The Problem with Programs (or Bigger is No Longer Better)
One of the great lies of modern society is “one size fits all.” With the disparity in people’s sizes increasing (read: many of us are getting bigger and bigger), “one size fits all” is becoming less and less true.
The same holds true for the church.
For years, in addition to buying the specious “bigger is better,” we have been addicted to a one-size-fits-all mentality in the church. It’s called “programs.” The problem is, people aren’t “one size fits all”… and that’s why programs are so awful. They assume just that.
Here’s the way to enter our community. Here’s the way to work into leadership and grow in your relationship with God here.
Whether I am a young suburban/middle class, well-educated female, or a Vietnam vet from inner city Detroit, most churches tend to assume that my spiritual needs and progress will be strikingly similar.
And what other way is there to do it? When you are shuffling 3,000 or 10,000 or (good Lord!) 25,000 people (darn that Joel Osteen!) around the bases, you have to standardize. Everyone gets pretty much the same thing, regardless of whether that’s what they need or not.
True story: I had just become the youth pastor of a church here in Portland, when I attended my first “business meeting.” At the first vote, I raised my hand in affirmation. The church clerk looked at me and said “What are you doing?”
“Voting!” I said.
“No you’re not,” says she. “You’re not a member.”
“I’m…uh… but… I’m a pastor.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “You haven’t taken the membership class.”
Structure can be helpful or it can stifle and kill the very thing we hope it will bring- individual spiritual growth and vitality. My hope is that in this emerging context, pastors will be able to stop trying to program spiritual formation, stop trying to be so many things that God has not called us to be and start being the thing our people really need us to be… shepherds.
But if pastors are ever to be able to abandon the role of CEO, programmer, manager, game developer, party planner, ad nauseam and get back to the business of being shepherds… of being spiritual directors… it’s going to mean some hard choices and the slaying of certain sacred cows.
The first (and biggest) is the sacred cow of size. If 100 people in your church are good, then 1,000 must be great, and 10,000 must surely be a sign that God is blessing.
Well, that may or not be true (I know cults that have had churches in the thousands), but if the biblical principle/example Christ set for us is that a shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, how in the world can that happen when our community gets over a certain size? I’m still haunted by a phrase I heard a pastor say once: “You look familiar… am I your pastor?”
No- I can’t share intimate space with everyone in my congregation. I can’t even relate personally to all of them.
But when we allow things to get to such a size that we have to standardize the relationship of the community to the person (and that’s what a program does), that we no longer have the ability to be spiritual directors who have time for people… something’s wrong. I was just talking to a friend who’s leaving a big church where he’s on staff to plant one near us… he had to wait two months to get on his senior pastor’s calendar. This is the same pastor who once related to me that he told his staff not to spend too much time in pastoral counseling because “We pay you to run a ministry, not be with people.”
Not everyone needs Class 101, Class 201, Class 301 in that order. Some don’t need them at all. What some (most?) people need is someone in their life who understands shepherding, who understands spiritual direction: listening to someone’s story, hearing the threads of what God is doing in that person’s life and then helping them to see and take the next step in their spiritual growth. Obviously, this will look very different in each individual’s life. But how in the world will we ever know, unless we know them?
And how will we know them if we get so large that we make it a practical impossibility?
Doesn’t it make sense to stay small through continued growth and the planting of new church communities? To at least make it possible for everyone in a community to be known, and known well? To make it possible for the pastors and elders to do the actual job entrusted to them- making sure that the spiritual care/nurture/and teaching of the individuals in their church is happening?
I think a lot of sheep are tired of being processed through the system. I think they are crying out for someone to bring some individualized spiritual nurture to their lives.
I’m not saying this is an impossibility in a big church. But don’t tell me it’s not harder! Because I know from experience that large church size makes individual spiritual direction a heck of a lot harder… and here’s what it comes down to: is that shiny new building really worth the spiritual cost in the lives of our communities? Is it really worth the people who inevitably slip through the cracks and out the back door? And isn’t it true that the bigger the church, the bigger the cracks… the bigger the back door?
But big churches can “do” so much more than small ones! Not if the small ones stay connected. Can’t 10 churches of 200 together do the same kinds of things (run a free clinic, a food pantry, etc.) that 1 church of 2,000 can do? And with less overhead, debt, etc?
I know a church who’s in a $40,000,000 building project. The pastor and staff are weighed down under the strain of debt, fundraising, people leaving, etc… The “Largest Church in America” (not Willow Creek) which is buying and relocating to their city’s sports center has this on their website: “Q: What was the total project cost? A: The initial project cost will be approximately $75 million. We anticipate $40 million to be raised from the current church family and $35 million from future growth and friends of the ministry.”
Aye Carumba! That money would buy a lot of AIDS medicine, feed a lot of people… Anything but buy a sports center so we can be the biggest dog on the block- a church of 25,000.
I may be totally off base here. And yes- I’m cynical and my brush is exceedingly wide.
But we all believe in church planting, don’t we? Those of us who are called pastors would like to actually be pastors wouldn’t we? We’d all like to know the people sitting in the pews (or chairs or couches or bean bags depending on where you are at in the spectrum of pomo-ness) wouldn’t we? We’d all like to know that if the people in our care need an individualized approach to spiritual growth that’s a possibility, wouldn’t we? We’d all like to make those “cracks” that people fall through as small as is humanly possible, wouldn’t we?
So… why is this so hard? Stop trying to find the program that will help your people grow and give them what they really need- your attention. Grow continually. Stay small. Share resources. Plant churches.
Bob Hyatt : the evergreen community. http://evergreenlife.org