I once visited a church that had around 9,801 different activities. Somewhere around that number. There was even a special program for men whose hobby was smoking meat. I think they were called the Holy Smokers. I’m not totally against church activities and programs. Thanks to some great kids clubs back in the day, I’ve memorized more Bible verses than I would have otherwise. Even though activities can do some good, they can also do some bad—totally without your suspecting it. I call it “death by church activities.” Let me explain.

Death by Church Activities

First of all, we need to find out what a “activity” is. Some people call them “church programs.” Second, we need to find out what may be wrong with program overload. Can there be such a thing as too much of a good thing? Finally, we need to talk about a solution. There is a better way.

This is a long article, so if you don’t want to read the whole thing, you can just watch the video at the end.

What’s an Activity?

I don’t do well with dictionary definitions, so let me try to paint a picture of a church with a lot of activities. By doing so, I think you’ll get the idea of what a program-driven church is.

Imagine that a family moves to a new town, and starts attending a church. They have a couple kids. Mom stays home with the kids. Dad has a decent job. They like the church and decide to “get involved.” So, the dad walks up to one of the church leaders and says, “Hey, we like your church. I think we’d like to get involved.”

“That’s great!” says the leader. “Let me tell you about our children’s program. The kids meet every Saturday morning from 9:30 to about 11:00. They have games, skits, snacks. It’s really awesome. And then we have a new program for guys called Sports4Salvation. You look like a pretty athletic guy, and you’re going to love our softball team. We won the championship last year. I’m sure your wife is going to love our TonsOfMums class. It’s just sort of an informal time where moms get together to study a good Christian book. (I think that they’re studying How to Be a Do-It-All Mom.) Oh, we also have an usher training program. It starts up next week. Anyone who is interested in being an usher—you look like the usher type, by the way—comes to a three day retreat up in the mountains, and we just hang out and learn about being a good usher. We’re a little short on ushers right now. Hey, does your wife like knitting? We’ve got a knitting group we just started, and a lot of the ladies are really enjoying the fellowship, and talking and stuff. My wife says its a good way to learn about what’s going on in everybody’s life at church. Oh, don’t forget to sign your kids up for our Super Summer Splash Space. It’s the VBS program, starting at the end of July. By the way, have you ever thought about hosting a Bible Man Group (we call it “BGM”) in your home? A few guys get together in small groups to study the Bible, and usually have some snacks or beer…and sometimes they watch a football or some UFC. I think you’d be a great fit for a host home. By the way, I don’t know if you guys have any pets, but you may be interested in signing up for our Christian Pet Care program. Since a lot of people are going out of town this summer, we have people sign up to take care of other people’s pets. Just a way of showing that we care, you know. And, let me get you a brochure for the Gospel Discipleship program that’s starting during the school year. We’re going to need you to fill out a few forms, and you can make the check out to the church. It’s just to cover the cost of materials. Hey, there’s a Men’s Breakfast tomorrow morning at 5:00am. I’m sure you’ll want to come to that. We get together for prayer…lots and lots of prayer. And food. So, there’s some good ways to get involved here. By the way, do you like to smoke meat? If so, I’ll tell you about Holy Smokers. Well, I’m so glad you guys are interested in getting involved. And…uh…what was your name again?”

So, perhaps I exaggerate. But you get the point. At the program-driven church, the bulletin is full of two pages of “What’s Happening This Week?” The pre-reel for Sunday morning is full of slides that say “Save the Date,” “Clear your Calendars,” and “Don’t Forget.” Budget items are heavy on activity costs, new curriculum, food, and new books. Pastors are crazy busy. There are never enough volunteers. The buildings are always full of activity. The calendar doesn’t have a blank day on it.

But it’s deeper than all that. All the programs of such churches are just a shell—a flashy, top-heavy, mechanized, monstrous shell—that conceals people. Underneath the shell of church programs, what’s going on? Are people having fun, or are they meeting Jesus? Are people staying busy, or are they being transformed? Are people getting stressed out, or are they growing in Christ? Are people getting the latest gossip, or are they learning the Bible? Are people pretending to have read the last chapter in their book discussion group, or are they actually able to talk to someone about their needs and burdens? A shell of programs can sometimes hide the emptiness inside.

The constant buzz of activity and bustle of church life can desensitize us to the real needs of our hearts. In fact, we can think that we’re being spiritual and productive by hustling thither and yon for church activities, but in fact we’re actually starving for some real growth and change. We’re neglecting real needs, as we rush to make the next meeting. We forsake family unity, and splinter off into age-segregated clubs, cliques, and groups. We rush to every church activity thinking that it’s going to make us better Christians, but really, deep down, we’re not doing so great.

What’s the Problem?

Maybe you can already see the problem.

Program-heavy churches look pretty awesome. They’re big, bustling, active, energetic, and children’s church feels like Disney World. There are youth groups with edgy names like J1BURN (Pretty cool, huh? I made it up. It means “Jesus is 1st, burn out for Him!” You can borrow it, if you want.) And there are clubs for the senior saints with clever names. There are events for every single demographic in the church. There are plenty of activities for everybody.

