I’m a devotee the “simple church” concept, but I have experienced just how daunting a task it can be to lead the under-programming of my church. We are inundated constantly with opportunities for activity from other churches (which we don’t want to turn down lest we appear uncooperative and standoffish), advertised “movements” local and national (which are good at getting people excited and distracted), and “good ideas” from our own community (which we are reluctant to deny lest we break someone’s heart). But what all this so often amounts to is a church that is merely busy, and busy does not always equal diligent or faithful.

Here, then, are 10 reasons to under-program a church:

1. You can do a lot of things in a mediocre (or poor) way, or you can do a few things extremely well. Craig Groeschel has some good things to say about this subject. Also check out Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s Simple Church, a book not without its weaknesses but with a strong premise.

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

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.

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 more spiritual YMCA, then, perfect for people who want religious activities on their calendar.

5. Over-programming dilutes actual ministry effectiveness. Because 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.

7. Over-programming creates satisfaction in an illusion of success; meanwhile mission suffers. If a church looks like it’s doing lots of things, we tend to think it’s doing great things for God. When really it may just be providing lots of religious goods and services. This is an unacceptable substitute for a community on mission, but it’s one we accept all the time. And the more we are engaged within the four walls of the church, whether those walls are literal or metaphorical, the less we are engaged in being salt and light. Over-programming reduces the 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 stifles sabbath.

9. Over-programming gets a church further away from the New Testament vision of the local church. Here’s a good test, I think: 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.

10. Over-programming is usually the result of un-self-reflective reflex reactions to perceived needs and 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?”

This is an edited version of a post from the archives.

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40 thoughts on “10 Reasons to Underprogram Your Church”

  1. Dave Moser says:

    Do you have any tips on how to inspire this vision in individuals in a church who might have a favorite program the leadership wants to cut?

    1. Jeff Hensley says:

      exactly! Its a great thing in an idealic world, but we don’t pastor in that world. That’s the hard part.

  2. Kyle says:

    Great Word. I think our church just suffered through some over programming. However I think it’s important to remember that the heart of over programming is that we are passionate and driven to achieve great things for God’s Kingdom. And of course on the other side of over programming is laziness, which we must be equally cautious of.

    I’m curious… How much is too much? What makes it OVER programming? Of course it is different for every culture & demographic, but is there a rule of thumb? 1 church of event a month? 2? Also what if they are event of different ministries such as a youth event and a children event, although they minister to separate groups of people they affect a large group of the same parents.

    This is the conversation our church staff is working through this summer.

  3. Chris Gagner says:

    Kyle, I personally have never been a big fan of “church events”. Maybe it’s just my taste. I don’t see the need in using business-like marketing techniques to attract people to come and hear about Christ.

    When I think about the early church, I don’t generally imagine them holding a youth retreat or chili-cookoff in order to tell others about Jesus.

  4. Joshua Kolo says:

    Sir,may God continue to be with you.I think the devil has no problem seeing the church busy with “programmes” as long as the people are not taught the truths of God.A section of the church has become programmes-centered and programmes-driven.These programmes only “pump up the people”.

  5. Gregg says:

    Remember the words of THE DISCIPLE’S PRAYER- “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” The PROGRAM may be the greatest hinderance to knowing, understanding, obeying, and doing the will of God. Jesus said, “I do only what I see and hear the Father doing and saying. Follow me! Only those who do the will of God . . . ” Teach me how to love God, show me how to love my neighbor, take me by the hand, guide me into practicing the scriptural “one anothers”. O how sad, the traditions of men which lead us astray.

  6. Sarah Guild says:

    Appreciate this. It also seems that the rest that Jesus took and commanded us to take gets lost in the a-rhythmic pace of constant programming. In rest, we hear the voice of God, abide with him… and out of that abiding comes our worship of our Lord and our love of neighbor. I am impatient and short-tempered without rest in my Lord.

  7. Mark says:

    From my fairly limited experiences with various churches, a decrease in programs has always meant an increase in actual gospel ministry. It’s very easy to think that being involved in a program is equivalent to doing Christian ministry. While it can be the same, in many cases the program replaces gospel ministry with pointless busy work. When a church has one committee for every 3 people, it’s time to start cutting.

  8. Matt Herron says:

    I agree with this post a lot. As a youth pastor in my church, how would I influence the other leaders and the church as a whole that this is the better direction. The thing I run into and am frustrated with a lot is that people want to see “things happen” but when it comes to getting volunteers and people willing to help, it is like pulling teeth at times. It’s frustrating. We almost were not able to have our VBS this summer due to lack of volunteers. The Lord provided, but it was frustrating.

  9. Cindy says:

    The New Testament is our blue print for the church.We need to go back and see how church was done.There seems to be way too much fluff now.We have turned the church into an organization which it was never meant to be.

  10. Robert says:

    I became pastor of a smaller PCA church five years ago. It was over-programmed and over-staffed because it was trying to attract families, especially families with small children. Yet, there were hardly any of those. Why? There were many spiritual and practical reasons.

    What fixed it? Church discipline. What? Yes.

    We had outstanding sin issues in the church (among leadership and staff and members) that grew in magnitude (or volume, I’m not sure which!) to the point where after a year of patient pleading and prayer and nice talks over tea and “Oh, I understand, we won’t do that any more” discussions, Matthew 18 and Galatians 5 became critical to obey in a timely manner.

