Less Can Mean More

Activity does not necessarily mean productivity. The local church must stubbornly refuse to get swept up in the mindset that being active and busy equals fulfilling vision and making disciples. Activity can be good, but it must not be allowed to be a substitute for the better work of making disciples. Activity can sometimes best be understood as sideways energy. Sideways energy is typically not as obvious as a big gust of wind. It is rarely evident in the moment; but often shows up as a slow push or pull, over time, away from our common objective. Sideways energy is the great momentum killer because it slows progress, pulling our attention away from the main thing.

In order to know if an activity is helpful, churches must first clearly define WHY they exist. Once you know your why then you can better determine your what and how. I would suggest that a local church exists to bring glory to God by leading individuals and families into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. The church’s goal is to help individuals and families grow in their love for God and their love for others. Spiritual maturity is measured by demonstrative growth in our love for God and for others. Spiritual growth is meant to be continual progress in three vital relationships: a person’s relationship with God, with other believers and with unbelievers. 

The church’s WHY becomes the filter through which all ministry programming is evaluated. When I was a kid, we had a sandbox in the backyard just outside the backdoor of our house. Our yard had several large pecan trees. Do you know what pecans tree make? They make a mess! Before we could play in the sandbox, we would have to clean out the limbs, leaves, pecan hulls and the half eaten pecans left by the squirrels. We would use a sift and scoop up the sand, sift the debris and then throw the debris into the yard. The sift was the filter that cleared the trash from the sand. In the same way, the Bible is the sift that helps the church clear the “good” distractions that compete with the great commission of making disciples.

Let me borrow a clear example from Mark Howell:

Ever found yourself struggling with a program that draws a crowd and generates a kind of buzz…but actually moves people in a different direction than you want them to go?

For example, you’ve designed your strategy to move everyone in the direction of a small group, but a legacy program, maybe an ongoing on-campus class or periodic event moves people in a different direction.  On it’s own merit, the class or program or event isn’t bad.  It might even be a good thing in some ways, but it takes people away from the commitments that you want them to have.

That’s called sideways energy.

A concrete example?  Let’s say you want to offer an excellent program for children on Sunday morning; the kind of experience that will leave every child wanting to come back and every parent willing to prioritize that commitment.  What else does it do?  It allows your weekend service to concentrate on providing a life-changing environment for adults.  Who doesn’t want that?

But let’s say that you also offer a Wednesday night program for children that has taken on a life of its own.  And it brings in a lot of children.  What else does it do?  It requires a lot of adult volunteers who are unavailable to serve on Sunday.  It takes up lots of your available space on campus, making the space unavailable for other things.  It pulls in a chunk of staff time and energy making that same time and energy unavailable to plan the Sunday experience.

Two programs.  The weekend provides a launching pad for next steps for adults.  The mid-week is good on it’s own merit, draws a crowd and generates buzz, but on closer examination takes away from the momentum of the weekend.

Sideways energy.

Often, ministry leaders and volunteers will become frustrated and discouraged because they would like to make changes to the programming to better facilitate the vision. Their frustration and discouragement grows because they do not feel (are not allowed) they have the freedom to lead such changes. Their passion for fulfilling the vision does not change. They will work to find a way to try and accomplish what is really on their heart. The result is more activity is created because they have to create work arounds to do what they believe needs to be done while maintaining legacy programs.

When a church equates activity with productivity, it becomes nigh impossible to ever stop a program. The only alternatives are to either never do anything different or add more activity to the schedule. Remember, the gospel and discipleship are not programs. What many church leaders and members struggle with is the idea that they have failed if they choose to end a program. This is just not true. The gospel does not have a shelf life, but programs do. The successful businesses have figured this out. Simple does not mean less. As a matter of fact, simple requires more work … more vision, more forward planning, more communicating, more equipping leaders & volunteers and more teamwork.

Churches who struggle with making decisions about when and how to end programs are deceived by the activity equals productivity mindset. The result is leader and volunteer burnout, decreased engagement with those we are supposedly trying to reach and missed opportunities to develop ministry that meets the real needs.

How does a church stubbornly focus on the WHY and shed the weight of activities that hinder the fulfillment of the vision?

  • Clarify the church’s WHY. Do the hard work of getting laser focused on the church’s mission, vision, values and strategy. Have the honest conversations about what is really needed to accomplish these. Regularly (over)communicate the church’s WHY so it is ever before the church as a unifying reminder.
  • Once you know the WHY, prayerfully determine the WHAT of programming and the HOW of evaluation. What are we going to do and how are we going to measure effectiveness?
  • Empower the ministry leadership to make the decisions they believe best help the church stay stubbornly focused on the church’s mission, vision, values and strategy.
  • Make the necessary changes to ministry programming. Change for the sake of change is not helpful. However, change connected to mission, vision, values and strategy can be purposeful and helpful (and likely welcomed). Read HERE for more about change in ministry organizations.
  • Resource new ministry programming with the volunteers, funding and space that is needed to give it every chance to be successful. This includes not crowding it out on the calendar.
  • Do not wait until a program is dead to decide to make a change. Keeping things fresh, without making changes too often, helps generate a sense of anticipation and excitement. This also keeps the focus on developing ministry environments to make disciples rather than on perpetuating a particular program.Seek God’s wisdom and timing for how to parlay current momentum to propel the ministry forward using new programming.

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