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Two questions for church planning

Of the several factors that go into church program planning, four need to be abandoned right away.

We’ve always done this.

We can’t stand the whining and conflict that will ensue if we drop a program.

 It doesn’t cost much money, so why not continue it?

 New ideas are too expensive.

Think about it. In 1850, the United States had always had slavery — did that make it worth continuing? Women had no rights — worth perpetuating? Churches forced the poor to sit in special galleries or to have their own churches — accomplishing anything?

Progress didn’t come from perpetuating the known, but from asking two questions:

  • Is it working?
  • Is it worthy?

Those are the two questions that ought to guide church planning today.

Our record on asking the is-it-working question is spotty. In many cases, we just don’t know if something is working. We don’t have the metrics to measure success or failure, or to get inside outcomes and understand their meaning. And we often lack the courage to probe.

If you look at 70 years of statistics (if you can even find them!) you will see that Sunday worship stopped working as a growth tool and community builder more than 50 years ago. So did Sunday school. We insist on not seeing that, because remaining members enjoy Sunday worship and can’t imagine not emphasizing it.

As a result, the majority of church resources goes into Sunday morning — fulfilling the functional definition of insanity, namely, doing the same thing over and over and expecting it to have a different outcome. Those resources could be better spent on membership development, communications and mission work serving new constituencies.

Even beloved programs should be open to scrutiny. They consume resources and prevent other activities from happening. If the annual Christmas bazaar functionally died a decade or two ago, why continue it? If the Sunday sermon has become an icon, signifying the membership’s intellectual heft and the pastor’s excellence, but the pews are emptying, the pastor is frustrated and few lives seem to be changing, why perpetuate the sermon’s centrality?

Everything we do can be measured. We can tell whether a program is growing or shrinking, having impact or wasting time. Our mantra should be: If it isn’t working, stop doing it.

The worthiness question is more difficult to address. We have many fervent constituencies that believe their program simply must happen. They often believe that a strong foothold in budget allocation and staff attention is proof they have accomplished something. Programs, however, don’t exist to spend money. They have work to accomplish, lives to change, a society to make better. Much of that has nothing to do with financial support. It has to do with engaging people.

Money should be spent on things that only money can accomplish, like deploying effective technology in communications. People’s time and talents are different. We squander good will – and we hurt people – when 

we deploy human assets to activities that have no significant impact, but are merely a habit no one has the heart to let go.

TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.