Even though the program-centric structure is flashy and big, the actual substance and mission of the church (people changing) isn’t doing too well. In fact, all those people who are trying to change are being stymied by all the activity.

Program-centric churches have become so commonplace that it’s hard to conceive of “church” apart from all the activities. The “church” has morphed into an institutionalized entity. Members give their time, effort, talent, and money to maintain the machinery of the institution. Now, instead of thinking of “church” as a body of believers, we tend to think first of programs, services, activities, and curricula.

Program-driven churches can cause major spiritual decline, and it starts with the leadership. The leaders are the ones who have to keep the machine running. Keeping a church going is a tough job, but keeping a church along with 9,801 programs is even harder. Amidst the tornado of budgets, meetings, errands, visits, committees, PowerPoint presentations, organization, staff issues, hiring, firing, repairs, maintenance, and trying to drink enough coffee to stay awake, the leaders start to wear down.

As the leaders wear down, the church goes down, too. There’s no such thing as a leadership problem, without a follower problem. Do you see why? When church leadership crumbles, there will be fallout. Church staff become so busy keeping everything going, that they fail to take time with people. Even the teachers in the church may lack the time to adequately prepare Bible lessons. Leaders may feel that they don’t have time for their own personal Bible study and prayer time. There may be a trickle-down effect as the busy-busy-busy of church life consumes the individuals and families within the church. People may become disillusioned by the lack of vitality behind all the activity.

Program-driven churches can get out of control. Although the church may appear to be thriving, there may actually be a sad dearth of spiritual life in the individuals. People get neglected. People get used. People start to spiritually decline.

What’s the Solution?

Thankfully, there’s a great program that will change all of this.
(Just kidding.)

The remedy to death by church activity isn’t about adding another program. It’s not even about yanking all the activity. It’s about a fundamental shift in ministry philosophy…a thinking shift which eventuates in a seismic shift in ministry practice.

Be aware that a massive change in thinking doesn’t happen quickly or easily. Seismic shifts cause earthquakes. Allow me to shamelessly take some phrases from Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s excellent book, The Trellis and the Vine. The first part of the phrase represents the program-driven mindset. The second part of the phrase explains the new way of thinking:

  • From running programs to building people.
  • From running events to training people.
  • From using people to growing people.
  • From filling gaps to training new workers.
  • From solving problems to helping people make progress.
  • From clinging to ordained ministry to developing team leadership.
  • From focusing on church polity to forging ministry partnerships.
  • From relying on training institutions to establishing local training.
  • From focusing on immediate pressures to aiming for long-term expansion.
  • From engaging in management to engaging in ministry.
  • From seeking church growth to desiring gospel growth.

Those are packed phrases. They may have floated past you like a melodious foreign language, so you may want to read them again.

There’s a common theme to each of the above phrases. It’s a theme that defines the change in thinking. It’s all about people. True, programs are intended to help change people. Eventually, however, the program takes over, and it’s no longer about changing people; it’s about maintaining the program.

As leaders experience a shift in thinking, they begin to focus their time on people, relationships, and discipleship. But it’s not like church leaders need to meet with every person in their church for a one-on-one discipleship time. “Church” is not just about sermons; it’s about people engaging with people—a living, growing, organic, dynamic, authentic community of people. Ideally, discipleship happens among church members, not necessarily mandated and driven by the church’s leaders.

And it doesn’t happen through piling on more programs. It begins with that seismic shift in thinking. It begins by going to the Bible, and reevaluating what church is all about. It begins by understanding the role of the church’s leaders.

To inform His followers how to launch the Church, Jesus said, “Go and make disciples..baptizing them…teaching them.” (Matthew 28:18-20). That command still holds true. Are your ministry efforts true to the command? Is your church engaged in disciple-making, or program-maintaining?

About The Author

Daniel Threlfall has been writing church ministry articles for more than 10 years. With his background and training (M.A., M.Div.), Daniel is passionate about inspiring pastors and volunteers in their service to the King. Daniel is devoted to his family, nerdy about SEO, and drinks coffee with no cream or sugar. Learn more about Daniel at his blog and twitter.

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3 Responses

  1. Troy Heald

    Great article. We are actually doing a bible study during our couples sunday school class over the book “Trellis & The Vine.” Although, I don’t necessarily agree with everything, I definately agree that the shift needs to change. We, as followers of Christ and imitators of Him, need to focus on people and not structure. Christ cared nothing for the “Church” structure of His day. In fact, he often went against that structure if it allowed him to impact people. People ought to be our foremost concern as pastors, church leaders, and church members/participants. After all, we are all desiring to follow Christ, Aren’t we?

  2. Joseph Triplett

    Great article! These are many of the same things that have been weighing heavy upon my own heart and upon the hearts of many young Christians that are looking for an alternative to “church” as usual. Unfortunately, in their search for an alternative to “church” as usual, they have settled for a new genre spin and a new facelift to the church instead of real heart and philosophy change. Pour on a little rev’d up coffee, spiky hair gels and some rocking music and we have found the alternative to “church” as usual, right?

