Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Solving the problems of church in a post-program era

"Surveying a congregation about the kinds of programs they want will not help congregations be effective." (John Wimberly)
If you are like me, as a church-leader you see-saw back and forth, one day convinced you have finally landed on the solution to all the woes of community organizing, then later that afternoon slightly despondent because you have discovered you actually have no idea what you're doing.

21st century church is the best of times and the worst of times. We get the chance to try out new things we've rarely attempted. And we have no idea what we're doing.

I recently posted a link to an article at the Congregational Consulting Group--"Is the Era of the 'Program Church' Over?"--in our church Facebook group. It garnered a lively discussion.

For one, it simply offered relief. One single mom said it made her cry, simply to be understood. It also resulted in a lively discussion about introversion, rest, and play, and how church relates to those aspects of life.

We ended up with some rather intriguing proposals. 

What about a church "Read-In" where everyone just brings a book and reads together? 

Or a big parallel play Lego session? 

Or hammocking?

Discussions around programs and church always revive an age-old question: What is the church for?

John Wimberly's basic thesis is simple. As people become over-committed, and have more and more opportunities to serve and attend programs in their communities, churches will need to focus on their particular niche: 
"There is still a need for programming, but it needs to be focused on deepening our members’ spiritual lives, creating small, intimate communities, and offering hands-on mission opportunities."
Spiritual life. Intimate community. Mission opportunities.

The article inspired me to tighten up my own elevator speech answering the question: What is church for?

I want us as a congregation to a) do life together, b) identify a shared mission and equip ourselves for pursuing it, and c) reach new people with the gospel.

I think it really is that simple. For better or worse, I think church is going well if people show up to spend quality time together, share a common mission into which they throw their energy (especially transformative work focused on justice and new life), and reach out to new people to share the gospel.

My parishioners were right, then, to ask about rest. Where is rest in that formula? What does play look like? How does an introvert fit in? What if you're feeling over-whelmed and just barely managing everything the world is already throwing at you?

In the program model of church, you just offer a wide array of programs to meet the felt needs of each kind of person in your congregation. 

If we move beyond the program model, what does "engagement" look like? How do we measure effectiveness if people are doing their ministry all over the place but it isn't observable directly where the church gathers?

This leads me to offer a series of suggestions. I think these are the concrete forms church is likely to take in a post-program era. I'm praying these suggestions, which I encourage for the wider church, might also take root in my own faith community.

  • Worship without walls: The next worship service your church starts won't be initiated by church staff or the pastor or the worship committee. Instead, a family in your church will simply start a house-church worship service, and invite their neighbors. They'll do three things in this smaller missional community: worship, do life together, and identify a common mission on which to focus. And they won't need the pastor to be there, because it's not rocket science to put together some bread and wine and speak some words of blessing over the communion meal.
  • From members to mission partners: You'll find another word other than "member" for those who share mission with you in your congregation. People will stop saying, "I go to Good Shepherd" and will instead say "I serve at Good Shepherd." They'll feel empowered to start things without asking permission. They won't get frustrated if the church isn't doing something they want it to do, because they know they can just do it themselves. And they will.
  • Embedded church: Instead of going to church events and inviting their friends, increasingly they'll simply engage in their volunteer work while articulating to those with whom they serve, "I'm here because Jesus was raised from the dead."
  • From programs to protest: Taking a stand, having a voice, community organizing, influencing decision-making at the local, state, and national level will be increasing part of what the church does. 
  • One-on-ones: All community organizers know that although programs and rallies are great, it's the one-on-one that changes the world. Last week our preschool class at church was a model of how the church can be.  A mom was on the floor reading, another was holding one of our special needs kids, another mom was at the table working on something and another child with his mom and aide were on the floor listening. Spiritual formation happens in these intimate moments, and friendships are forged.
  • Take risks: On average faith communities are far too risk averse. In the post-program era, churches will reduce the number of comfortable events they host in their own place, and instead they will take the risk of going to be with people far different from them, those who speak another language, live a different lifestyle, practice another faith. To do this well, they will also have to study. They will need to acquire the languages and skills necessary to successfully navigate the risks of such cross-cultural engagement. 
  • Read and pray: I know we're in a media saturated environment these days, and most people get their bible from the sermon and worship, if they get any bible at all. But if the Reformation taught us anything, it was that faith is energized by study conducted in the vernacular. So the church will take advantage of its incredible opportunity to meet Christ in the Scripture, and together in prayer. It's just they'll do it on their smart phones, and share the prayers on Instagram.


  1. This is great. The only thing I would add is that I think there needs to a be a place where leaders of this efforts are formed in Gospel-fluency. There is such a deficit of "speaking the truth in love" to one another (and by that, I mean speaking the Gospel to one another) amongst the laity. When we send disciples out into these various places you point out, the hope is that we are sending disciples of Jesus, not of something else.

  2. This is so spot on. I run into the problem that the transactional Christian church model is so ingrained in our people so deeply, that it is impossible to picture another way of doing church. Anything transformational feels like it is not what we do, not our job. Becoming a mission partner is as foreign as trying to get someone shopping at Sam's club to clean the bathroom. They cannot picture church as a place to serve. And having no point of reference for house church, group play, all the rest, while I would be ALL aboard, I am also fairly certain I may be the only one to show up. I believe the church will survive this ditch we've run aground upon, and the other side of the ditch will be beautiful and will look a lot like what you describe, but there will be quite the heap of bodies in the ditch of people who never made it. Makes me grieve. Ho well...

  3. Great response to a good article. But what would it be like if we had a more ecumenical elevator pitch than "I am here because Jesus was raised from the dead?" I think that we need to to be able to say "I am Christian and I am here because I am trying to live up to Jesus's call to love my fellow humans." Our theology is important. However, it is our actions that help unfold the Kingdom of God, not our faith. Faith and theological standpoints may inspire the faithful, but the unchurched need to feel our good deeds, not hear our sermonizing.

    1. Faith and action are inseparable. In approaching the unchurched I find that serving that person to meet their needs, and thus providing an example of Christ is usually followed by the question "Why?" This is the lead in needed to then share your faith in Jesus.