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How to kill a programmatic church

At a recent denominational conference, I found myself at a round table with 12 other ministers. In typical introductory fashion we went around the table saying our name, title, church location — and as the first minister added unprompted — our congregation’s size. While the titles, locations and numbers began to fly, I got bored and allowed my mind to wander; turning to a colleague, we engaged an interesting question: “how can we kill the programmatic church?”

What was apparent at this conference and especially around this table was that most of us were concerned with the institutional maintenance of our ministries that produces the fruit of titles, buildings and numbers. Our institutional mindset has forced us to trade creativity for sustainability, risk for complacency, and evangelism for recruitment.

Therefore my colleague and I started to make a blueprint for our church community in order that we may kill the programmatic church. All it took for us when we got home was three easy steps:

1) Stop paying staff

We did this not to save a few dollars and squeak out yet another tight budget year. Rather the motivation was that employed staff feel the need to fill their hours in order to justify their salaries. As a result our church calendar was filled with poorly attended events because the staff felt compelled to produce activities. Jesus’ call to his disciples was not to attend some event, but to participate in a journey of disciple-making.

194-24cover.jpgTherefore, we stopped employing staff, including ministers, in order that everyone felt the responsibility of disciple-making. When I was considering attending seminary, a mentor had suggested that I bartend alongside my academic pursuits. His intention was for me to be intimately engaged with the world, as I developed a philosophy of ministry. Sadly, I did not heed the advice, and found myself academically trained but culturally inept. When a church ceases employing staff, we stop the insular programmatic machine by allowing the church community to do mission-critical work. Therefore, by reverting to Paul’s tentmaking approach to ministry (or our modern equivalent), we have empowered all members to join the ministries — not programs — that the Holy Spirit has given us the time, energy, passion and vision to pursue.

2) Sell the property and lease it back for Sunday services

Putting the property onto the market was an agonizing decision, but in doing so we addressed the second major reason that churches become programmatic machines. When we have facilities always at our disposal, we overbook and overuse the space because we think that all that matters in disciple-making is whether people break our threshold. We open the doors to a well-decorated event, expecting the masses to show up. In doing so, we forget the biblical story of Luke 14, in which the servants had to compel people to come into the banquet. In the Scriptures we see that Jesus and the disciples would go into the temple, marketplace, a mountain, or wherever the crowds were to proclaim the Gospel. When the early church was getting started, they had to gather in someone’s home, or a community center. After that, the space was then used for families and communities to interact. Both of these approaches would inherently reduce activities to mission-critical components of the church. Selling the property and then leasing it back placed a cost burden on us to consider how and when we truly needed to gather on-site and forced the church to relocate its ministry to the streets, offices and homes.

3) Stop inviting people to come to our church

Once we got the building sold, I was able to make one final plea to the church: Let’s stop inviting people to our programs, because none of the church members were really doing personal invitations anyway. In the past, we had invested a lot of money into passive forms of evangelism, or as everybody else calls it “publicity.” Our communication strategy had been church bulletins, direct mailers, email blasts and websites. It was no wonder we could not generate interest from people whose addresses and emails we did not have. Instead, we asked our church members to stop inviting people here (which they had done years ago without our plea anyway), but instead invite your friends to coffee, lunch or a dinner party at your home. Suddenly we became the evangelist sharing the good news of Jesus Christ’s impact on our personal life around the dinner table. Programs took a back seat to relationships.

After we had successfully completed these tasks and stood back to look at the missional church we had built, I suddenly felt a sharp jab in my ribs. The utopian church my colleague and I had crafted began to dissolve before my eyes as I realized I was still trapped at the denominational conference obsessing about titles, location and attendance. Awakening from my dream, I recognized the deep-rooted challenges of American Christianity within our programmatically obsessed culture. It jabbed into me as if it were a thorn in my flesh. While impractical, embedded deep in that dream is an essential question we must ask ourselves and endeavor to pursue: Are we helping people fall in love with Jesus Christ or are we trying to institutionalize their love for the church? If it’s the latter, then we must creatively discover ways to kill the programmatic church, and allow God to resurrect His Church.

WES BARRY is associate minister for evangelism and administration, First Church, Charlotte, N.C.