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Reflections on the post-program church

Reflections on the post-program church posed the question via an article by John Wimberley:

Is the Era of the “Program Church” Over?

“Everywhere I go,” wrote Wimberly,

I hear complaints from congregational staff and lay leaders that their programs are not well attended….

Leaders say, “There just isn’t the kind of commitment to programs that we used to have.”

But the problem isn’t commitment, but over-commitment, argues Wimberly, a 38-year graduate of congregational ministry.

First, members today are not less committed. Indeed, it is the opposite; they areover-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.

Add to that the broad range of programming offered for adults and children in secular venues these days, and the church is fighting a losing battle if it tries to tempt those people to church with programs of its own. But this is not necessarily bad news.

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.

At the Lutheran Confessions blog, Clint Schnekloth had his own response to the questions posed by Wimberly’s article. He had some new ideas for program-type church events – hammocking, anyone? But he also wanted the church to look at rebalancing the over-committed lifestyle that is squeezing church out – when “church” means a bunch of programs.

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?

Both men agree that criticizing congregants for failing to show up to programs they may say that they want is missing the point of being church – and is not likely to be an appealing message itself. Wimberly concludes,

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.

Read Wimberly’s article here, and Schnekloth’s response here. What do you think? Do you want more programs from your church? Different programs? Fewer or more occasional events? What, after all, is your church for?

Image: Church noticeboard, via wikicommons


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Gary Roberts

As a lay member, who teaches organization design professionally, I’ve always had problems with the model taught in our seminaries that culminates in the “program church.” Its one-size fits all paradigm seems to be overly simplistic and quite often misses the point of church. Rick Warren’s intro page to The Purpose Driven Life seems to provide much better understanding.

“It’s not about you.
The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.
The search for the purpose of life has puzzled people for thousands of years. That’s because we typically begin at the wrong starting point—ourselves. We ask self-centered questions like, “What do I want to be? What should I do with my life? What are my goals, my ambitions, my dreams for my future?”
But focusing on ourselves will never reveal our life’s purpose. The Bible says, “It is God who directs the lives of his creatures; everyone’s life is in his power.”

ken Asel

I came to Episcopal / Jackson Hole (as we rebranded it – not so successfully) in 2003. What we found was exactly as described in the article. We tried the program approach because that was our template, but to no avail. So we went the direction of “why do we serve our community through (insert organization)?”. As rector I had to run interference for a terrific staff who did things differently in small groups. Gradually, the laity started asking for more bible studies of short duration and initiated justice and relief programs directly into the community rather than church based. It continues to thrive after my departure and the church’s profile in the community is unmatched. Hard, but right decision for us.

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