10 Reasons Why You Should Underprogram Your Church

by Jared C. Wilson October 26, 2015

Nearly every evangelical, when pressed, would insist that the church is people, not a place. A building is not a church. A set of programs is not a church. A structure is not a church. Christians together are the church. A local church is a local community of Christians covenanting together under the biblical pattern of sacraments, fellowship, discipleship, authority, and mission.

But surely this is harder to say with integrity in the bloated attractional church . . . If the church is people, then the organizational machine in a local congregation should be considered expendable. The organization may dissolve but the church will remain, so long as the Spirit indwells his people.
Yet many of those doing the attractional model are very fearful of the organization dissolving. There are personal visions and aspirations at stake; there is money at stake; there are buildings involved; there are lots of programs that are considered successful. The enterprise is predicated upon the longevity, the bigness, the success of the enterprise.

The divide is illustrated even in the way these congregations multiply. A simple church can be more passionate about church planting, because a simpler church is easier to replicate and because it is seen as more preferable to send a growing number of people out to start a new work than to face the difficulty of accommodating more people in the original community. (This doesn’t mean the simple church doesn’t value the new people who come! It only means that they do not value institutional expansion as much as they value missional expansion.) The attractional church is evidently and increasingly passionate about satellite campuses, video venues, church branding and the leadership’s platforms in the public, “strategic partnerships,” and the like. When an attractional church multiplies, the results more resemble franchises than church plants.

Attractional churches often believe they have something unique, something marketable, something within their organizational machine or presentation that can be sold, shared, or otherwise disseminated in order to expand the reputation, influence—again, the brand—of the local church name and structure. When this happens, it puts more and more of a stake in the organization itself. The church is seen as synonymous with the organization, the name, the leaders, the production. Much is done, therefore, to keep this enterprise running and growing.

But a simple church sees all that will pass away in the age to come as expendable in the here and now.

As the attractional church accumulates more complexity, it becomes more rigid, despite all its claims to innovation and cultural relevance. And as more programmatic development takes place, the more inwardly focused the church must necessarily become. Compare the budgets of large attractional churches. How much is often dedicated to outward ministry, and how much, by contrast, goes to personnel, marketing, and overhead? That a church could, as a recent example, spend more than $200,000 marketing the pastor’s latest book says a lot about which basket its eggs are in. That is a huge investment in the platform of the lead guy. The church has itself become synonymous with the pastor’s leadership, his voice, his personal “brand.” That is one of the hallmarks of the ever-complicating attractional church.

The simple church, on the other hand, while still maintaining biblical order and structure, is freer and more agile in its attempts to treat the congregation like a body, not a machine. It has different means of measurement, different gauges of success. As the attractional church is overtaken by the business model, where quantifiable results are expected in short periods of time, the simple church adopts an approach to church growth that is more reflective of farming, of cultivation. While the attractional church expects its proven methods and powerful programs to produce results, the simple church focuses simply on the long-term investments in growth and trusts the Spirit to produce growth in his time.

The simple church follows the direction not of the shifting winds of the culture but of the surprising currents of the Spirit. Its attention is not first to the newspaper but to the gospel. Therefore, it is able to cast off that which entangles it, even the religious nets of its own devising for the fishing for men, and follow Christ wherever he may go. The simple church is missionally much more nimble than the attractional church.

Why You Should Under-Program Your Church

Having hopefully established the value of church simplification, here are ten further thoughts to reiterate and elaborate on the concept of under-programming:

1. You can do a lot of things in a mediocre way, or you can do a few things extremely well.

The over-programmed church struggles with the pursuit of excellence because its energy and focus are so scattershot. Do you remember when McDonald’s offered pizza? I do, but I’d rather not. They realized pretty quickly they ought to stick to the classic McDonald’s fare. They could not pull off pizza like restaurants dedicated to pizza could. Similarly, the church needs to stick to what the Bible actually tells us to do, and what the Bible actually tells us to do is not very complicated. It’s difficult, sure. But not complicated.

2. Over-programming creates an illusion of fruitfulness that may just be busyness.

A bustling crowd may not be spiritually changed or engaged in mission at all. And as our flesh cries out for works, many times filling our programs with eager, even servant-minded people is a way to appeal to self-righteousness. Like those breathless bones rustling about in Ezekiel 37, the activity may signal a life that isn’t real. An over-programmed church creates an illusion of fruitfulness that belies reality.

3. Over-programming is a detriment to single-mindedness in a community.

If we’re all busy engaging our interests in and pursuits of different things, we will have a harder time enjoying the “one accord” prescribed by the New Testament. The continued compartmentalization and segmenting of the church is not healthy either. It is harder to be the church when we are sequestered out into programs or groups centered on specific demographics or interests. If we can’t engage in mission with brothers and sisters who may not share our age, social status, or personal hobbies and interests, we miss out on the important enjoyment together of the Christ we have in common.

4. Over-programming runs the risk of turning a church into a host of extracurricular activities, mirroring the “type A family” mode of suburban achievers.

The church can become a grocery store or merely a more spiritual YMCA—perfect for people who want religious activities on their calendar. The more we turn the church into a provider of goods and services, the more we aid and abet the consumeristic spirituality of our congregation, and the more we feed their self-righteous moralism and their relegating of their faith to a “to do” item in their weekly schedule.

5. Over-programming dilutes actual ministry effectiveness.

It can overextend leaders, increase administration, tax the time of church members, and sap financial and material resources from churches.

6. Over-programming leads to segmentation among ages, life stages, and affinities, which can create divisions in a church body.

Certainly there are legitimate reasons for gathering according to “likenesses,” but many times increasing the number of programs means increasing the ways and frequencies of these separations. Pervasive segmentation is not good for church unity or spiritual growth. It also tempts a church to begin catering to a particular demographic as more valuable than others, determining that market share among demographics with cultural currency (or actual currency!) is preferable to ministry among other groups. This kind of thinking is antithetical to that of Christ’s mission to the least, last, and lost.

7. Over-programming stifles mission.

The more we are engaged within the four walls of the church or simply within the “walls” of a church program, the less we are engaged in being salt and light. Over-programming reduces access to and opportunities with my neighbors.

8. Over-programming reduces margin in the lives of church members.

It’s a fast track to burnout for both volunteers and attendees, and it implicitly pushes out Sabbath rest.

9. Over-programming gets a church further away from the New Testament vision of the local church.

Here’s a good test: take a look at a typical over-programmed church’s calendar and see how many of the activities resemble things seen in the New Testament. This doesn’t mean that every extrabiblical program is an invalid expression of biblical commands and expectations. But many are. And many of the ones that aren’t, serve largely as distractions from the few things the Bible actually calls us to do.

10. Over-programming is usually the result of unself-reflective reflex reactions to perceived needs, and an inability to kill sacred cows that are actually already dead.

Always ask “Should we?” before you ask “Can we?” Always ask “Will this please God?” before you ask “Will this please our people?” Always ask “Will this meet a need?” before you ask “Will this meet a demand?”

As in all things, every church needs someone in the room where the thinking caps are kept, with the authorization to say, “That’s not a good idea.”

And while y’all are in that room, let that guy take up the thinking caps and hand out the shepherds’ staffs.

(excerpted from Jared C. Wilson, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo)

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