    Wrong! Whether we know it or not, the thing that our hearts really long for is an authenticity that rings true with our souls, an authenticity that rings true with the Bible that we read. No amount of stylistic changes can meet the hunger for authenticity.

    In my humble opinion, the root causes of a program overloaded church are threefold. First, it begins with poor theology in regards to the church. The church is for the believer. Churches that bend over backwards in order to make themselves attractive to the lost or who attempt to meet the felt needs of the lost are unbiblical in their approach. We, as the body of Christ, are the ones who are responsible to reach the lost, not the institution of the church. While I will not wholly attempt to treat this entire misconception here, I will say that many church programs are started with an aim at the lost.

    Believers think that if they have a program set up that will attract the lost to their campus, then they will get a chance to influence them. This is a gross misuse of the church resources. John Piper said that when his church isn’t growing, he doesn’t look to add more programs or a new staff member. Instead, he realizes it is due to a lack of passion for God in the hearts of his people. May the Lord give us a holy passion for reaching the lost without the need for another frilly program.

    Secondly, program overload is a result of poor theology in regards to salvation. Before I go any further, let me say that I am fully reformed in my view of the doctrines of grace. While I am somewhat familiar with ShareFaith’s content, I do not intend in any way to speak on their behalf. With that said, God is going to save the elect and only the elect. He will not fail and not one of his children will be left behind. Hyper-Calvinism is a gross error that chooses to disobey God’s commands to evangelize and lazily rests in the sovereignty of God. While I rest completely in the sovereignty to God to reach his own, I still believe that we are responsible to share his message with the world. So how does this apply to program overload? If I believe that my primary responsibility is to please and obey God, then I can trust him to help my church reach his sheep in his way and in his timing. I do not have to try to evangelize every person with breakneck urgency. Churches that knowingly or unknowingly teach an Arminian view of salvation, put more on their plate than God ever intended. Therefore, they are pulling out all the stops because if they don’t, then someone might go to hell on their watch.

    Some (if any) who read this may stereotype me as a hyper-Calvinist regardless of what I have previously said; therefore, let me offer some evidence of my convictions. Last week, my brothers and I gave out 1,000 tracts in just two hours in downtown Tampa. This past Monday, we gave out another 700 tracts and I spent time speaking with two young men regarding their salvation. In addition, I am currently preparing for the mission field of China. However, I do not believe that any local church needs to justify program overload in the name of evangelism. All our efforts will not increase the population of heaven one iota. Just remain faithful in evangelism trusting God for the results. Don’t overstretch yourself thinking that you are doing God or the lost any favors. God will save those whom he will.

    Finally, program overload is a result of a wrong opinion of success. With all the talk against being numbers oriented, pastors still are heavily influenced by numbers. I grew up in a ministers house and a number of my friends were also PK’s. In addition, I’ve had the privilege of working at a number of local churches. That being said, almost every pastor I know falls back into the numbers game at one time or another. I believe the root of this issue goes much deeper than pastoral pride in big congregations, it is also tied to their own fear of failure. Today, most churches are owned by banks who hold their mortgages. Therefore, churches need people in the pews to exist. Many pastors reason that more programs equal more people and therefore a greater amount of security in the survival of their church.

    Beyond even these reasons, American pastors have definitely accepted the lie that small is bad. If your church is small and you can’t keep up with the other pastors, then you need to add more programs to avoid this awful tragedy. May God deliver our pastor’s from this worldly mentality and return us to a true view of success. What is a true view of success? Obedience is success; plain and simple. Be faithful, be a real church (not a social club), and God will determine the results. I’ve shared this philosophy with pastors in the past, and sadly you know what they have told me? “You’ll never grow a church that way. You’ll always be small.” Yikes, guys! Wake up to the lie you’ve swallowed.

    While I’m sure there are other factors that I have failed to mention, I’d like to offer an alternative philosophy to program overload. House churches.

    House churches have a certain appeal in the face of program overload. However, I know they come with their own set of problems. Many pastors dislike the idea of house churches for two reasons. House churches are small [there’s that horrible word again], and house churches decentralize leadership. The very idea that they wouldn’t be the head honcho over a large group of people is almost too frightening for most pastors to consider.

    I won’t even attempt to try to explain how house churches can effectively work. Many others have written books on the subject and addressed the most common objectives. However let me just say that it seemed to work for the first 300 years of Christianity, so why can’t it work for us now? But of course, back then Christians were poor and unpopular [kinda like Jesus], but we like to maintain our financial comfort and cultural popularity. Leave it up to a professing convert named Constantine to mess up everything with the Edict of Milan in 313. Almost overnight he paved the way for us to become the church of Laodicea–rich and fat. We got our buildings, land and political power, but we lost the simplicity of the church.

    Oh how subtle our enemy is! He gave us what we thought we wanted and robbed us of what we really needed. I’d take one truckload of authenticity over 500 truckloads of programs.

    Give me Christ and may God help our churches!

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