Why We Need To Allow Church Programs To Die
(Note: This is the first of a 5 part series around the issue of Programs, Missions, and Vision of the local church)
I know that the very title of this first of five blogs will offend many long time faithful members of local churches. And if you are one of them, I simply ask that you follow this to the end. I am not asking you to agree with me, nor do I expect you to change your mind about this subject. But I am asking you to engage in deep thought, reflection and prayer before you dismiss me as either anti-church, a para-church lunatic, or in some cases, the Anti-Christ. (If this is your first time to read one of my blogs, get to know me by reading “About Me”.)
I grew up and was trained in a church that believed, invested in and promoted top quality church programs as the key to growing the local church. To be honest, I cannot remember all the training events I have attended since 1974 that promoted a variety of programs that promised to radically transform the direction and attendance for the church I served at the time. And I confess before God and to you that many of those programs I bought into and promoted in those wonderful places I had been appointed. In some cases there would be some change happen in the local church, but it did not last. Churches were changed, but not transformed. And being the well-trained pastor who believed that it was all in the programming, I kept trying more programs. I looked to what was called “successful” churches and tried to adapt their programs to fit our situation. I was smart enough to know that I could not imitate “their” programs but vainly believed that if I adapted them into our context, the church would grow. (But at the time, I wasn’t smart enough to see the big picture.)
Most pastors and local church leaders have some type of definition for what constitutes a “church program”. Allow me to share my definition and hopefully it will give some insights into where I am coming from and where this series is going:
Church Programs are those activities and events that we plan, design and implement in order to maintain the vitality of the local church and which we believe will lead to sustainable church growth.
We all know that the key phrase in this definition is “sustainable church growth”. Here is one of the Top 10 Understatements of all times: Without Sustainable Growth The Local Church Will Die. And for a few decades, this model of sustainable church growth seemed to be working. For a season we could do what the voice told Kevin Costner to do in the movie “Field of Dreams”: “Build it and they will come.” But it became a competition to build the best to reach the most. Since then, mainline churches have for the most part either maintained a plateau (meaning no sustainable growth) or started to decline.
For many congregations it became a blame game. “We don’t have the right programs.” “We don’t have the right staff.” And my favorite excuse, “We’ve got the wrong pastor.” And pastors who long for sustainable church growth have their excuses. “It’s the denominational leaders fault.” “I’m not at the right church.” And my favorite excuse from pastors, “They won’t listen to me.” It is futile to believe that the right programs, right staff, right pastor, or right church is the answer to the decline of the church in the United States. There is something much deeper that we need to consider.
I have found a verse in the Bible that may well explain the current malady in many churches. Normally I opt for the more modern translations, but this is a time when I think the King James Version says it best. The passage is Proverbs 29:18-
Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
Instead of the word “perish”, other translations use phrases such as “they run wild” (NLT); “they stumble all over themselves” (The Message); or “cast off restraint” (NIV). The Hebrew word means all of these but the word “perish” is a word that ought to grab our attention because of the current condition of the church in the United States. When we run wild, stumble all over ourselves, or cast off restraint we step off onto that slippery slope where one thing that kills and prevents sustainable growth leads to another. And so we scratch our heads wondering why all these wonderful programs and leaders are not resulting in vibrant congregations producing sustainable growth.
Well, let’s go back to the first part of this passage: “Where there is no vision“ (emphasis mine). This point is really clear, but I think that if we look at it from The Message, we find some light and deeper understanding. It goes like this: “If people can’t see what God is doing” (emphasis mine). Vision is about seeing what God is doing while programs are about seeing and measuring what we are doing.
Without a clearly defined vision of what God is doing we elevate our programs, at the very least, as a substitute for what God is doing. Or we do something even more sinister-we ask God to bless our efforts as a means to seek God’s approval, or in many cases, as an attempt to change God’s mind. I want to share with you 3 key reasons why maybe, just maybe, we need to allow “our church programs” to die in order to find what will produce vitality in our congregations along with sustainable growth:
1) Church Programs rely on human skills and strengths.
We want the best Children’s Director. We want the best Youth Pastor. We want the best Preacher and Pastor. Why? Because these are the things that programs tell us that we need. Take a moment to think this through before you tar and feather me and burn me at the stake for being a heretic. Sometimes programs take on a life all their own, outside the activity of the Holy Spirit. So much so, that to suggest changing a program will almost create a riot at church business meetings. And, if a program is faltering, then the answer we think is to fire that staff member or pastor and get new ones. I will admit that for a season, these so called “right staff members and pastor” can create some excitement that resembles congregational vitality and will produce seasonal growth. But the sickness returns and they will not provide the long-term sustainable growth that reveals the presence and Kingdom of God.
2) Church Programs put a drain on our limited resources.
Once programs take on a life of their own (meaning they become sacred and are protected from any changes), then our limited resources must be used to sustain the programs. Please notice I said “our limited resources”. Typically church governing bodies see their resources as financial, people, buildings, and time. When these are seen as our only resources, then there is a limited amount of said resources. So, if someone senses that God is moving in a new direction and calls for changes the almost immediate reaction is, “Where is the money going to come from?” “We don’t have the facilities for such a thing.” “We’re already asking so much of our volunteers, they don’t have the time for something else.” When programming reigns supreme, then our limited resources have to be dedicated to that and anything else will just have to wait, or worse–be ignored.
3) Church Programs rarely, if ever, align with what God is doing.
Without a clearly defined vision of what God is doing, our programs may or may not align with what He is doing. When they are aligned, it is either accidental or coincidental. Again, please frame my context properly. I’m talking about when there is no Vision of what God is doing. The focus becomes sustaining the programs at the expense of experiencing vitality and sustaining growth that transforms the hearts of lives of people. When Programs become the “thing”, we assume that it is of God. When we make this assumption it will neither maintain vitality nor produce sustainable growth.
What I am offering in this series of blogs is that there is another way for vitality and sustainable growth to happen in any local church of any size and in any location. It starts with the Vision–The Vision Of What God Is Doing. Many congregations may have a “vision” or even a “vision statement” but a careful examination of it might reveal it is just another way of sustaining our programs–programs that rely on human ingenuity, effort and strength. Next week I will being looking at what real “Vision” looks like, by looking at what “Vision” isn’t. Are you ready to tar and feather me and run me out of town (or pray that I never become “your” pastor)? Please remember my opening comments:
I am not asking you to agree with me, nor do I expect you to change your mind about this subject. But I am asking you to engage in deep thought, reflection and prayer before you dismiss me as either anti-church, a para-church lunatic, or in some cases, the Anti-Christ.
Love God with all your heart. Love others the way God loves you. And make sure all the glory goes to Him.