Programs Make Me Kranky

By Chaplain Mike

For years, I spent a significant portion of my work life as a minister planning, creating, organizing, advertising, and presenting programs.

For starters, each Sunday in our non-denominational church was a “program” of sorts. We approached the “worship” service in that way, at any rate. Our motive was to “make the most impact” each week. I’m not completely sure we knew what we meant by that, but I’m sure in our minds we were going to present things that would “touch hearts” and help people respond to God with new faith decisions.

On the other hand, I know that on a lot of weeks the true bottom line was simply the hope that we would get through whatever we were presenting without making fools of ourselves.

“How did the service go today?”

“Oh, praise God, it was great! Everything went so smoothly!”

Apart from that human tendency to want to save face, it became clear to me that we weren’t actually there most Sundays to worship—these were weekly revival meetings. The people on the stage were presenting what they hoped would be a moving and persuasive presentation, and lives would be changed, or at least people so impressed that they would seek out more from the church. We were in the business of putting on programs and hoping that people liked and benefited from them.

This required a lot of effort. When I was a “worship” pastor, I would arrive at about six on Sunday morning to get things set up, work with the sound technician, make sure the stage was set up properly, meet with the pastor and other participants to make sure we were all on the same page, run rehearsals, lead the service(s), do a hundred other things I can’t remember, and stagger home in the afternoon to crash after more than a full day’s work. I was just one of dozens and dozens of people in the body making similar efforts to put on an “excellent” program for the congregation. And I did that back in the day in a fairly conservative church that didn’t go overboard on a big production every week.

That is what happened each Sunday. I’m not sure I can even remember all the “special” programs. It started each fall with Rally Day or Kick-off Sunday special programs, through Fall Festivals and Halloween parties, missions conferences, special dinners, outings, parties, pageants, concerts, fellowships, outreaches, and services over the holiday season. In the winter months after the turn of the year, we might have a special Bible conference, followed soon by the Valentine’s Day dinner theater, and then the rehearsals for Holy Week and Easter began. After those major pageants, dramas, and concerts, we began competing with the schools for end-of-the-year program times. Then it was on to Vacation Bible School, Fourth of July programs, annual church picnic, and so on, until it was time to start the church year all over again.

Programs, programs, programs. Sunday after Sunday. Special event after special event. Strategize, create, plan, organize, advertise, present, rinse and repeat.

Where did this approach to church come from? Who defined “ministry” in these terms?

I became so used to this pattern of church life that it all seemed natural. I rarely questioned it. It was church. We hired staff to maintain the pattern, built our budget around it, set up our calendars by it, encouraged our congregation to organize their lives around it, hoped to attract members of the community through it. Much of it was church-building based, attractional, stage-show, presentational ministry. It was often about a few people going to great effort over an extended period of time to prepare an hour-long program that we hoped would be well attended and liked.

I’m sure many beneficial things came out of all these events. I wouldn’t ever deny that. Working together on something good, developing friendships and partnerships, making memories, learning and praying together, and occasionally seeing someone’s life truly affected—I couldn’t put a price on those blessings. And I heartily acknowledge that special events and celebrations and creative activities are a part of every family’s life together.

But is this really what a vital church and effective ministry is all about?

I don’t recall many planned events and programs in the New Testament. I do recall a family of faith that devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. I don’t remember many big efforts designed to attract and impress crowds. Crowds sometimes gathered, but when they did it had little (nothing) to do with some strategy being implemented through planning, organizing, advertising, rehearsing, and putting on a presentation.

Of course, that in and of itself does not mean we should throw out the idea of attractional, program ministry. New covenant believers have freedom in the Holy Spirit to be creative and innovative as we participate in the Missio Dei. But I think we have defined those terms for a long time almost exclusively in terms of artistic creation, stage performance, or an organized endeavor that will make a big splash.

This time of year is especially stressful for those leading and participating in church programs. Now that I play a much less active role, I admire them but at the same time wonder if all the effort is really advancing the Kingdom or just keeping us busy doing what we have come to expect we should be doing as good Christians. And since the other churches are all doing it this way, shouldn’t we too?

As I type this tonight, I’m watching Christmas With the Kranks, the movie adaptation of John Grisham’s book, Skipping Christmas. The story is about a couple who decide for one year to bypass Christmas with all its expense, its lavish decorations, and its big events and go on a cruise. They eventually have to change their plans, but until they do, they become the talk of the town. Nobody could imagine anyone possibly taking such a step. The community has developed such traditions, such expected ways of behavior and doing things that anyone who tries something different is seen as odd, selfish, and out of step with one’s neighbors. In the end conformity wins out, though the protagonists learn some valuable lessons in the process, including one that has to do with loving others on a personal level rather than in the context of the big holiday event.

Is it possible that we could imagine other ways?

