I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of churches over the last several years. In every instance, we always begin by completing an assessment to understand the current health of the church. Through that process, we try to narrow down the core issues that are holding the church back from experiencing health and growth.
With very few exceptions, most of the churches I’ve served have concluded that they are too complex. For some, the complexity has more to do with their governance and how decisions get made. That’s certainly a challenge, but we’ll save that topic for another day. The more common form of complexity has to do with ministry programming.
Churches freely admit they’re over-programmed. They’re trying to do too much.
Since the research is clear that more church activity does not produce spiritual growth, you would think churches would be inclined to tackle this challenge and eliminate competing programs. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Just encouraging leaders to read Simple Church (one of my favorite ministry books) and hoping the complexity will magically fade away doesn’t work.
By the way, that confirms, once again, that hope is not a strategy.
In the coming days, we’re going to share a series of articles to encourage you to take action and eliminate the complexity caused by over-programming. Before our team tackles those next steps, let me try to unpack why churches end up in this place. I think it might help you to understand the steps that may be needed to unravel the complexity.
4 Reasons Churches Become Over-Programmed
1. Churches don’t have a strategy.
Many churches have a mission statement. They know why they exist. They have vision. They know where they believe God has called their ministry to be in the future. What they don’t have is a strategy on how to see that vision get accomplished.
Without a clearly defined strategy, churches naturally gravitate back to what they’ve always done but add on new programs to try to accomplish the new vision. With every iteration of the vision, more things get added, but nothing ever gets subtracted.
2. Churches tend to become insider-focused over time.
This isn’t just a problem for “traditional” churches. This is an issue for every church that has existed for ten years or more. Before long, the people inside the church become a higher priority than reaching those outside the church.
It’s completely understandable. Insiders pay the bills. For fear of making insiders unhappy, churches tend to hold onto ministry programs even if those programs are not producing health and reaching more people.
This is why every church still does Vacation Bible School. When churches we serve are honest about the investment of time and money required to pull off VBS compared to the real results they see, they always wish they could be investing in something else. But every church still offers VBS because insiders expect it.
3. It’s easier for a church to add a program than it is to redefine its strategy.
Let me give you an example. Churches that are reaching many young adults aren’t doing so through a young adults program. They aren’t hiring a young adults director and starting a separate young adults gathering. Instead, they’re reaching a lot of young adults because everything about their strategy, including their weekend services, small groups, serving opportunities, family ministries and everything in between is done with young adults in mind.
To take that approach, you have to define who you are trying to reach, and your whole strategy needs to reflect that focus. That takes work. It will require change. It may offend some church goers. That’s why churches take the easy way out and just launch new programs.
4. Churches without a unified strategy develop ministry silos.
Each ministry is part of the same church, but every ministry is separate. Over time, these ministries start competing with each other for space, money, leadership and volunteers. The primary way ministries compete with each other, though, is for people’s attention. Every program and event requires promotion. More programs mean more promotions.
Churches with a unified strategy, on the other hand, prioritize how to use space, invest money, leverage leaders and engage volunteers. That means the promotions are prioritized as well. They are thinking about reaching more people and helping those people take their next steps toward Christ. Everyone is pulling in the same direction. Instead of every ministry protecting their programs and events, the church decides which programs and events are most needed to effectively fulfill its strategy.
With all of this said, this series may not be for everyone. If your church has figured out how to offer more and more programming to help people become more like Christ, you should continue doing that. If complexity is working for you. Don’t stop. Get more complex.
For the rest of you who feel stuck, there is hope… but it’s going to take work. It’s going to require change. It’s going to take leadership. I hope you’re up for the challenge.