Programs and people

church programsShe didn’t like our church the first time she visited. She was used to something a little more pentecostal, a little more charismatic, perhaps a little more emotional. Living Springs was, ya know, okay, but she didn’t think she’d come back.

church programsBut then her husband, a new Christian, told her how much he liked it. He felt comfortable with the music, intrigued by the people, and challenged by the message. So she said, “Ok,” and they kept coming back.


And they got involved in some church programs.

  • She joined the choir because she had always loved singing.
  • They signed up for Faith in Action because they thought it was cool for a church to give up services for service.
  • She considered offering to help out in the Nursery.

In fact, when she looked at the long list of programs available, she thought, “Wow, this church really does what it says. This is for real!” Eventually, she joined the church and become an “official” member.

That, I think, is what church programs are supposed to do. They reflect a church’s beliefs and give people opportunities to serve and learn and make a difference. Programs can be an on-ramp to greater involvement and higher commitment and deeper relationships.

church programsIn fact, you could probably make the case that programs are necessary in our American culture, because Americans understand programs and excel at them. We search for children’s programs, singles’ programs, men’s programs, Bible study programs, youth programs, and the weekly Sunday morning program to meet our specific felt needs. And the “movers and shakers” among us will start a new program if we can’t find an existing one that does the job.


church programsBut sometimes we get too caught up in the program. We forget that the point of a program is to connect with people. We are so busy ladling bowls of soup at the shelter—that we forget to smile at the angry man who is embarrassed to be standing in line. Or we write off the church that doesn’t have a singles ministry—rather than inviting a few singles out for coffee ourselves. We are eager to organize the masses and find an efficient way to assembly-line their needs—because more is better, and faster is better, and bigger is better.

Except that it isn’t.

People are individuals. Each one is different.


Here’s what I think is the crux of the problem:

In order to “scale,” programs have to put people in categories and treat them all the same.

church programsWhen you want to reach as many youth as possible, for example, you “target” that demographic with a message that depends on stereotypes to appeal to the broadest common denominator. You make assumptions about what “they” [all] need, and you send out thousands of slick postcards and glossy flyers because, after all, that’s what kids today are looking for.

That’s efficient, but it’s not effective. And it’s often offensive.

People don’t want to be targeted. That’s not a relationship—that’s stalking!


It’s much smaller and slower and less impressive to have a conversation over the fence with your 18-year-old neighbor. To ask his opinion on which printer you should buy. To attend a few of his football games. To gradually get to know him and his friends. As people. Not as a market segment.

church programsChurches, the purpose of a program is not to solve a problem. The “problem” is only a backdrop for building real relationships.

When programs replace relationships, people get hurt, and churches become shallow.

There is a place for programs, but let’s be careful to keep them in their place.


4 thoughts on “Programs and people”

  1. yes.
    It’s not one or the other but -both and.-
    My eyes and heart are present to the person that God has placed in my path to engage and bless ….even if for a moment. This person is loved of God and important to Him! Therefore, important to me.
    Being familiar with and involved in helpful ministries in the church is a further connection possibility “if the shoe fits”. A personal invitation to try an activity— whether a retreat, church service or activity is the next step… But it may take time and patience until the Spirit prompts and the time is right. But be persistent in your welcome.
    I was invited by a friend more than 10 times to come to Coffee Break in 1978.
    I was a Luke warm member of a church . I went to try it and to shut her up, my life is forever changed because of her invitation and care , her interest in me. I became a born again christian December 3, 1979.alive in Christ through relationship and a program. The HolybSpirit uses both AND.

  2. I recently facilitated a day long forum with a small group of teachers and students at a Jr. High school. The purpose was to provide an opportunity for them to talk about the issues that divide them and to seek a means to nurture a greater sense of community within the school. The district spends millions of dollars on programs, technology and training every year to reach students. However, the overwhelming sentiment from the students was a desire to know and to known. The sentiment from the teachers was a frustration with the systems that prevented them from building relationships with their students. Both teachers and students left with a plan and a passion for solving the problem together. This program was “an on-ramp to greater involvement and higher commitment and deeper relationships”.

    People don’t want to be targeted, they want to be talked to. As an observer of my forum stated, This is “simply radical”.

    • Probably most often systems are set up with good intentions. But they devolve as they grow, I think because our American tendency is to value “bigger” over “deeper.” It’s exciting when you see that desire for depth breaking through the system so that people can become human again. :) Nice work!

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