“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 . . .