The Goldilocks zone: to programme or de-programme the church

I saw somebody paraphrasing Howard Hendricks recently. The context in which they were name-checking him was entirely different to this one but the point they were making was painfully relevant. It applies to an awful lot of church life and wider Evangelical views. Hendricks suggested that the church tends to veer from one extreme to another. He argued that the church very often finds a credible centre only for a brief moment whilst it is in the process of swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other. The argument holds in respect to the extent we should rely on programmes in the church.

It seem that frequent comment comes up about this question. Truth be told, I feel the force of the arguments in both directions. On the one hand, churches that load their week with programmes so frequently find their members exhausted and the emphasis falling on faithfulness measured by attendance. On the other, churches that intentionally under-programme their churches very often find themselves with people who simply content themselves to do nothing at all. Neither seems optimal.

The (seemingly) obvious answer, then, is to find a Goldilocks zone for programmes. The Goldilocks principle rests on what happened when she went to the three bears house. She tasted porridge that was too hot, then too cold, before landing on the one that was ‘just right.’ She did the same with a few others things too. Applied to the church, the answer to the question of programmes seems to be, we find just the right amount; neither too many that people struggle nor too few so that people wind up doing nothing at all.

Neat as that answer might be, I’m not sure it gets us very far. First comes the obvious question: how much is ‘just right’ anyway? I know churches that feel having ‘one night off’ in the week but expecting attendance every other night, plus several services on a Sunday too, is credible. I similarly know churches that feel embarrassed expecting people to attend a second service on a Sunday and no more until the following week. Just right is presumably determined by the nature of your congregation, context and a wisdom question of what you miss by doing less and what you lose by doing more. I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to that.

Second, there are questions about whether it is even possible to do some of the things we want to do without programmes and whether it is possible to other things through them.

We, for example, run a monthly Muslim-Christian dialogue evening. This is necessarily a programmed event because we can’t do it otherwise. It is fair to say we wouldn’t have this clear and direct opportunity to engage with our Muslim neighbours if we didn’t run it this way. If we want friendships to develop within our community, we have to try to engineer some places where those relationships might develop. We simply wouldn’t reach our Muslim neighbours nearly as effectively without this programmed ministry. Churches that have no programmes on principle would struggle to engage this way in a community like ours. That’s not to say there aren’t other things they could do, but they wouldn’t be able to engage as directly like this.

On the flip side, however, I am painfully conscious of how much harder it is to do hospitality, pastoral visitation, go to fraternals and maintain existing relationships at large when your entire week is tied up with programmes. If one is at meetings every night of the week, how is one to fulfil other obligations that can only be done apart from the regular meetings of the church? Churches that are overly programmed often find difficulties among families who feel their fathers are never around because they’re too busy at meetings. I know more than a few people who feel let down by churches because their parents were constantly at meetings – often spending time with other people’s children – rather than at home with their own. Over-programmed churches often struggle with the parts of ministry, like regular hospitality and genuine fellowship, that don’t fit easily into a programmatic approach.

Third, I just wonder whether finding a Goldilocks zone is a luxury that only larger churches can afford? You may well find a middle ground in which you have some programmes (or, at least, only expect some people to do any one of them) and a free week the rest of the time, but small, struggling churches rarely have people to allow different teams to oversee different ministries. In small churches, you either have the same workers spread across different ministries or you don’t run the ministry at all. Even if you are aiming for the Goldilocks zone, you are expecting precisely the same people involved in the programmes to be those who are also involved in the non-programmatic stuff too. Suddenly, the Goldilocks principle doesn’t mitigate the very things you are trying to balance at all.

Fourth, there are always people with competing priorities and differing capacities in any church. You will inevitably have those in the congregation who would gladly be involved in some ministry activity every single night of the week, without fail, for time eternal. You will also inevitably have those in the congregation who cannot cope with such a schedule. Some of those differences will centre on the nature of their work, other responsibilities to families, whether they are single, whether they are extroverted or introverted and a whole variety of other things. There will always be those who push for more because they prefer their time to be filled; there will always be those who push for less because they don’t feel they have capacity. In the world of competing priorities, different people feel the Goldilocks zone lies in different places.

I’m not sure I have any answer to this. I feel the weight of both arguments. I see the benefits and the pitfalls of both approaches. I can even see the need for some balance somewhere. But, truth be told, it is almost entirely beyond me where that balance lies. When John Piper writes Don’t Waste Your Life because of one swing, Kevin DeYoung writes Crazy Busy to address another. Alistair Begg then goes and writes Crazy Lazy to yank the pendulum back again. I sense, as Hendricks suggests, we find balance only momentarily as the pendulum swings.