    As soon as we started practicing church discipline, embracing this as a means of grace to our hurting church and hurting Christians, there was a dramatic shift away from programs because everyone left who thought programs were key to growth and health. Everyone who was being paid to handle the administration of those programs left. Everyone who had been sent for puppet ministry training and had embraced that as core to their life–gone.

    This is a partial summary of a complicated situation, but you see my point. It wasn’t about programs. It was about a church with diluted resources, spending itself on business when the core functions of the church had been compromised.

    Now, 3 years after the surgical operation of the Holy Spirit (that we call a church split) we are thinking of adding some truly needed processes to certain areas of our church that we seem to need. And with the right people with the right goals, we think it’s going to work fine.

    Of course, ask me again in a year and I may be sorry.

  11. Dean P says:

    I agree with this in a general way, but at the same time underprograming in extreme has it’s problems too. Sometime we can throw the baby out with the bath water. I’ve been in both extremes and extreme under programming can be just as crippling to the church as one that has too many programming. Not to be cliche but there is a balance.

  12. Tom Cannon says:

    As the pastor of a church committed to minimal programming I can both affirm and caution here. Previous comments have done well to suggest that this way makes sense and is biblically-informed. But do not underestimate the appeal that multi-programmed churches have, especially as faux-hipsters (who jump on this idea right away) get married, have kids and those kids reach school age. Expect to lose good people who just can’t resist the tractor beam of busyness and the Type A Suburban lifestyle (which can still be had while living in gentrified neighborhoods and reading Paste magazine.)

  13. Paul says:

    Acts 2:
    [42] And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. [43] And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. [44] And all who believed were together and had all things in common. [45] And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. [46] And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, [47] praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

    The apostolic church had no need for multiplying special programs.

  14. Jason says:

    Thanks, JR. GREAT stuff here…it deserves a wider hearing.

  15. Margie Fisher says:

    I’m glad all you astute folks understand so well what he is talking aobut. This is over-all an ambiguous poorly written aritcle where he doesn’t make his point well at all.

  16. Joel Fischer says:

    An interesting article but not really well explained.

    The sports teams have no problem over programming so Sunday becomes the day we take our children to their games.

    The schools have no problems with over programming with plenty of homework, sports, clubs, volunteer projects, etc.

    So does the church pull back and meet one hour each Sunday? Let’s drop teaching, worship, and various other programmes cause we are over programmed.

    You can’t say the early church was not over programmed – in many cases that was the family life.

    Be specific – what is over programming and why is it – because church gets in the way of the rest of our life?

  17. Sarah says:

    Weeks and weeks late to comment on this, and probably no one will even see this… BUT, reading this today has really sparked some stray thoughts I’ve never drawn together.

    Although the Simple Church movement seems very excellently focused on
    returning to the roots of the New Testament Church, I believe history will show it to be just another pendulum swing. The red flag should wave whenever we as Christians identify some “system” (or in this case, “non-system”) for a more authentically “Christlike” body of believers. From my experience, practically speaking the Simple Church movement only fosters laziness and exclusivity. If our hearts weren’t so sinful, in theory it might work better! But sadly, as we learned in grade school – objects in motion stay in motion, objects at rest stay at rest. Theoretically hearts will be put in motion by the Gospel/Word preached weekly, but when there are no practical places for those hearts to STAY in motion throughout the week aided by wise leadership, fears/popularity contests/general busy-ness will win out. Inertia at best, stagnancy and disease/decomposition at worst. Programming is not the enemy. It should merely be a neutral medium where ministry CAN take place. Where people who don’t know one another can come together with shared purpose and serve the body and the community. Without neutral structures like programs, the weak and insecure rarely step up. The Type A’s go on unchecked and what groups exist soon become personality cults. Programs and systems are checks and balances for our humanness and can bring glory to God. Not to mention that the apostles specifically set up programs in the New Testament Church – forming leadership hierarchy for ministry, instructing men and women in intentional service to the needy/hurting.

    Yes over-programming is a danger, but could it be that throwing the baby out with the bathwater is at the very least equally problematic?

  18. Jake says:

    I see an equal danger in ‘underprogramming’ a church. Paul’s discussion of the body in 1 Cor. 12 presents a challenge to every pastor: “Are you enabling every gift to be expressed?”

    Personally, as a person with a preacher/teacher ‘gift set’, it’s easy for me to forget the ‘mercy’ oriented ministries (caring for disabled, widows, prison ministry) etc. that can tangibly demonstrate Christ’s love. Yet James says this is what true religions is.

    Also, I know for me, as with many pastors, administration is not high in my skill set. That makes a simple ‘Sunday Sermon and Small Group’ approach even more enticing. But those two ministries are not enough to express the breadth of diversity within our church’s congregation.

    I think motive is the deciding factor. What does the ‘program’ exist to do? Why was it created? Is it’s goal biblical? Is it the means or the goal that is flawed? If it needs to end, should another program replace it that correctly meets the need in a biblical way?

  19. Mary Moser says:

    I suspect that small groups exist only in overly large churches. Overly large churches, imo, should break up and start more churches. I don’t want to be tied to a small group myself. I want to know everybody in my church.

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Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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