What are the neighbors doing on Sunday mornings?)
  • Can they imagine being the church without _____ (Traditional Sunday School?  A choir in robes?  Sunday morning worship?  A 9:30 Bible study?  Potluck dinners?)  Maybe those traditional features are working for them still, but what if they are not working any more?  What needs to be relinquished?
  • Can they imagine shifting away from transactional ministry?  (e.g.  “If we start a pre-school, young families will join the church” (as opposed to just offering a pre-school because the community needs it.)

We don’t need anymore classically trained pastors who have no idea how to navigate a culture change in their congregations.  While we love smart pastors who can exegete a Koine verb or articulate the various theories of atonement, we need culturally, pastorally savvy pastors who can navigate difficult shifts with love – while also exegeting verbs and knowing theories of atonement.

Who can identify seminaries that are teaching this today?  And what are those seminaries?

Image of one of my alma maters:  Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.

Still Asking: Does This Pulpit Make My Butt Look Big? (Either Way, It’s Fine)

imageI am writing from Davidson, NC where I’m meeting with my annual Preaching Group.  You can read more about us here.

We started as a post-Doctor of Ministry group and then lost and added new people along the way.  We range in age from early 40s to mid-60s.  We are all clergywomen.

There are preaching groups comprised of both men and women, and we appreciate and salute them.  We (the Preaching Roundtable) gathered in response to the fact that we were not allowed in the (then) exclusively male clergy groups.  But while we share our sermons and other resources, while we discuss theology and best practices, we mostly share our lives.  Think Carol Gilligan.  We tell stories and eat good food and encourage each other and coach each other.  We celebrate new calls, not merely because the calls are good matches but also because the Nominating Committees were bold enough to call a woman.

Most of us have been the first female pastor our parishioners have known, in at least one of our calls.  And we also seem to share in other common experiences:

  1. Our most ardent opponents – if we have had any – have been women parishioners.  Most women parishioners are supportive, but occasionally there are women in the congregation who make life fairly miserable.  Maybe they rue the fact that they didn’t go to seminary themselves.  Maybe it’s an inherent Means Girls Thing. Maybe they would prefer to see male pulpit candy every Sunday morning.  Maybe their ecclesiastical power is threatened.  Who knows?
  2. We are criticized if not always perceived as warm and fuzzy.  We might in fact be warm and fuzzy on occasion, but we can also be strong, direct, and confident.  Strong, direct, confident women are sometimes not considered pastoral.  You’ve heard this before with other female professionals.
  3. Most of us have been paid less than our male predecessors or colleagues for most of our careers.  Associate pastors are often paid much less (1/3 as much) than senior pastors, but even female senior pastors are often paid much less than male senior pastors of comparable congregations.

These are generalities – none of which is new material –  and – again – this is merely our own experience.  Nothing scientific here.  But church folks should be aware of these factoids.

Nevertheless, all believe that professional ministry is a privilege and a joy.  Exhausting and crazy-making occasionally, but extraordinarily satisfying as well.  We are so thankful for each other and my hope is that all pastors have this – a long-term group of friends with whom you can share your doubts and frustrations and funny stories.  Let me know if you need help finding your own group.

Image is of the signature RevGalBlogPals mug.  A favorite since July 2005.

My Name in Granite

Some people have seen their name in lights.  I’ve seen my name in granite.


My father put all his children’s names and dates of births on his and Mom’s gravestone in the event that a family historian will one day want to track us down.  When my parents died over 20 years ago, cemetery-visiting seemed like the preferred way to do such research.  Today we have ancestry.com and more.

Seeing my name in granite has a Lenten feel in that I am reminded that “To Dust I Will Return.”  We are all going to die.

But seeing my name in granite while I’m still alive smacks of Missing the Point – cosmically – if we are followers of Jesus.  My life is not sealed in granite.

The world might believe that after making a single terrible choice (or a dozen terrible choices) we deserve our sad fate.  We might be pegged for all time by a world that wants to label us and place us in a tidy box.

But whatever we’ve done in the past, whatever has happened to us, whatever trauma has befallen us – our fate is not in fact sealed in granite.  There is always hope.  Maybe it’s too early to say this, but redemption is always possible.

Lent: Real Hospitality

imageI was feeling like a Lenten success on Thursday after spending 3 hours of my morning in the Illinois DMV in downntown Chicago.  I was perky in spite of the wait.  I was corgial in spite of the difficulties in registering a car owned by someone in NY but driven by someone in VA (long story.)  And I felt authentically grateful for the staff who have a boring job – at least until they met me with the car involving two states that are not Illinois.

So, on my way to work with license plates in hand, I saw a man standing by the Daley Center with a sign that said, “Hungry.  Just Hungry” and this happened next:

Perky Lenten Me:  I’m headed down to Starbucks for coffee and a sandwich. Would you like to come with me?

Guy with “Hungry” Sign:  I don’t really like Starbucks but thanks anyway.

I was such a Lenten success that morning that I was not in any way angry about his response.  In fact I felt great about my light-hearted attitude and the fact that he could have had a delicious breakfast sandwich and a latte but he chose not to do so.

But then it hit me:  Who was this offer for?  Me or GWHS?

Maybe coffee makes him sick and he doesn’t realize that you can also get tea and water and juice and hot cocoa in a Starbucks.  Maybe he didn’t want to go inside a building with a stranger.  Here’s what I should have said:

“Where would you like to go for something to eat?  I’ll take you.”

I’m a believer in relational ministry which means that I would not only like to give you money, but I’d like to have a relationship with you.  It’s more time consuming, but it feels more Christ-like to me.

Maybe he still would have said, “No, lady, I just want some cash.”

Maybe he wasn’t even hungry but he works for one of those scam groups who stick people out on the street corner and then come by to get their money later.

Or maybe he didn’t like Starbucks.  Only God knows, but next time I’ll try Plan B.