81 thoughts on “Programs Make Me Kranky

  1. Fr. Ernesto:
    In a liturgical tradition, how does one deal with the the tendency for people to just slip into going through the motions?

    I am from a typical freewheeling Evangelical Charismatic Church. It is not hard to get people into worship because we have just adapted to 1960’s culture in our music. Our service is more like a concert. And people today relate to that. And we can just go along with it because it produces a feel good reaction. People would say that it is all heart.

    I also attend the Anglican church at times. When I am there, it engages me heart and mind, I absolutely love the liturgy. It is God honouring, Christocentric. I cannot comment on what the one next to me who grew up Anglican feels. I come at this having read scripture for 30 years. So the liturgy deeply resonates with me. But the truth is, it is counter-cultural. North Americans do not live there, and do not understand it immediately.

    I could take someone to many Evangelical churches (the type that we criticize here) and they would likely understand and relate to it immediately, because it is so culturally American. I can’t do that with an Anglican Church.
    Having said that, my Anglican church has deeper moorings in the theology and beliefs of the early church, and have explicitly built on them.

    So in practical life, how do you go about sharing the depths and richness of the Great Tradition with an audience or communicants that don’t even realise it exists?


  2. Take our weekly fellowship meetings. They have slowly taken the place of proper witnessing and disciplining by making the gathering of fellow believers the place to bring unbelievers to save them.

    Three words: THE GOSPEL BLIMP.


  3. Maybe the problem is because most (from some of the posts above, evidentally not all) programs are designed to generate a feeling, a state of mind, and more than that, this feeling is a form of feel-good.

    And as soon as someone comes up with a wire into the pleasure center (or at least a type of dope without the bad side effects), where will their “feel-good” be then?


  4. well-put re: analogy to soldier in combat zone. But could you maybe have a team of soldiers watching your back? e.g., have other people who are also keeping their eyes open, so you can relax a bit and worship?


  5. Heh! Yup, I showed up at 7:40 am for an 8 am service the other week and found the priest still turning on the lights. I got to lay out the offering plates and the linen ’cause I just happened to be there. I love the lack of glitz and electronics. 🙂


  6. >> why not simply switch over to the liturgical calendar <<

    This is desirable, but I don't think it would work.

    The impulse of many evangelical leaders is to be innovative, and to drive the congregation along lines that he chooses. These leaders aren't drawn to the traditions to begin with, but even if they were forced to follow the liturgical calendar they would want to improvise and improve it.


  7. I was clearly speaking of one church and only trying to say that “programs” in and of themselves are not necessarily a bad thing. If people do not want to participate at that level that is perfectly fine with me. However, the Bible tells us not to forsake the gathering together of ourselves. I think there is much we can do together than we could never do individually. My mother was homebound and could not participate. She wrote letters and cards to her children and grandchildren that challenged us to do do our best for the Lord at all times. By all means, do what you feel led to do in the way you feel led to do it.


  8. It might be a good idea to do a post (or even a whole series) on the differences between liturgy and programs, the whole philosophy and theology of worship/liturgy, etc. Or, if this sort of thing has already been done in previous posts, repost them.


  9. Austin:

    I remember an Orthodox priest once telling me the same thing — it was a completely peaceful, unhurried time as he prepared for the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning before anyone else arrived. No cell phones buzzing, etc. Just a prayerful time.


  10. Allen:

    Your final paragaph about the future and that the current MO just won’t cut it calls to mind basically everything I read in Christine Wicker’s 2008 book “The Collaps of the Evangelical Nation.” Even Gen-Xers like me (we’re 40-ish now!) just won’t open the wallet like the Baby Boomers to support such “shows”.


  11. It all sounds innocuous enough in the way you put it, but perhaps I’ve seen the use of “amoral tools”, as you put it, turn into emotional manipulation, a desire to always be hip (we have to know what movies and music are popular with teens to know what clips to use), and, really, almost a form of pure showmanship. I don’t know, perhaps I am too cynical, but to me, it just seems like churches resort to using multimedia presentations and such to make up for what they are lacking in their cores.

    I say this from being on both sides of the pulpit, so to speak. I’ve overseen ministries, and I’ve been in meetings with senior pastors, and I’ve also just been an average member. It seems to me that there’s almost an inversely proportional relationship between the amount a pastor personally cares about people and the number of movie clips he uses in his sermons… Again, that just my experience. I try not to be too jaded. But, man, if I have to sit through another sermon where someone plays a Lord of the Rings clip, I may just run out of the building.


  12. “If the staff member is more of a shepherd personality, you have to fire him. If the staff members has some family or health reasons that he can’t keep up the show, you have to push him out the door. The financial numbers won’t support someone who can’t carry his load of volunteer coordinators.”

