For several weeks I’ve been writing about engaging different groups in church. Then I wrote about dealing with time constraints and what it means for planning. Now, I am making a personal appeal for an entirely different approach: it is time to get rid of our programs.
As Phyllis Tickle adeptly outlines in The Great Emergence, the post-war world of the 1950s led to a curious new development in church life that has remained intact ever since: churches full of programs. The roots of this development are quite simple at the macro-level, but remain entirely unexamined at the micro-level:
What we are left with in 2011 is an overall decline in Christian attendance, participation, and capacity to join meaningful Christian communities across all denominational groups: some hit more than others. Rising costs make institutional church archaic, as a huge percentage of the annual budget is tied up in buildings and staffing. These areas have costs growing much faster than giving, making the current arrangement in most churches unsustainable. As the fiscal costs to maintain the system go up, so do the social costs. Maintaining existing levels of social engagement in the church programming is taxing the aging volunteer base and causing real stress on the social makeup of our congregations.
Given the above challenges there is only one clear solution. Ditch the programs.
I’m not saying that we stop delivering food baskets or offering opportunities for the church to act like the church. But many of our churches are living into a church model that is inappropriate for their size and makeup. The average church has an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of about 70. This means that the vast majority are a “pastoral-sized church”. They would have to more than double their regular attendance to begin moving into a new model, triple it to make the transition. The next model is appropriately named “program”.
Most churches should simply stop using the word “program” at all. It comes from a different model of church. It isn’t yours. Just stop calling things programs. They should also stop seeing the arrangement as “programs” being what we “offer” to our community. Instead we should embrace what we as the community value together. This simple shift in focus more accurately embodies the dynamic most churches are rather than what they were or believe they are supposed to be.
St. Swithin’s in the Swamp with 75 on a Sunday “offers” Christian Education in the form of Sunday School to differing age groups, with 2-3 children per class during their 10:30 am worship service. They then have their different fellowship programs during the week, which are sparsely attended, and occasional Outreach events in which the same dedicated volunteers come out and work for two straight days, making a herculean, but rewarding effort. All of this is commendable and wonderful. However, it causes incredible strain on the community. The people don’t know what else to do.
This really is quite simple. Stop. Just stop. Then figure out what you’re good at, what you value, and how you are called to live. It doesn’t matter how much you “offer” since it will never be quite enough and isn’t the panacea we’ve all taken it for. Christians aren’t only doers and believers: we’re be-ers.
The mythical St. Swithin’s is better off sharing in spontaneous intergenerational formation and worship together, and engaging Bible Study, faith formation, and preparation in natural groups. The mission of St. Swithin’s is lived out in corporate participation in direct community needs as one, tackling needs evident in their neighborhood or brought to the congregation by individuals within it.
This isn’t just a difference in words, but a fundamental difference that can only happen by living out a different way in all aspects of congregational life. Otherwise, the pursuit of programs will kill our congregations.