Eric Geiger - a Husband, Father, Author, Vice-President of LifeWay Church Resources


Do Your Programs Justify Themselves?

A plethora of church programs is not an indicator of church health and vitality. A busy calendar does not equate with transformation. A long list of church programs “you must not miss” does not make a church more effective.

In fact, the opposite is often true. Too many programs, too much activity, divides the energy of people and sends people in a multitude of directions. A busy calendar can fill schedules without filling hearts. It is ironic that some pastors have preached “If Satan cannot get you to sin, he will just get you busy” while offering more and more programs to keep the church busy. A.W. Tozer wrote about how church programs can “justify themselves”:

In an effort to get the work of the Lord done, we often lose contact with the Lord of the work and quite literally wear our people out as well. 

I have heard more than one pastor boast that his church was a “live” one, pointing to the printed calendar as proof—something on every night and several meetings during the day… A great many of these time-consuming activities are useless and others plain ridiculous. “But,” say the eager beavers, “they provide fellowship and hold our people together.”

If the many activities engaged in by the average church led to the salvation of sinners and the perfecting of believers, they would justify themselves easily and triumphantly, but they do not.

A program justifies itself, according to Tozer, if it leads to salvation of sinners and perfecting of believers. Perhaps leaders need to think a bit differently at times. Instead of putting the burden on a person to prove why a program should be eliminated, what if we put the burden on a program for why it is necessary? Instead of needing to build a case for why something should be taken off the calendar, what if the burden were placed on the program to prove why it should remain?


Burying a Program

Since writing Simple Church with my boss, Thom Rainer, a common question has been “How can we eliminate a program or an event?” Those who ask the question often know that a program on their church calendar accomplishes very little for the kingdom and is not aligned with the mission of their church. But they wrestle with the impact that canceling a program or event will have on the people they serve.

The reality is that canceling a program or event is very difficult, often painful. Several years ago when Google began to skyrocket and Yahoo plummeted, people wondered why Yahoo did not merely simplify their homepage. Why did they not learn from the simplicity of Google and streamline? A Google executive responded that it would be impossible for Yahoo to do so because behind every link was a “shareholder or a stakeholder.” Someone paid for those links or some team invested years in the ideas represented by each link. The same is true in a church program. Behind every program is a shareholder or stakeholder—someone who invested and people who love the program or event.

While burying a program is difficult, it is often necessary. Without a proper burial, the church will continue to rob energy, resources, and attention from more important programs merely to keep the unnecessary ones afloat. German philosopher Goethe wisely stated, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:15-16a, “Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk—not as unwise people but as wise—making the most of the time.” Paul could have used the word chronos for time—the word we get “chronological” from, a word that speaks of time in general terms. But Paul used the word kairos, which speaks of time in terms of the short amount of predetermined time that we have to steward while living. In other words, you only have so much time—so live wisely. Don’t waste time and resources funding, promoting, pushing, or resourcing something that steals energy from the best.

As you move toward burying a program, here are three lessons I have learned from both observation and experience:

1. Affirm shared values.

Before you cancel a program, do some digging on the original intent and motivation of the program. What need was being addressed? What was the heart of the leadership? Find the values that initiated the program and affirm the ones that are important to your church. Show how the new future without the program will be a continued expression of those values. Show how the original redeemable motivation behind the program is going to be realized in a new way.

2. Grab the energy of the leaders for the new.

If you cancel an event or program without attempting to grab the energy of the current leaders, realize that their energy will go somewhere. Instead of merely dismissing their investment, invite them to be a part of the future. For example, if you eliminate a specific program because you feel it steals energy from your ongoing group strategy, invite the leaders to be leaders in your groups. Pursue them for the new direction.

3. Be visible.

Change is hard, not only on the people but on the ones instigating the change. After all, the conversations in the hallways aren’t always pleasant. The tension is something we often like to avoid. It is easy to hide in your office during a change initiative.

But be visible. Love people through the change. The conversation in the hallway may end up being redemptive. Ultimately you are making the change for the good of the people you serve, so don’t forget about them in the middle of the process.

Make the most of the limited time you have. Do what is most essential for the kingdom.


Programming and Your Church Strategy

Your church has programs. Or environments. Or whatever it is that you call things where people gather/attend/meet together on a regular basis.

Many church leaders struggle connecting strategy or discipleship process with church programming. It is common for a team to gather to discuss discipleship process or strategy and fail to see implications of their discussions on their weekly programming. Or they almost view the two discussions as mutually exclusive, as if the programming conversation is unspiritual and the discipleship conversation has no bearing on what the church offers. While we must be careful not to equate assimilation with transformation, a wise church leader wants to utilize the church’s programs as tools the Lord will use in the transformation of His people. The programs must be viewed as tools for the people, and not the people as tools to run programs.

When I have met with church leaders on the impact of their discipleship process/strategy on their programming, here are four discussion points I have used:

1)    Program based on your discipleship process

If you have articulated an overarching discipleship process or strategy, line your programs up with your process. Because you don’t want to create a Christian bubble cluttered with a plethora of programs, consider offering one regular program/environment for each phase of your discipleship process. If you over-program early in your discipleship process, people will not have the time to move to other steps in your process.

2)    Clarify the goal(s) of each environment (program)

Let’s assume that a weekend worship gathering and some type of group structure are programs your church offers. Clarify what you desire to see happen in those environments. What are your groups for? Are your leaders trained with those goals in mind?

3)    Design the hand-offs between the programs

In a relay race the most critical part of the race is the hand-off. Teams work extremely hard to ensure the baton is seamlessly handed from one person to another. The people who attend our churches should be treated with more care and passion than a baton. If your church’s process is to move someone from a weekend worship gathering to a small group, consider how effective your hand-off process is. How do you encourage someone to get more involved?

The most effective hand-offs are obvious, easy, and relational (credit to Andy Stanley for 2/3 of the above statement). With groups, here is a broad example of a hand-off that is obvious, easy, and relational.

Obvious: Consistent invitations to get plugged into a small group with a list of open groups in the bulletin. This is obvious, but the hand-off is not yet easy or relational.

Obvious & Easy: Consistent invitations, a list of groups, and time in the worship service to easily sign up for a group.

Obvious, Easy, & Relational: Consistent invitations, a list of groups, and time to meet leaders after the service where leaders can personally invite people to their groups.

Once a strategy is designed, the hand-offs must be continually evaluated and discussed.

4)    Communicate with passion and clarity to the congregation

People will not embrace something they do not understand. They will have a difficult time committing to something that is not clear.

If you need an outside perspective on your mission and strategy, I highly recommend utilizing Auxano. I still occasionally consult churches with Auxano and am proud of how we are helping church leaders.


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