I recently mentioned my disagreement with the authors of Simple Church when it comes to Sunday Bible classes. I think Bible classes are essential toward discipleship. Not sufficient by any means, but essential. But I agree with the authors that church leaders need to work to simplify things for the members.
A church of a given size can only be truly passionate about so many things, and over time, churches tend to accumulate more than they can handle. As a result, members burn out, ministries are done poorly, and members get discouraged.
I once served as part of a committee that supervised the programs of the church, called the “ministries team.” We were fond of saying, “This is where good ideas come to die.” The goal wasn’t to approve good ideas, but to approve only the best ideas and to kill programs that didn’t measure up.
It’s more art than science, but it’s a necessary art for a successful, growing church. And someone has to be willing to play bad guy and say “no” to good ideas that aren’t the best.
It helps if you have an understanding of what it takes for a church to take on a new ministry or project — or keep an existing ministry or project. Here are a few thoughts in that direction —
- The ministry has to fit squarely within the congregation’s vision and mission. Now, the trouble is that most churches have a mission statement that’s so broad that any arguably Christian venture fits. So all the mission statement does is eliminate purely secular, worldly ideas.
- Define the church’s mission or vision in terms of what makes this church uniquely important. Why this church in this place at this time — as opposed to some other church? What makes this church special? (If you aren’t uniquely special, then merge with someone else. You’re wasting God’s resources.)
- All churches have certain base needs that must be met just to be a church in this culture. For example, the worship assembly needs to be done well regardless of your unique vision. If part of your vision is to grow through having a highly attractive worship assembly, then it’s all the more important. But even for a church that’s not worship focused, you can’t be a good church and have a lousy, lazy assembly. And it’s not just the assembly. Make a list of the things you have to do well just to be considered a good church in your local setting — children’s ministry, youth ministry, worship, building maintenance and appearance, proper bookkeeping and accounting … what else? And do them well — and don’t sacrifice them even for whatever you do that makes you uniquely of value to your community.
- Next list all the other programs, events, ministries, efforts, special days, etc. that you do each year. I bet you’ll be astonished. Now go ask your wives or husbands what you left off. Now review your church bulletins for the last year and add the other items you left off. For many churches, the total will be over 50, even over 100.
- Now say some very serious prayers over the list.
- And then ask what you can cut by asking these questions:
- Is it essential just to be a church in this setting?
- Is it essential just to be a scriptural church?
- Is it essential to fulfill what makes us of unique value to the Kingdom and this community?
- Keep what’s essential. Even if these efforts are very difficult to get volunteers for. Even if no one wants to volunteer. Essential means essential.
- Next consider the not-quite essential ministries–
- Do we have a present, real passion for this ministry? If not, kill it. Be nice about it. Explain yourself. But if it’s not essential, and you aren’t excited about it, you’re going to do a lousy job of it. Kill it.
- Is it difficult to get volunteers? Are current volunteers burned out? Are the original champions of the effort no longer involved or no longer even members of the church? Often we keep programs because of great memories of great accomplishments in the past. The past is not the present. Live in the present. Kill all such programs.
- What I just advised you to do will be very hard. Some people will get their feelings hurt. But there will be quiet celebrations among staff and non-staff as the church is no longer wasting energies on projects that aren’t needed and that generate no passion. But you’ll likely still have too many projects.
- Go through the remaining projects and look at the volunteers required to staff them. Look at the money required to fund them. Look at the support they get from the church. Look at the good they do for the Kingdom and the community. And cut whatever it takes to make the work of the church manageable by the leadership and volunteers available. If you don’t, you’ll lose the leaders and volunteers you have to burn out, and you’ll have to cut even more next year. The least painful cuts are the cuts you make today.
- When new ideas comes forward, ask —
- Is this essential just to be a church — in this community or scripturally? If so, you need to do it.
- Is this something the church is passionate about — measured by willingness to volunteer and to donate? If you’re not sure, try it for a year and see how it goes
— if you have the resources to do it right.
- Is this something you have the skills to do right? Can you get the necessary training?
- Is there a leader willing to step up and oversee the program and do it well? or do the elders have to take an essential person from a different program to staff this one? The best ministries come with leaders already in place, not looking for a leader.
A few extra observations.
There are in churches, just as in businesses, economies of scale. A church that’s twice as big as another church can likely manage more than twice as many outreach programs and ministries — because a smaller percentage of church resources have to go to internal efforts. Bigger churches are more outreach minded because they have the extra resources to do more outreach ministries. A small church might struggle just to find enough teachers for Sunday morning Bible classes.
Therefore, a declining church will need to cut ruthlessly to avoid having far more programs than volunteers — and a very discouraged membership. Yes, I said it: cut to grow. You cannot grow if you are overwhelmed.
You can often find leaders and volunteers by working with other congregations. Don’t think of the other churches as competition. You’re all serving the same Master. Cooperate. Sometimes a great ministry needs to be moved to another congregation to thrive — and if you have members who wish to volunteer, they may still do so. But let the church that provides the leadership and the drive have the program. Of course, this means that your leadership must have relationships with other churches that allow ministries to be coordinated, founded, moved, and killed in coordination. They should.
Some of the most unnecessary, least essential programs are the programs that have the most political support — that is, they don’t have volunteers or leaders but they have people who will get upset if the program is canceled. Political support never justifies a program. It does justify a thorough, thoughtful, loving explanation. And it may justify offering members the chance to rescue the program by volunteering to run it and staff it.
For example, consider the Sunday night worship hour and Wednesday night classes. Sunday nights are being replaced across the country with small groups meeting in homes. Very few new churches create a Wednesday night service, but established churches find Wednesday nights nearly impossible to kill. Why?
Now, every church is different, and Wednesday nights may serve a valuable purpose in some settings. But you know you’re outside your mission and yielding to political pressure rather than missional pressure when someone asks, “What can we do on Wednesday nights to attract people?” That’s never the purpose of a program designed for the members. The members are busy. The members have ministries to work in. The members have families. Why draw them to Wednesday night just to have good Wednesday night numbers? That’s doing a program for the sake of politics, not God’s mission.
Finally, programs can sometimes serve dual purposes. For example, Bible classes can be places for small groups to recruit new members. Classes can encourage participation in ministries. Bible classes can be made up of small groups, so that the same leaders are charged with both efforts. “Synergy” is the buzz word. To the extent we can accomplish multiple goals through a single program, great — but it needs to be synergistic, not lazy.
For example, expecting each small group to take turns cutting grass is lazy not synergistic. There’s no correlation between being in a small group and having time or desire to cut grass — and the effect would be to burden those in small groups just because they want to be in a small group. Resist the temptation.
Don’t dump on your most motivated people just because it’s easy. Synergies energize volunteers because they can use their time more efficiently. They can get training on how to be involved Christians while in class. They can plan Bible class curriculum at the same time they plan small group efforts.
But using small groups as a way to dump volunteer tasks on your more committed members will only run them off.