Is the Era of the “Program Church” Over?

by John Wimberly

swiss-army-knife-154314_640Everywhere I go, I hear complaints from congregational staff and lay leaders that their programs are not well attended. These leaders seek input about the kinds of programs members want. But then, too often, when programs are offered, attendance ranges between disappointing and none.

Leaders say, “There just isn’t the kind of commitment to programs that we used to have.” However, I don’t think the problem is a lack of commitment per se. Here’s why:

  • First, members today are not less committed. Indeed, it is the opposite; they are over-committed with responsibilities to family, workplace, and community. They have less time to attend events at church—even if they said on a survey, with the best of intentions, that they would do so.
  • Second, many of the events we sponsor for adults are now also offered (and oftentimes done better) by secular groups. Decades ago, I used to bring well-known speakers to the congregation I served. We drew pretty good crowds both from within the congregation and outside. Today in many communities, those same types of speakers are at the local bookstore every night or can be found online offering free lectures. Our members don’t need their congregation to provide this kind of intellectual stimulation.
  • Third, congregations used to generate some of the highest-quality programs available for children and youth. Today, the options from which parents can choose are so rich in quality and quantity that it is hard, if not impossible, for most congregations to compete. Many congregations still have camping programs for their member families, for example, usually through denominationally organized camps. But today parents attend camp fairs with 50–100 highly specialized camps that offer everything from a week performing Shakespeare to an intense ice hockey experience (in July!).

What is our focus?

All this leads me to question whether the primary focus of congregations, even multi-celled, “program-sized” congregations, should be on generating programs. Or at least I question whether we should offer the same types of programs we did in the past. 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. Even in these areas, we face fierce competition from yoga, meditation, and spiritual retreats of many kinds, and from a plethora of nonprofits doing mission work that used to be the domain primarily of congregations.

In some ways, secular competition to our programs forces us to do what religious congregations can do best—focus on spirituality and mission. Congregations today are liberated to deepen the spiritual lives of their members and teach them the eternal truths of their theological traditions. What does it mean to be a Lutheran, Reform Jew, or Unitarian? No secular group is going to do a better job of helping our members answer questions such as these. The strong competition for our members’ time is an incredible opportunity for us to define more clearly what God is calling our congregation and its members to do in this time and place.

It’s not lack of commitment

As we find out what we can uniquely be and do for our members, I hope we will stop questioning their commitment. It is, quite frankly, disrespectful of the multiple commitments they have. We tell them to be great parents. Well, parenting takes a lot of time … time they don’t have to serve on a committee. We tell them to make the world more just and sustainable. Working with an environmental group or Habitat for Humanity makes a real difference to those ends. But as a result, they may not have as much time to work on the Mission Committee of our congregation.

Surveying a congregation about the kinds of programs they want will not help congregations be effective. Understanding the 21st century—its stresses and opportunities—will make us responsive to the needs of our members. Understanding, rather than criticizing, what our members are doing outside the church with their time, energy and money is crucial. With such an understanding, we can offer them something unique and redemptive.

Congregations in the 21st century are not going to be about generating programs. They are going to be about deepening faith, building community and hands-on mission work.

Mobilizing Congregations , by John WimberlyJohn Wimberly is the author of the new Alban book Mobilizing Congregations: How Teams Can Motivate Members and Get Things DoneHe consults with congregations on issues such as the creation and implementation of strategic plans, congregational growth and the empowering use of endowments. John served congregations for 38 years, thirty of them at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. His quest for continuing personal, spiritual and professional growth led John to complete a PhD in systematic theology and an Executive MBA program.

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