    Ugg, You’re stirring up some horrible memories with this…


  13. I am glad that I am not to that point of being so cynical and jaded (I think I am getting there at times but Lord willing he will keep me from that place). I (as my staff person- we are a smaller church) seek to lead in worship. We have a down syndrome girl who wants to help lead worship and two out of the three mics have to be kept on low because those who are leading the worship aren’t the greatest singers – but they have a love for God. I have sung professionally and could quite easily craft a ‘perfection- only’ service – but that isn’t a true worship experience. I am not justifing her postion or mine. Our church is striving to use the spiritual gifts where they should be – and I would love for these people to come back next sunday. To boast of numbers – no. To have another meaningful relationship that God would allow me to participate and hopefully be used to disciple them – absolutely.


  14. Sorry, liturgy is not a program. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of worship. And if you read the post, you will see that I did not decry all presentations or programs, but rather that we have come to define “ministry” by them.


  15. Do ends justify the means? It depends on the means. We are talking banquets, skits, and multimedia – why not? I am not talking about spiked kool-aid. I am talking about amoral tools – that get their morality from how they are used. If Paul could use the altar to the unknown God – I think I can probably use a video clip without much problem on God’s end. The great commission calls us to be witness, to go out an make disciples, and to baptize. This in my book seems to be a conversion encounter in part (giving the Holy Spirit his due for the act of conviction in a persons life). You can’t disciple an unconverted life. If my little skit as sloppy as it is and with half the lines forgotten will be used by the Holy Spirit then by all means the ends justifies the means. I guess I generally take for granted that I am talking about using means that I believe are God given and blessed.


  16. …continuing to write aloud…

    Then there is gimmick, manipulation, propaganda, brownie points, attendance pursuit, etc., type motivations that have to be weighed with each event held. No matter if it is weekly, seasonally or a one-time sponsored thing. In my small church I volunteer for kitchen duty. And we do a Halloween Trunk-or-Treat alternative. I do know the amount of effort that goes into putting on such things. And it usually is the same small group of people that are doing it. The problem of course being burnout of the dedicated ones. The second is simply trying to be too many things to too many people. Wisdom needed & a sober minded approach to what is being done…


  17. A successful church is one that produces and nurtures followers of Jesus Christ. This can be completely independent of what it looks like, or even whether it survives, as an institution.


  18. Sorry, I got fired up and put the comment in the wrong place. It was meant to go into the general comment section. Please forgive.


  19. If so, then how should we take communion and baptism? Should we just gather together at an unannounced time and see what happens? Put out some bread and juice fill a tub with an unknown liquid and feel our way through it? Or maybe wake up in the morning and take vases filled with junk and throw it on people.
    The problem I have is that the more we look at one aspect of fellowship and deem it in need of change we take it out of its proper place within the whole. The most free flowing, non tradition executing fellowship has its own traditions. Even if it is the tradition of rejecting traditions. It is still a tradition that is passed down through the generations that follow it. Think about it seriously, to reinvent the wheel daily would be the most grandest of traditions because if you ever found a wheel that fit tradition says you must change it.


  20. Disagree-
    We are recipients of faith and our life from Christ. The life with Christ is one direction, Him to us. Gods word promises, that “magical sacraments” do the amazing thing of bringing Christs forgiveness to the sinner. Because you don’t believe this does not invalidate Gods promises in communion and baptism. You have confused your response to the gift (your joyful response or lack of-passive stupor) with the gift given.


  21. I have found these programs are as much about showing the congregation that the staff works really hard as about anything. Look at all these activities we’re putting on for the people here! Look at how well your gifts are being used! Aren’t you glad we were able to hire two new staff last year?

    I can’t speak for your church, but for mine the focus seems to be on Jesus-tainment and coming up with creative worship in order to entice people to come next Sunday. If someone’s decision whether to attend church on Sunday is based on which musical will be covered in the next installment of “Jesus on Broadway,” I have to wonder just what kind of discipleship we are creating.


  22. “why not simply switch over to the liturgical calendar and celebrate biblical events or saints days and that way have a much clearer opening to talk about consecrating one’s life to God?”

    …my thoughts as well….


  23. Traditions are evil. We should never plan things or do them twice, because that would be artificial and not focused on Jesus. Reinvent the wheel daily!


  24. Sometimes churches should be allowed to die. For example my particular congregation is aging and probably at the end of its lifecycle. Yet another church of the same faith tradition 2 miles away is thriving. In the Catholic model I understand there are many walking away – and some coming back. From what I have seen they are walking away because they have found a church that will entertain them, instead of going deeper in their faith. I see it alot – its all about me… and that is what is killing church participation more than anything else. So those of you who are caught up in the wirlwind of trying to please the masses – as has been said by others in previous posts – at some point you won’t be able to keep up and you will burn out (talking about those in ministry)….


