Monday, August 30, 2010

Scaling Back Strategically

By Brandon O'Brien

Be intentional in the way you plan your church's programs.

One reason larger churches can attract attendees from across a wide geographical region is because they have the resources to offer a little something for everyone. According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, megachurches provide "many ways by which people [can] craft their unique, customized spiritual experience to meet their needs."

Now, it would be easy to accuse megachurches of making life and ministry difficult for the rest of us. But I think the impulse to provide ministries for people of all ages and needs is a good one. In the late 1960s and into the '70s, parachurch movements like Young Life and Campus Crusade were at their peak. This presented a real challenge to local churches; instead of attending church programs, teens were going to parachurch rallies. Churches responded by beginning to offer programs in-house that could compete with these parachurch ministries. The megachurch movement—or church growth movement—which took off in the late 70s and early 80s, drew heavily from parachurch strategies; in a way, they offered a bunch of parachurch ministries under one roof.

Keeping It Lean

Smaller churches simply cannot do this. We don't have the financial resources or the volunteer pool to run a broad schedule of church programs. And yet I feel like we instinctively try to keep up with the bigger churches. So we overtax our resources and our volunteers in order to run the programs we think we have to run in order to be "successful." When that happens, nobody wins.

Instead of running a multitude of generic programs, a better use of resources and energy is to zero in on one or two programs that focus on the unique needs of your local context. A smaller congregation can benefit from learning to value depth over volume. They can channel their limited resources into a smaller number of programs and potentially do these few things with greater depth and effectiveness.

Don't misunderstand me—I think programming is necessary and biblical. I simply think we should be more discriminating about what programs we choose to operate. Acts 6 offers a glimpse of what we might call the first church program ever—an effort to improve the distribution of food to widows. Some widows were being overlooked, and grumbling had begun. To address the issue, the apostles had the people appoint seven elders who would oversee the distribution of food. But there were certain criteria:

1. It met a genuine community need.
2. The men placed in charge were "known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom."
3. It freed the apostles to give their attention "to prayer and the ministry of the word."

Perhaps every program doesn't need to fit all of these criteria. Nevertheless, thinking about our programming in these terms may help us trim excess activities from our already busy schedules.

Focused and Effective

Eleven years ago, Edgewater Baptist Church in Chicago felt called to reach out to its community by meeting a neighborhood need. There were plenty of needs. The neighborhood houses a large gay community, is the American home of a large population of Bosnian refugees, and faces the challenges of homelessness. Given its size—around 130 members—the church realized it needed to focus on only one of these issues. There were already a couple of gay outreach programs in the area and a Bosnian church plant in the neighborhood. One important need that wasn't being addressed was a lack of childcare for less affluent neighbors. The children of working parents had nowhere to go after school until the end of the work day.

So Edgewater Baptist started Safeplace, an afterschool program and summer day camp that provides space and time for kids to do homework, play games, and learn about abstinence, nutrition, and other practical health and safety issues. The church's decision to subsidize tuition has demanded that it streamline its programming. Consequently, Safeplace is Edgewater Baptist's single major ministry. The commitment has paid off. Over 120 kids regularly attend Safeplace during the school year, and there are even more in the summer day camp.

The example of Edgewater Baptist adds a couple more criteria to our screening questions for programs:

1. Is anyone else in our broader community already meeting this need?
2. Are we willing to limit our other activities to make sure this endeavor is a success?

Clarifying Questions

To summarize, here's a sample list of questions you might ask yourself before beginning a new program—or when trying to decide if it is time to discontinue an existing program.

1. Does the program meet a legitimate community need?
2. Do we have qualified and interested people to oversee it, so that the leadership can be committed primarily to "the Word and prayer?"
3. Will it result in the spreading of the Word and the growth of the Kingdom?
4. Is anyone else in our broader community already meeting this need?
5. Are we uniquely gifted to address it?

Determining what programs are right for your church will require developing a better understanding of your ministry context and your congregation. If several of your church members work at a nearby school and others feel compelled to ensure the quality of education for the children in your neighborhood, perhaps your church's unique ministry could focus on adopting the local school and providing mentors, tutors, and scholarships for extracurricular activities. If a majority of your congregation works at the local mill, perhaps your church should consider providing whatever support is necessary and unique to the people in that profession.

—Brandon O'Brien is editor at large for Leadership and author of
The Strategically Small Church (Bethany House, 2010) © 2010 Christianity Today International/


1. Do you currently run any programs that you maintain simply because you feel you are supposed to? List these programs.
2. What resources do you expend (consider both financial resources and volunteers) on programs that are poorly attended or ineffective? How might those resources be better used?
3. If your church could run only one program, what would it be? What do you suspect your congregation is most passionate about and committed to?

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Until next time...share the journey and enjoy the ride!