  25. I willingly use tools at my disposal to bring people closer to God. Whether it is Gregorian Chant or pipe organ (which seems to be “acceptable”) or skits, solos, multimedia presentations. If I can use these things to awaken a sense of closeness to God, to bring people to a point where they will repent – then I will use them.

    Basically, it sounds like you’re saying the ends justify the means. I just don’t see that type pragmatism spelled out anywhere in Scripture. Of course, someone could come back and throw out 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 (“To the Jews I became like a Jew…”), but if you look at the context there, Paul is defending his apostleship to the Corinthians, not giving them a map on how to create converts.

    And perhaps that’s the thing. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not to do everything we could do to make converts. I have been to more evangelical outreach events than probably most people. I’m a PK, and I’ve been involved in different ministries all of my adult life. I’ve seen all the tricks, skits, games, movies, gimmicks, etc. that you can imagine. I’ve seen the same people go up and “get saved” dozens of times (this time it’s for reals!). At some point, though, I just realized that all this effort we are putting into these things isn’t making disciples of anyone. It’s primarily giving us something to do. Some people may fill out the response cards at the end, but that rarely translates into someone becoming a follower of Jesus. Being a disciple is hard. It’s difficult to market something that’s hard.


  26. A very good point. A progam in and of itself is not evil. What is the mindset? What is the purpose? I am very quickly seeing that my seminary training was not preparing me for the changes that are coming (or have come) in the landscape of what the church is becoming – but we were taught that jumping in with a backpack of programs was not what will grow the Kingdom of God – but they can be useful tools. No program is going to do what one-on-one relationships with each other can accomplish – but it just may open a door that will allow that relationship to grow.

    And just for the record – Bill Hybel was earlier called the ‘anti-christ’ (I realize it was partially tongue and cheek) – but do we not do damage to the body of Christ by joking in such a manner. Here is a man of God who started out wanting to reach young people who were marginalized by the “organized church.” He had great success in the Chicago area. I am not a fan of the seeker service and it is folly to think what happened in a particular time period, with a particular pastor, in a very specific situation should be turned into a ‘method.’ But wasn’t what he was trying to do not what this forum is seeking – leading people in worship and growing the Kingdom of God in the best way possible. At times I am expecting to hear that we should all go back to the KJV because if it was good enough for Paul it should be good enough for us. If going back to liturgy will help – by all means do it – but don’t expect that form of worship to reach everyone – history has proven that it doesn’t. As a pastor I am willing to be ‘all things to all people’ if needed. I apply that to what I use to grow the kingdom of God praying constantly that what I do will be pleasing and acceptable in His sight for his purpose and his purpose alone. I am all for debate – and a website like IM on so valuable to me to always re-exam why I do what I do, and what I believe to be true. But in all things charity – especially when it deals with men and women who are only trying to serve God to the best of their ability.


  27. Maybe the distinction between what is a ‘program’ vs. what has been ‘programmed’ worth making?

    Maybe not???

    Just writing out loud here…


  28. You really are cranky/kranky today. I don’t see how anyone can win with your mindset. The guy’s trying to show that “programs” are not incompatible with active love of Christ and service, and you seem to be accusing him of of crapping on other people. I didn’t read that at all. And I don’t read your inference that those who don’t participate in all of them are not committed, just that they have all sorts of outreach beyond the 4 walls.


  29. To say that you can’t see programs in the New Testament and then apply it to modern days is a mis-use of scripture to make your point. I don’t want programs for the sake of having a program. I willingly use tools at my disposal to bring people closer to God. Whether it is Gregorian Chant or pipe organ (which seems to be “acceptable”) or skits, solos, multimedia presentations. If I can use these things to awaken a sense of closeness to God, to bring people to a point where they will repent – then I will use them. Everything in Jewish worship was a ‘program’ from the sacrificial system to the feasts to sabbath observances. Liturgy is a ‘program’ that someone else spent time coming up with. Sure – I don’t have to think to use the common book of prayer. I can go to the lectionary and someone will tell me what to preach, what to pray, what to recite. If that leads someone closer to God great – quite often the liturgy becomes mindless babbling the same way singing “Shine Jesus Shine” 29 times to feel more holy does. It is a matter of the heart and how it is being lead. You have no idea whether the early church past the Apostles used “programs”. We had to get the rituals from some place. The love feast had its ritual and it gradually became the Eucharist with its rituals. Rituals are programs. I am sorry if the best you could come up with was “not looking foolish” but when my church uses program – I am more concerned with spiritual influence – not performance. One persons liturgy is another persons ‘program.’


  30. wow. well said. it’s refreshing to hear someone else say that the church seems to be infected with this mindset that places people in a subordinate position to _____________, well, practically anything.


  31. If the churches aren’t sustainable who’s going to be there to proclaim that message for tomorrow’s generation?


  32. This approach creates the illusion of growth. I am a numbers guy. For years, I helped churches manage finances and numbers. The secret to this approach is to get more people in the front door than go out the back.

    In Pro Wrestling, this is called “putting butts in seats”. And a lot of the Wrestlecrap Angles are attempts to put more butts in seats.

    You used to be able to trot a camel down the isle for a Christmas program and everyone was impressed…

    They still are, when the camel gets stubborn, refuses to move, then falls over right into the audience.


  33. Phil, THAT is the reason for all the Jesus Junk on the market today. “Just like fill-in-the-blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

    And why outside the four Thomas Kincade-decorated walls of that Christian(TM) event horizon, Christian(TM) = Crap.


  34. For starters, each Sunday in our non-denominational church was a “program” of sorts. We approached the “worship” service in that way, at any rate. Our motive was to “make the most impact” each week.



  35. Focus on the program over the human beings created in God’s image happens a lot, even when people don’t think it is happening; it’s slow and creeping and insidious this way. And it never results in good. I’ve experienced this happen first-hand, and it’s probably the main reason I’m so wary of taking any kind of a leadership role in a church.

    Whether it’s a spectacular show or a program-driven event or ministry, the sin is that the program per se is given primacy and human beings, created in the image of God, with real needs and hurts and questions and longings and incredible potential, are largely ignored, and are even in the worst cases used up and considered dispensible.

    It’s also partly a cultural influence. In our western culture, leaders are most often driven individuals with rigid priorities. When the church adopts elements of that leadership model, shepherding and nurturing start to get lost.


  36. Fr. Ernesto, I not sure that going to a liturgical format is going to make more or better disciples than a church with some programs. Liturgical formats can lull a person into a passive stupor. A magical sacramental thinking is prevalent in high-church venues. I received the sacraments so I’m set with God. I know that’s not true in your case.


  37. I would say whether it is sustainable. That will vary from church to church. After all, a house church requires very little money to run, whereas a large church building with a paid clergy member is going to be more expensive.

    It should be able to provide for the religious needs of its members, e.g. funerals, weddings, baptisms, confirmation, anointing of the sick… It should have some relationship to the community immediately outside of its walls. It should generate sufficient callings to ministry to be able to perpetuate itself in future. It should, under the right circumstances, have a good mix of ages. Here I would not consider a church to be failing if it is mainly populated by the elderly in a small rural town which is home to the last generation that will probably live there.


  38. I quite understand what you mean about programs, Chaplain Mike. My wife and I have a standard joke on Sunday afternoons about my feeling tired. She will answer something like, “Well, I have no idea why you feel tired, you have only worked for a couple of hours.” Then we both laugh and I go to bed for a nap.

    It is not simply the programs, because pastors in churches with few programs will also feel tired. When the worship starts, the pastor cannot simply sit there but has to be aware of all that is going on around him in order to spot a potential problem in the worship. It can be anything from the altar server that forgets to bring you the incense (well, in our church), to the communion napkin that catches on fire when it is accidentally and carelessly draped over a vigil light (yes, that has happened to me), even to the mentally ill person who suddenly stands up at sermon time and starts preaching and must be stopped (yes, that has happened to me).

    I am a veteran, and I have sometimes commented that the amount of focus that a pastor has to bring to a worship is equivalent to the amount of focus that a soldier has in a combat zone. Nothing is too small to be ignored, everything must be noted. That quite tires one out by the time the worship is finished.

    In the New Testament it says, “Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent?” Pastors work so hard on Sunday that we effectually desecrate the Sabbath, but we are innocent because it is our calling.

    I will make one comment. If a church is going to have all those special programs for special days, particularly since so many of them are purely secular, why not simply switch over to the liturgical calendar and celebrate biblical events or saints days and that way have a much clearer opening to talk about consecrating one’s life to God?


  39. What does the term “successful church” mean, though? I’m not trying to be coy – I’m genuinely curious. It seems that most evangelicals assume that if a church is a certain size, it’s successful, but what is the metric to determine if a church is successful or not?


  40. Greg – yes and no. Unfortuantely, the words community, authenticity etc have become institutionalised hemselves, loosing all real meaning. Community is what you are, not what you do. Same with authenticity.


  41. Allen – exactly. That is why my pastor (I’m LCC, that is, Lutheran Church Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the LCMS) refuses to put a Screen in the sanctuary – because we have that everywhere else (home, work, pub, restaurant, mall…..). And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


  42. So cemark_rd, we have to draw the line somewhere between the two extremes- a dying church because nobody wants to hear Law and Gospel, or a mega church that is functionaly nothing more than a feel-good social club. It doesn’t have to be either, sure. But, “up to which point” is basically what I’m asking.


  43. macsism,
    I too lost my mother earlier this year (February) and I wish to express my condolences to you and yours. Like you, my family had great support from members of the church my mother attended and also our own. But this support came from individuals expressing their sympathy and love and not from “programs”. Chaplain Mike brings up some very good points.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you during this Christmas season.


  44. The thing though is that the attitude of it’s worship, it doesn’t matter how I feel about it or what I get out of it, is prevalent among a large percentage of church goers. Take the Catholic Church (please, jk) it’s Scripture laden and has a theology about worship, and yet it has lost tons of members, half of whom go to non-Catholic churches and cite not being fed as their reason for leaving. The other half become non-affiliated and assumedly have better things to do on Sunday and Saturday night. That loss of members hurts. It results in parishes being merged (which usually means an additional 10% loss at least of members), school being closed, and church buildings not being maintained such that they are candidates for closing down the road.

    If you want to have a successful church, you’ve got to get people in. The church growth movement gets a lot of flack, but in its time it solved a problem. The problem is it probably won’t be able to continue solving the problem.


  45. We have been “programmed” to believe bigger is better & the more spectacular the presentation the more impact it must have on the attendees. There is what I would consider simple logistical challenges with any larger gathering+service. Then there are those deliberate add-ons that are intended somehow to meet either real or perceived needs of the congregation. I do like the youth ministry ‘programs’ that usually are more substantial in a larger church than a smaller one. However, I do believe that at some size the law of diminishing returns is inevitable. I’m no economist, but it seems to me that after a certain size the actual efficiency drops significantly for each dollar spent. That is just the monetary aspect, but there is also the unseen emotional, physical & time element consumed in every large, big-stage production whether a service, worship, choir, church plays, etc. Heck, most mega-church parking lots if converted to arable land sufficient to feed a small 3rd world country (hyperbole intended). There was a comment on a previous article about the grand European Cathedrals being the Crystal Cathedral of their day. Something about each town erecting the bigger/better cathedral as bragging rights more than Christian piety. But for the simple stone worker engaged in its building there was probably much devotion & godly effort expended putting that vocational skill to use. It could be argued that certain programs have staying power by the sheer weight of their existence. Like certain government programs. Maybe they have outlived their usefulness. But I do think within every sincere church program there is someone somewhere engaged in it for the glory of God…


  46. Agreed. My experience is that “anti-liturgical denominations” replace a liturgy based on long-held traditions with a liturgy based on convenience — which they don’t call a liturgy (and get mortally offended if anyone does), because they would NEVER have a liturgy, being an anti-liturgical denomination and all … except that the service order is pretty much the same every week anyway …



  47. I’m very sorry to hear about your mother. I lost mine last year, in November. I wish your family only good memories of her.


  48. That’s the thing, though. Every horrible church program I’ve ever seen would say it is delivering the message you’re describing in some way or another. The thing is that most of the time these programs are preaching to the choir (literally…). If we start justifying things existence based on their usefulness in “spreading the gospel”, we just get caught up in the sort of pragmatic thinking that gave us the seeker sensitive or church growth models in the first place.

    I’m ok with beautiful things existing just for the sake of them being beautiful. The problem is that much of what’s presented in churches simply is bad. I don’t believe putting on a half-@ssed play that has a gospel message shoved into it somewhere really honors God all that much.


  49. I am sure a lot of good is being done, but I wonder if you think the church is “doing it right” because you have defined the Christian life as church-based organized activity for Jesus.

    What about those who cannot or do not participate in those organized activities, for one reason or another? Are they not “absolutely committed to Jesus”? What about those who think the best way to represent Christ in the world is simply to do an excellent job at their work, love their families, and live a quiet, loving life among their neighbors?

    Churches that emphasize that being “absolutely committed to Jesus” means participating in a huge program of activities may unwittingly communicate that there are two levels of Christians—those who are truly committed, and those who are not.


  50. I get annoyed when a church I’m attending turns Sunday services into a production. Just the idea of a “stage” does not sit right with me. A break in the middle of worship? Coffee to help me sit up straight in a folding chair? Maybe I’m just an old grouch who doesn’t want to change.

    Some programming in larger churches probably can’t be avoided. But the church I attend had to cut back some in 2010 for budgetary reasons. Staff was cut slightly and new ways were found to do things. But, for some reason there is a better sense of fellowship. Attendance on Sunday morning seems to me to have actually increased.


  51. Hey! I like programs! What I do not like is the randomness that comes with trying not to have a program. I agree that getting caught up in the preparation and execution is very detrimental to worship, but, the same can be said for almost every aspect of what we do. There are other ways the problem is that we still have to do them. Take the simple act of music in the service. When put in its proper perspective, coupled with planning and practice, it does the job perfectly every time. When the focus becomes getting the job done either by making it relevant, seeker-sensitive, exciting, or any of the other things we want it to be it becomes a large tiresome production.

    All I am saying is that don’t bash the program when it is us who mess things up.

    Take our weekly fellowship meetings. They have slowly taken the place of proper witnessing and disciplining by making the gathering of fellow believers the place to bring unbelievers to save them. Because we have allowed this form of evangelism to become the standard we seldom fellowship, but instead have the aforementioned statement become prevalent: The people on the stage were presenting what they hoped would be a moving and persuasive presentation, and lives would be changed, or at least people so impressed that they would seek out more from the church.

    We often for convenience, efficiency, ignorance, or just a desire to do things different, take things out of their proper perspective and over/under-do them. I like programs because when done well, with the focus on Jesus Christ and God’s way, they are good and sometimes very effective in my walk. We just need to balance the time, effort, and intent so we can get past the “program or no program” debacle.


  52. Maybe the problem is because most (from some of the posts above, evidentally not all) programs are designed to generate a feeling, a state of mind, and more than that, this feeling is a form of feel-good. Thus, the message of the program is man-centred, not God-centred. In essence, it is designed to make you feel good about God (sometimes), or about yourself (more often), not to focus your attention on God Himself.

    I also find it sort of amusing that anti-liturgical denominations replace liturgy with “programs” that require enourmous weekly effort. It is the liturgical equivalent of replacing wine with a concoction with many ingredients, that has the appearance of a dark red fluid, if you get my analogy….


  53. I am biased towards high liturgy… so what you described makes my head spin.
    I give you a lot of credit for putting so much effort in to entertaining the crowd. But I take a different view. It’s not about me (looking at it from the congregation point of view and not the minister’s) . As a member of the congregation its not about whether I am entertained, whether I am fed. Its about worship, so in my mind its about Him, spending time with Him, thanking, getting my spiritual exercise, growing.

    My time in church is special time – maybe that has been programmed in but it is a time to spend with my communal family before God. Maybe that sounds sappy – but it does not matter if the homily or sermon is not up to snuff. I am hearing large chunks of scripture multiple times. I am worshiping together with others. The music’s bad – no issue – it might be better next week.

    All that said – I just can’t get into the seminar model of church, the applied bible approach of someone taking me through a self help course. For me it is not worship.

    I do applaud all those in ministry who work hard to make a difference on Sunday morning. I just wonder about the congregation that must be consistently entertained or reached in order to keep coming back. That puts all of the work on those in ministry and none on the congregation of believers.

    My thoughts…


  54. Phil-
    It is not the size, the intricacy, the talent of the presentation. It is the message that matters. I’ll support a large, time consuming production if it delivers the goods, i.e. proclaims that forgiveness is for all (yes all) in the crowd (and non-believers to create faith unilaterally) won by Christ crucified on the cross.


  55. I suppose some amount of programming is inevitable in a church – even doing something relatively simple like getting together for a church dinner requires an individual or group of people to organize everything. What I don’t understand, though, is why so many churches have the desire to put on productions and whatnot. Having a children’s Christmas play is one thing, but it seems that a lot of the bigger churches around me have decided that they need to have elaborate plays that are more like high school plays with adults playing the parts. The thing is, though, there simply not good. There are relatively few people in most churches who actually are gifted at acting, and there are plenty of other outlets for them to hone that skill. I just don’t get it.

    The most moving Christmas programs I have ever been to at churches have been very simple. I went to a Moravian service with my wife before we were married that was simply beautiful. They had an orchestra, and they played Christmas hymns while the congregation sang along. Another memorable service I went was actually at a larger evangelical church, but they had a simple band with acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and cello where they did a combination of Christmas and worship songs by candlelight. There were no skits, no gimmicks – just music and Scripture reading. These things would take a bit of preparation – that’s sure. But for most musicians I know, they don’t consider practicing pieces for a performance to be the same sort of stress as it is for an amateur to memorize lines for a play.


  56. I hear you Chaplain Mike.

    My Sunday’s are much more peaceful in my current ministsry. I get to church an hour before everyone else except maybe the organist. We are using a UMC church so I rearrange a few furniture pieces and then go thru the very peaceful, and in my heart ,joyful act of preparing the table for that days Eucharist.

    I have no Altar guild as of yet so everything from the linens to the communion ware is handled by me on Sunday mornings.

    I set out the prayer books, move the banner and processional cross to the narthex, make sure the readings for the day are on the Lectern and voila it’s then time to vest.

    That hour of solitude and work in the church is one of my favorite times of my week.


  57. All true. And yet I’d go back to that program-oriented evangelical church the way it was in the 90s if it still existed. There was a lot that was good about it.

    All those special programs and events were work for the staff and the volunteers. But they served a good purpose. The sloppy praise band did its stuff on Sunday evenings, and people who liked that could get it. But Sunday morning was still mostly hymns from the hymnal. The Valentine’s Day pageant could be as goofy as possible, but it was on a Friday evening. Sunday morning remained reverent. The sermon was a serious sermon, and not a ‘talk’ or ‘lesson’ or any of the other words that evangelical pastors use today to describe the Johnny Carson monologues un-sermons that they give today.

    Pageants and programs are OK in their time and place. But they shouldn’t be a substitute for the elements of proper worship according to the traditions.


  58. This approach creates the illusion of growth. I am a numbers guy. For years, I helped churches manage finances and numbers. The secret to this approach is to get more people in the front door than go out the back. At one church, we had over 500 people leave every 6 months, but we were getting 600 people in every 6 months. The church was always full. Oddly no one notices the 500 that left because they didn’t have a relationship with them anyway.

    The other secret is that you must hire staff members that excel at managing large numbers of volunteers to put on the show. If the staff member is more of a shepherd personality, you have to fire him. If the staff members has some family or health reasons that he can’t keep up the show, you have to push him out the door. The financial numbers won’t support someone who can’t carry his load of volunteer coordinators.

    Mark Driscoll wrote a blog last spring which described it perfectly. He compared it to spring training for major league baseball. At some point, you look at statistics, and you cut the players who aren’t meeting the numbers. Church has been reduced to a major league baseball team.

    Now, I am convinced of two things. We should have never headed down the path in the first place, and it won’t work in the future. The next generation won’t put up with it. Because of the Internet, the next generation already has large numbers of shallow relationships, they don’t need the church for shallow relationships. Second, the next generation is already so over stimulated with video games and 3D movies, it is impossible to impress them with a show. You used to be able to trot a camel down the isle for a Christmas program and everyone was impressed, now it would take a 3d laser light show and they will still probably be bored in a few seconds. I recently went to a CCM concert with loud music, smoke, lights….all the stuff. I noticed only 30+ years olds enjoyed it. The teenagers and 20 somethings were bored to death.


  59. “IT” started with Bill Hybels who I affectionately refer to as the Antichrist. And 30 some years later he at least had the honesty to come forward and simply say – “IT” didn’t work.


  60. My mom died this week. Our church, which is SBC, had been so good to us. We feel loved. We have only been members since July after attending a much larger church for 30 years. When I was talking with the pastor about funeral arrangements he emphasized that he wanted this church to be known in this community as absolutely committed to Jesus. And we have programs. We have several families who now attend church as a result of the Fall Festival which brought hundreds of people to our parking lot. We do a Christmas musical – and bring in homeless people for a meal. Several of those homeless people from the local shelter are driven to our church every week. We have a “kickin’ worship band” (of which I am a member) and we are absolutely focused on Jesus. It’s simply a form of music that many people happen to like. It is never about a “show” and our worship leader has such a humble spirit. We are building a new building and at the same time we give thousands of dollars to local charities as well as putting “boots on the ground” in terms of going out into the community to meet physical needs. We just spent a Sunday afternoon gathering as a church body to put together packages for AID’s victims in Africa. I don’t say any of this to boast but I want people to know there are churches out there who have these things and still manage to do it right.


  61. I’m sure I sound like a broken record. I have no problem with programs if they actually proclaim Christ crucified for the sinner. We/the church are called to proclaim the gospel. Instead churches create programs that proclaim what I call the “sanctification gospel” of the Christian. Give up focusing programs on creating “fruits”. The fruits are a natural outworking, promised, from a life continually hearing the gospel message of Christ crucified, for me. It must be the only message proclaimed from the pulpit.

    There is no “ministry” that focuses on a specific problem (divorce, addiction, pornography) or group (child, teen, adult) that cannot be sustained entirely on hearing the forgiveness given by the Crucified Christ.


  62. Just reading about all that planning and presenting makes me feel tired, Chaplain Mike. I, for one, could not have done that. I just would not have had the stick-to-it-ness.


  63. If the church was a fellowship of Jesus’ disciples rather than an institution we would not be having fellowship breaks during the worship service, we’d be having organizing breaks during the fellowship.


  64. People are looking for community, credibility, and authenticity, not institutional programs. Far too often buildings and projects take over, while many who are starving for love and personal involvement go unfulfilled. The word “Christian” nowadays is frequently connected to indifference regarding the plight of the other, who pales into insignificance in the preference for superficial ideologies that fail to reflect the face of Christ.


  65. Chaplain Mike,

    I’m not much for programs, either. Either from the side of sitting through them or putting them on. I found over the years that I had a growing sense of disconnect from people. Any building up of others seemed to be an indirect task. Effort went into the program, not into people.


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